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What is a Tabata workout? And should you be doing them?

These super high-intensity drills are quick and can be done with little to no equipment — at home or right outside your front door.
TABATA WORKOUT
Tabata workouts are four minute rounds with 20 seconds of work alternating with 10 seconds of rest.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

You’ve probably heard about Tabata training. But what is a Tabata workout, exactly — is it the same as HIIT, or high intensity interval training? And should these super high-intensity drills be part of your workout?

Interval training — alternating periods of higher and lower intensity during a workout — has been around for decades, used by elite athletes looking to amp up their sports performance. A specific protocol lasting four minutes with 20 seconds of work alternating with 10 seconds of rest that results in exhaustion by the seventh or eight set burst onto the scene in the 1990s. Dr. Izumi Tabata published a study in 1996 showing how effective this approach was in exercise bicycle training. His name stuck and now we call a variety of HIIT workouts Tabata.

But we can probably thank CrossFit for really getting the word out. CrossFit has done a really good job of bringing things like Tabata to the mainstream, Erika Mundinger, a Minneapolis-based orthopedic clinical specialist and physical therapist, told TODAY.

But you don’t have to belong to a “box” to make Tabata training work for you. In fact Tabata workouts at home are quick and can be done with little to no equipment (kind of ideal for pandemic life!).

Why are Tabata workouts so popular?

So what’s so great about a Tabata-style workout? For one thing, alternating high intensity with rest lets you rack up an overall greater number of minutes of the hard work, Mundinger said. “Like, I can't sprint for 10 minutes straight, right?” But you can get in 10 minutes total when you’re pairing the work with periods of recovery, she said.

This approach helps you make gains with endurance and with cardiovascular conditioning, she said. You’re also training your body to adapt to different levels of stress and to optimize recovery, so overall it’s a pretty great return on investment for only a few minutes of hard work.

Want to try a Tabata? What you need to know

Ready to give it a try? You can get started with Tabata at home, with exercises like burpees, jumping jacks or jump rope, Mundinger said. Home exercise equipment like treadmills, bikes and elliptical machines can also be used for Tabata drills. Weather permitting, you could sprint down the street, she said. Or even run up and down stairs at home.

But first, there are a few things to know before you barrel ahead. If you have a pre-existing heart condition, or a breathing condition like asthma, you want to stick with moderate level intensity training, Mundinger said, unless you’ve been cleared by your doctor.

If you contend with knee or shoulder pain or injuries, be mindful of the style of Tabata training you do, she added. For that matter, if you have any change in form during the workout, if you’re getting really tired, if you have pain of any kind, stop, she said. Pushing yourself past this point runs the risk of injury. And if you’re brand new to Tabata workouts, or to working out in general, and your conditioning level isn’t very high, it’s better to start at a moderate intensity, Mundinger added.

That said, she added, “What's nice about Tabata, because it's only four minutes, even if you aren't at a very high level of conditioning, you can still do Tabata without having to worry about too much injury and hurting yourself, and build up your level of conditioning fairly quickly.

“That's what's great about this style of training,” she said. “It does really build your level of cardiovascular conditioning.” Mundinger combined Tabata drills with running while she trained for a half marathon. “And the next thing you knew I could run seven miles without too much difficulty,” she said, “which was shocking for someone who’s never run more than a mile in her life.”

Ready to get started? Try these two Tabata-style workouts

Beginner

Here’s a starter Tabata drill Mundinger suggested if you’re new to exercise. If you’re doing a full workout she recommends doing the Tabata at the end.

Warm up: short walk and spend a few minutes stretching and/or foam rolling

20 seconds: Body weight squats at the highest intensity you can maintain proper form

10 seconds: Rest

4 minutes: Repeat squats and rest cycle eight times total.

Cool down: Take another short walk, then foam roll and stretch out again; this helps push through any lactic acid that accumulated during the workout.

For a more advanced workout:

Warm up: light jog and spend a few minutes stretching and/or foam rolling

20 seconds: Either outside or on a treadmill, sprint full-on as fast as you can

10 seconds: Stop completely and rest (if you’re on the treadmill, hold the bars and — carefully — hop onto the sides while it’s still running)

4 minutes: Repeat sprint and rest cycle eight times total.

Cool down: Take a short walk, then foam roll and stretch out again