Is Tabata the best form of high-intensity interval training?

Shaik Moyeenuddin

March 26, 2021

Trainers today recommend short, intense bouts of exercise as part of your workout regimen. Popularly known as High-Intensity Interval Training or HIIT, it keeps your metabolism revved for hours after you leave the gym. It also stimulates muscle-building hormones, which helps in building lean mass, and strengthens the cardiovascular system. While the advantages of HIIT are many, so are its forms – but in my opinion, the Tabata Method or Protocol is the best kind of HIIT you can opt for.

The Tabata method, based on a 1996 paper written by Japanese professor Izumi Tabata, is one of the earliest reported protocols for the HIIT method of training.

In its most basic form, the Tabata method is 20 seconds of hard training followed by 10 seconds of rest repeated eight times. Which is why it is also known as the 4-minute workout (8 x 20 seconds effort + 8 x 10 second rest = 4 minutes).

The High Intensity workout phase for the Tabata protocol was originally performed at approximately 170% of VO2 max (a measure of the maximum capacity of your body to use oxygen during a period of exertion). In simple terms, this is an extreme intensity workout where you are working at close to your maximum heart rate. According to Dr Tabata, “If you feel okay after the session you have not done it right! The first three sessions should be easy and the last two should feel impossibly hard…”

Dr Tabata’s study, involving Olympic Speedskaters, used 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated continuously for 4 minutes (8 cycles). The exercise was performed on a mechanically braked cycle ergometer.

When this was repeated over a period of six weeks, four times a week, the athletes saw a 28% increase in their anaerobic capacity (HIIT, although based on aerobic exercises like running, cycling and rowing, effectively become anaerobic when performed in excess of 90% maximum heart rate). There was also a 15% increase in their VO2 max, which is considered a good measure of cardiovascular fitness. A control group performed a steady state cardiovascular workout lasting one hour, five times a week. Their VO2 max scores increased by just 10% and their routine had no significant effect on their anaerobic capacity. Over the six-week period the Tabata group recorded 120 minutes of training compared with the control group that recorded 1,800 minutes!

The difference between Tabata and other HIIT workouts are that the rest and work periods in Tabata are shorter compared to HIIT, and Tabata pushes the limit on the percentage of your maximum heart rate. It is ideal for people whose schedule is too busy for full workouts, want to increase their cardiovascular stamina in minimal time and feel as though their metabolism is sluggish or slower than it ought to be.

A Tabata workout can be designed to your activity preference. Some examples of popular exercises are:

– Outdoor sprints

– Stationary bike

– Elliptical trainer

– High intensity cardio exercises: Jumping jacks, burpees, squat jumps, etc.

– High intensity strength training exercises: Squats, pushups, lunges, etc.

Doing the same exercise 8 times can cause fatigue; one way to combat that is to mix and match exercises in the same Tabata cycle. For example, alternating a jumping jack with a squat jump or even doing 8 different exercises throughout the cycle.

Note: Tabata training is best for advanced exercisers who are comfortable with high intensity exercise. If you have any medical condition, please check with your doctor before engaging in this form of exercise.

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About the Author

Shaik Moyeenuddin (or Moin, as he is known to those around him) completed his MBA from Bangalore University before choosing to change the path his career would take. He became a Certified Personal Trainer from ACE, specializing in Weight Management, and Strength and Conditioning. Moin has been a regular contributor to more than 15 different fitness magazines in his 6 years in the field. Having joined a bunch of like-minded individuals at HealthifyMe, he currently serves as Principal Fitness Trainer at the company. "Eat healthy and don’t tie yourself to targets, enjoy your workout instead," he says to anyone looking to improve their fitness levels.

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