Workouts

The Benefits of Tabata Workouts: Exercises to Get You Moving

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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There may have been times when you’ve found yourself in a situation where you have limited time, limited equipment, limited space, or all the above. How can you get a good workout, even with these limitations? If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, then a Tabata workout might be worth a try.If you are a personal trainer, a tabata workout is a creative workout program you can try with your clients!

An Overview of Tabata

What we know today as the ‘Tabata workout’ was originally a testing protocol conducted by Izumi Tabata at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan. The Tabata protocol consists of 7-8 rounds of 20-second sprints performed at maximum effort with only 10 seconds of rest between each sprint (that’s 4 minutes total in the workout).

The goal was to reach complete exhaustion by the 7th or 8th round. The results were astounding—performing this 4-minute all-out workout 4 times/week led to better improvements in the aerobic and anaerobic systems of the test subjects than moderate, steady-state cardio.

Following this study, rumors started to fly about this protocol that yielded incredible fitness results. “Better results in less time? Sign me up!” said the fitness world, collectively. However, to get the type of results that were seen in the study, we’d have to perform the test as the test subjects did: at 170% VO2 Max on a stationary bike – yikes!

Because of the exhaustive nature of the original protocol (they were unable to perform additional exercise after performing this 4-minute workout on a stationary bike), most people likely wouldn’t be interested in attempting a true Tabata protocol.

Thankfully, there are ways to adapt this protocol to get a good calorie burn and still get the most bang for your workout buck in a short period.

Difference Between Tabata and HIIT

Tabata training falls under the category of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is defined as bouts of near-maximal exercise (80% max effort or greater) followed by a short period of rest or recovery. One major benefit of HIIT training is an increase in Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC).

Simply put: a session of HIIT will increase your metabolism for up to 24 hours post-workout, which means that you burn more calories while doing your day-to-day tasks post-workout! HIIT workouts tend to be shorter (less than 30 minutes) because their intensity is higher, making them great for people who are busy or short on time. For adequate recovery, it’s recommended to limit HIIT sessions to up to 3 times per week with at least a day of recovery between sessions.

Tabata Workout Examples

Tabata-style workouts can be performed using a variety of exercises. It’s best to choose bodyweight exercises (great for at home or on the go) or simple resistance exercises that can be performed quickly with a light load to get the heart rate up.

For most people, it’s best to choose at least 2 exercises to plug into your Tabata rounds. The benefit of following this format is that your muscles will get a little rest as your alternate, and you’re more likely to be able to exert more effort each rep with better form (rather than trying to do all 8 rounds with one exercise).

Try these Tabata-style workouts to maximize your calorie burn in a short period. You’ll perform exercise #1 for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, perform exercise #2 for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat the pair 4 times (4 minutes total). Rest for one minute, and then move on to the next pair. The total workout time for all 4 pairs is 20 minutes.

Round 1: Push-ups/Squats

Exercise 1: Push-ups

- Hands under the shoulders, body in a straight plank position.

- Keep the abs and glutes tight as you lower your chest down between your hands and exhale as you press up.

- Perform on an incline or on the knees to make it easier.

Exercise 2: Squats

- Feet hip to shoulder-width apart, toes facing straight ahead.

- Bend the knees and sit the hips back as low as you can with good form. Keep the chest tall the whole movement.

- Squeeze the glutes as you return to the standing position.

Round 2: Bent over alternating row/Step-up with knee drive

Exercise 1: Bent over alternating row

- Hinge forward and hold a dumbbell on either side (use a lighter weight than you normally would).

- Keep your abs tight and back straight as you quickly perform alternating rows.

Exercise 2: Step up with knee drive

- Plant one foot on a step and keep it there the entire set.

- Step up and drive the opposite knee up to hip height.

- Keep your weight on the stepping leg as you step down to touch the ground. Immediately step back up on the same leg. You won’t take your foot off of the step between reps.

Round 3: Wall-ball/Mountain climbers

Exercise 1: Wall-ball

- Hold a medicine ball at chest height (10% of bodyweight for the load).

- Squat down and explode up as you simultaneously throw the medicine ball up toward a wall.

- Catch the ball and sink into your squat to load up for the next rep.

