Tabata training (aka, the Tabata Protocol) is a type of high intensity interval training that follows a specific format:
- 20 seconds of a very high intensity exercise (e.g., sprints)
- 10 seconds of rest
- Repeat 8 times for a total of 4 minutes
The idea for Tabata training originated from the world of athletes, as many of our workout ideas do. Dr. Izumi Tabata, a professor at the Faculty of Sport and Health Science at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, along with the head coach of the Japanese speed skating team, wanted to find out if very short bursts of high intensity exercise, followed by even shorter rests, would improve the skaters' performance.
To test the effectiveness of this training regime, Dr. Tabata took study subjects through the high intensity (170% of VO2 max) 4-minute Tabata workout using a stationary bike. He compared the results with another group of athletes who followed a different workout, working at an even higher intensity (200% of VO2 max) for 4-5 bouts of 30 seconds, followed by 2 minutes of rest.
The results, published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, were that the Tabata athletes improved their VO2 max (the body's ability to use oxygen more effectively), which translated into improved performance on the ice.
The other interesting finding was the the Tabata Protocol improved both the anaerobic energy system (e.g., the system responsible for short, high intensity exercise, such as sprints) and the aerobic energy system (e.g., the system used for endurance exercise, such as long, slow running). Traditional interval training, with longer rests between work sets, and moderate intensity exercise target the aerobic system, but don't always improve the anaerobic system.
However, as Dr. Tabata found in his research study, doing high intensity interval training with a rest period shorter than the work period can target both systems, giving both athletes and the average exerciser more bang for their buck.
The bottom line? Tabata workouts offer more performance benefits in less time, but that doesn't mean these workouts are for everyone.
Because the intensity intervals require an all-out effort (Level 9-10 on this perceived exertion scale), and because the short recovery periods add up to a major oxygen debt, this 4-minute workout may feel like the longest 4 minutes of your life. Tabata training is very advanced and best suited to experienced exercisers. Beginners should start with lighter interval training and gradually work their way up to this level of intensity.
- Make sure you are thoroughly warmed up (for at least 10 minutes) before trying this workout
- If you're new to this type of training, start with 5-6 cycles of each exercise and increase the rest to 20-30 seconds. As you get a feel for the workout and build stamina, gradually shorten the rest periods and increase the number of cycles to add more intensity
- If you do more than one Tabata set (as many workouts do), rest between each set (about 60 seconds)
- Monitor your intensity frequently. The intensity accumulates as you go through each cycle, peaking as you reach the end of the workout when muscles are fatigued and form gets sloppy, making you more vulnerable to injury
- Do this workout no more than 1-2 times a week, with rest in between to avoid overtraining and injury
More Tabata Resources
Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al. "Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max." Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.