You may have heard someone in your friends and family circle mention that they do Tabata or Tabata classes. Unfortunately, what has been presented as Tabata from the mainstream fitness media isn’t actually Tabata, at least, if we’re looking at the research that Dr. Izumi Tabata (the inventor and namesake) has done.
Rather, fitness enthusiasts are probably performing various forms of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). The question is, what is the difference between Tabata and HIIT? What are the benefits of each type of cardio and should you even be doing them?
Tabata is often used as a term to describe a certain work to rest training protocol. This being 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest for 7-8 repetitions, adding to a total of four minutes of work. However, Tabata, in the definitions looked at in the original research, isn’t defined by its set and rep scheme.
Specifically, one must perform maximal bike sprints at 170% VO2max (i.e. much higher than 99% of HIIT fitness classes) 4 times per week with a 5th day of 30 min low-intensity steady-state cardio .
For reference, if you performed cycling or other endurance activity at 100% VO2max, you’d be able to last around 5-6 minutes. 170% VO2max is a pace you’d be able to hold for approximately 50 seconds . So 170% VO2max is pretty much an all-out sprint.
In fact, the intensity of Tabata training is so high that in a follow-up study, only 66% of the subjects were able to maintain that intensity for the last interval .
Since then, the original author Dr. Izumi Tabata has stated that it’s the cycling to exhaustion that matters the most, you should be exhausted by rep 7 or 8. If you can perform more sets, then intensity must be increased. If you can perform less than 6 reps, intensity must be decreased .
To quickly define VO2max, it refers to the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during exercise. It is a measure of how well developed the aerobic energy system is.
HIIT, on the other hand, is characterized by short to long intervals ranging from <45 seconds to 2-4 minutes of high, but not maximal work . Or short (<10 seconds) or long (>20-30 seconds) maximal intensity efforts interspersed with recovery periods.
Tabata then can’t be manipulated to target different physiological outcomes.
Tabata workouts last only up to 5 minutes of total training time including rest periods while HIIT can last from 5 minutes all the way to approximately 40 minutes for a session depending on the interval and recovery length.
So most of the time when people talk about doing Tabata workouts, they’re probably doing some form of HIIT workout.
But as the great scientist Ernest Rutherford said, “All of science is physics, the rest of is stamp collecting.” In Rutherford’s phrase, stamp-collecting refers to classification, and there isn’t really a point in arguing about what’s classified as Tabata and HIIT.
This is not necessarily bad, but if you’re training for a certain goal, you don’t want to confuse what type of training helps with what, obviously.
Tabata has gained immense popularity within the fitness world likely because of its extremely short training time (only 4 minutes) and the fast results it brings with it. However, it’s important to fully understand the results of the study before jumping to the conclusions the fitness media have purported.
Firstly, the participants. These were active male students who were part of their university sports such as baseball, soccer, swimming, and even table tennis. These students had an average VO2max of 50 mL.kg−1.min−1 which is moderately trained at best. Elite endurance athletes have VO2max values ranging between 70-80 mL.kg−1.min−1 .
The study ran for 6 weeks with 5 training days. They found significant improvements in VO2max (+7 mL.kg−1.min−1) and anaerobic capacity (+28%) at the end of 6 weeks. Great. So, just perform Tabata all year round and keep seeing massive gains.
But hold on before you get carried away on your new training regimen. Most of the gains in VO2max were seen after 3 weeks of training. The improvement in VO2max from week 3 to 6 showed no significant change.
Furthermore, most of the gains in anaerobic capacity were seen after 4 weeks of training and there was no significant change seen from weeks 4 to 6.
What does this mean? It means that the physiological adaptations derived from performing Tabata workouts have a low ceiling.
HIIT on the other hand has plenty of variation in order to keep promoting new gains in conditioning and weight loss. For example, here are two different HIIT workouts that emphasize different energy systems:
In fact, when well-trained endurance athletes add HIIT to their training program, in just 6 sessions over 2-4 weeks they can realize significant gains in intense exercise performance .
The ceiling for adaptation is much higher using HIIT because of the ability to manipulate volume and intensity. But it’s very important to have a basic understanding of energy systems.
There is much more to this but this should provide a general framework.
The improvements seen in VO2max may have come from the high-intensity cycling but also the low-intensity day each week.
This means the ceiling for improvement is low compared to the aerobic energy system, because the majority of anaerobic lactic improvement in the Tabata study occured by week 4.
If you perform the Tabata protocol for longer than 6 weeks, what are you really gaining other than excess fatigue from the extreme intensity? According to the research we have right now, not much.
If you want to make very fast gains in overall cardiovascular fitness (i.e. 3-4 weeks), then a quick burst of Tabata may be beneficial. However, these will be a brutal 3-4 weeks. So much so, that many of the subjects aren’t able to keep the required intensity and have to finish due to exhaustion before the protocol has even been completed .
For a longer-term approach, and one that isn’t going to run you into the ground, taking a HIIT approach is more beneficial. Ideally, you would also want to incorporate low-intensity, steady state cardio in order to gain central adaptations to the heart such as increasing chamber size to be able to pump more blood per heartbeat, among other adaptations we won’t discuss here.
The original Tabata protocol was performed on a device similar to a regular stationary bike. Bikes are great because there’s near to no risk of injury as you fatigue throughout the protocol.
There has been some recent research showing some positive improvements using kettlebell swings for the 20sec/10sec x 8 Tabata protocol . However, this was compared to a kettlebell swing protocol consisting of the total number of swings they performed during the Tabata protocol but split evenly between 4 sets with 90 seconds rest.
Further, the subjects were only recreationally active and the Tabata protocol was not taken to complete exhaustion.
Since it wasn’t compared to the original Tabata protocol (would’ve been a much better study design), and it wasn’t taken to exhaustion, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about using other training modalities.
In my opinion, there are plenty of reasons NOT to choose the Tabata protocol for your workout.
1. Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO~ 2~ m~ a~ x. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 28, 1327-1330.
2. Tabata, I., Irisawa, K. O. U. I. C. H. I., Kouzaki, M. O. T. O. K. I., Nishimura, K. O. U. J. I., Ogita, F. U. T. O. S. H. I., & Miyachi, M. O. T. O. H. I. K. O. (1997). Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 29(3), 390-395.
3. Buchheit, M., & Laursen, P. B. (2013). High-intensity interval training, solutions to the programming puzzle. Sports medicine, 43(10), 927-954.
4. Hue, O., Gallais, D. L., Chollet, D., & Prefaut, C. (2000). Ventilatory threshold and maximal oxygen uptake in present triathletes. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 25(2), 102-113.
5. Laursen, P. B. (2010). Training for intense exercise performance: high‐intensity or high‐volume training?. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 20, 1-10.
6. Tabata, I. (2019). Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods. The Journal of Physiological Sciences, 69(4), 559-572.
7. Fortner, H. A., Salgado, J. M., Holmstrup, A. M., & Holmstrup, M. E. (2014). Cardiovascular and metabolic demands of the kettlebell swing using Tabata interval versus a traditional resistance protocol. International journal of exercise science, 7(3), 179.