Exercise 2: Mountain Climbers

- Get into a plank position on the hands and toes. Keep your abs tight and avoid bouncing up and down during the movement.

- Pull one knee in toward your chest and quickly drive it back to where you started so that you can bring the opposite knee in.

- Keep quickly alternating legs as if you’re running in place in a plank position.

Round 4: Ball slam/Kettlebell swing

Exercise 1: Ball slam

- Hold a medicine ball, preferably one that doesn’t bounce, overhead (up to 10% of bodyweight for load), and quickly throw it down using the arms only.

- Bend down to grab the medicine ball and repeat as quickly as you can.

Exercise 2: Kettlebell swing

- Start with the kettlebell 6 inches in front of you, feet hip-shoulder width apart. Hinge forward to grasp the kettlebell with both hands.

- Pull the kettlebell back as if you were hiking a football and drive the hips forward to drive the kettlebell up to shoulder height.

- Continue the hinge and hike to hip thrust motion to keep the kettlebell swinging.

- Your back should stay flat and your core tight as your hips do the heavy lifting.

How to Do Tabata on the Go

Tabata workouts are great to do at home or while on the road because you don’t need much space or any equipment. You can choose to perform all 8 rounds using just one exercise, or you can pick two exercises to alternate between for your Tabata rounds.

If you’re new to Tabata, pair the exercises up or perform fewer rounds until you build up endurance. Here are some example bodyweight exercises to use:

Push-ups

- Hands under the shoulders, body in a straight plank position.

- Keep the abs and glutes tight as you lower your chest down between your hands and exhale as you press up.

- Perform on an incline or on the knees to make it easier.

 See how to do a pushup with proper form here

Squats

- Feet hip to shoulder-width apart, toes facing straight ahead.

- Bend the knees and sit the hips back as low as you can with good form. Keep the chest tall the whole movement.

- Squeeze the glutes as you return to the standing position.

Plank jacks

- Hands under the shoulders, body in a straight plank position.

- Keep the core tight as you hop both feet out to the side, and then quickly hop them back to the starting position.

- Continue to hop the feet out and in as quickly as possible with good form.

Jump lunges or fast alternating lunges

- Step back into a lunge, keeping the weight on the front leg.

- Hop straight up and switch the legs in the air, landing in a lunge with the other leg in front.

- Continue alternating jump lunges for the entire duration of the time.

Low impact version: Alternatively, perform an alternating reverse lunge as quickly as possible with good form.

See an exercise demonstration here for a jump lunge.

Ski jumps

- Stand in an athletic position, with knees bent and core engaged.

- Hop laterally from one foot to the other, as far and as fast as you can with good form. Start with a short distance and gradually increase as your form and control allow.

High knees

- Stand with good posture and core engaged.

- Begin running in place, bringing the knee up to hip height with each step.

- Move as quickly as possible while still getting a full range of motion. Your steps should be quick, soft, and quiet (no loud stomping as you run in place).

Tabata and Weight Loss

According to Izumi Tabata himself, the Tabata protocol is not an effective weight-loss plan when performed as it was in the study (4 minutes per day, 4 days a week, with one day of 30-minutes of moderate training for rest). Even though you’re working at a higher intensity, the total number of calories burned in that 4 minutes may not be high enough to produce a calorie deficit in your day.

However, following a modified Tabata workout as described above, where the total work time is 20 minutes, will produce a higher calorie burn to aid with weight loss. If 4 minutes is all you have, you can still reap cardiovascular fitness benefits from a high-intensity 4-minute Tabata protocol. Plus, 4 minutes is better than 0 minutes!

Summary

Whether you’re on the go, short on time, or just want a good, blood-pumping workout, Tabata workouts are a fun and fast-paced option. Grab a timer (there are plenty of Tabata timer apps available online) and give it a try.

References:

Greer, B. K., O'Brien, J., Hornbuckle, L. M., & Panton, L. B. (2021). EPOC Comparison Between Resistance Training and High-Intensity Interval Training in Aerobically Fit Women. International journal of exercise science, 14(2), 1027–1035.

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 VO2max. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 28(10), 1327–1330. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-199610000-00018

Tabata, I. Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods. J Physiol Sci 69, 559–572 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12576-019-00676-7

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM.