Just 4 minutes of exercise can double your metabolic rate for 30 minutes post workout, according to studies. Tabata is a form of high intensity interval training used to gain the maximum calorie burn in the minimum amount of time.

What is Tabata?

20 seconds work. 10 seconds rest. X 8

Tabata is simply a method of HIIT (high intensity interval training) with set timing protocols. Originally designed by Dr. Izumi Tabata as part of the training regime for Japanese athletes in the speed skating team, the workout was conducted on static bikes with cycling intervals. Now Izumi’s principle is applied to many HIIT training exercises, when time is short and intensity is needed to get the most out of your training session.

Tabata Training

You can read more on the history of Tabata and his experiments here.

Why Tabata Works

Tabata only works if you do. The principle is that for 20 seconds you apply your maximum effort to an exercise (usually this is a bodyweight exercise or cardio based but we will go into how you can use weights for Tabata later on), the short rest periods mean that your heart rate remains elevated throughout, increasing your calorie expenditure. The reason your energy expenditure is so aggressive is that you’re training should be kept anaerobic.

What is anaerobic training?

Short, high intensity intervals require us to use our anaerobic energy system. This energy system provides us with energy without the presence of oxygen. The anaerobic energy system is always used in the first few minutes of exercise whilst there is insufficient oxygen available at the muscles for aerobic metabolism. It is also used for fast, powerful bursts of energy, for which the aerobic system is insufficient. During this phase our Phosphocreatine energy system is used as the primary energy (ATP) source.

We only have 120g of Creatine within our bodies and so this repeated breaking down of Phosphocreatine in order to produce energy to resynthesise ATP is temporary and can only last a maximum of 10 seconds. Therefore the ATP-PC system is used mainly for bursts of speed. As a Tabata push phase lasts 20 seconds it is likely that the body will then move onto using your Lactic anaerobic energy system. This energy system is otherwise known as your  sugar system. This form of energy still requires energy expenditure in an environment without oxygen like the phosphocreatine energy system, but after 10-12 seconds the body basically starts utilising simple carbohydrates or glucose as a fuel source, rather than pure ATP. Sugar requires some breakdown and chemical changes to occur for this system to be effective and training this system leads to a better utilisation of glucose and a greater duration of exercise at a higher intensity.

Due to the metabolic processes required to work at this intensity despite there being a lack of oxygen required during the exercise itself, the workout has a EPOC effect. EPOC: excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, is the need to increase the rate at which oxygen intake is increased following strenuous activity to erase the body’s “oxygen deficit”.

Hang on. Didn’t we just say we were training anaerobically (without oxygen) when we complete a Tabata? How can this then cause EPOC?

When we train anaerobically, it is indeed true that we are training without the requirement of oxygen. However, during the recovery period the body utilises the cv system to remove the lactic acid and repay the “oxygen deficit” that is created during the high intensity anaerobic interval. The oxygen deficit is created by calculating the difference between the oxygen the muscles would have required if they were to perform the exercise aerobically versus the amount of oxygen which was actually able to be delivered during the short burst of intense activity. During this recovery period you actually need more oxygen than your body would have used to fuel the prior exercise, which is how we get the EPOC effect.

Tabata Research

A study conducted by The Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports Exercise conducted experiments on the effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2 max. The researchers had two groups, the first completed 6 weeks of moderate intensity cardio at 70% of their VO2max, whilst the other group completed a Tabata HIIT routine, with 8 rounds of 20 seconds maximal effort. In conclusion, this study showed that moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves the maximal aerobic power does not change anaerobic capacity and that adequate high-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic (by up to 28%) and aerobic energy supplying systems significantly, probably through imposing intensive stimuli on both systems.

Another study in the Journal of Exercise Science experimented with kettlebell swings using a regular protocol and a Tabata training format. The experiment used the same group of participants and put them through two training programmes, on separate occasions, one with significant rest between working sets and one following the 20 seconds on 10 seconds off protocol. The kettlebell swing demonstrated significantly greater cardiovascular and metabolic responses within a Tabata vs. a traditional framework.

Tabata and Body Weight Exercises

The original Tabata workout was performed as intervals on a static bike, so that the effort during the push intervals was easily measurable. Nowadays the principle is frequently adapted and applied to a variety of exercises. It is particularly popular for those short of time and equipment to use bodyweight exercises. Bodyweight exercises which incorporate multiple muscle groups are the most effective as the more muscles worked, the more energy needed and the more calories burned.

Example Tabata bodyweight circuits:

Each of the following 4 exercises should be repeated twice.

Exercise 1

Squat jumps

Exercise 2

Walkout push ups

Exercise 3

Plyometric lunges

Exercise 4

Mountain climbers

Exercise 1

Tuck Jumps

Exercise 2


Exercise 3

Skater jumps

Exercise 4

Sprint on the spot

Exercise 1

Star jumps

Exercise 2

Rock star jumps

Exercise 3

Plyometric push ups

Exercise 4

Alternating Swing kicks

Tabata to Burn Fat

Despite what many articles may say, there is little research into the effects of a Tabata training principle and the effect it has on weight loss. It is an assumption, that the EPOC and therefore cause of excess energy expenditure causes extra calorie burning. The original workout devised by Dr Izumi contained not just 4 minutes of work, in fact he had his men completing five days of training a week, where they performed up to eight 20-second sprints of high-intensity cycling with a 10-second rest (pedaling at a slower rate) in between. He also scheduled them into 30 minutes of steady state cardio with 4 blast intervals on their fifth day, so hardly just four minutes of intervals. It is also important to recognise that what Dr Izumi was testing was aerobic capacity, he did not do any research into the EPOC effect of this training nor the effect on fat and weight loss.

That’s not to say it won’t work for fat loss, it can and if you’re combining Tabata training with a calorie deficit, it definitely will. However when using Tabata strictly for fat loss rather than increasing VO2 max there’s an obvious setback. Tabata training is so short in timing that even with a doubled energy expenditure, your overall calorie burn will not be as excessive as for example, a 30 minute weight session.

Tabata to Get Fit

This we know is effective. Will a Tabata help you get fit? Yes, it will improve your cardiovascular fitness by helping to develop your VO2 max, which is supported by multiple research studies as mentioned above. However, this anaerobic effect can be triggered from additional protocols which use high intensity intervals, so if Tabata isn’t for you, try different work to rest intervals, working flat out and then recovering as quickly as possible.

Tips to get the most from Tabata

  • Make sure you have warmed up sufficiently. As a Tabata is so short, make your warm up a little longer. Try 10 minutes of exercise where your heart rate is at at least 70% of its max to increase your calorie burning potential and make sure you are limber enough to exercise at high intensity. You need your muscles to be warm when you are working this hard to prevent injuries.
  • When starting out, pick exercises which have little injury risk. For example, use the exercise bike or better yet, Wattbike for intervals until you become better adapted to the principle before throwing yourself on and off a treadmill running at 16 mph.
  • Without intensity, you’ll burn half a cucumber. Crank up the ante, you need to be pushing yourself as hard as you can to get the most of this workout. If the intensity isn’t there, you won’t need post exercise oxygen consumption, nor will your VO2 max be challenged enough to cause an adaptation.
  • Remember Tabata training is a form of conditioning, so if you’re applying the principle to weight training, you’re not going to be able to lift your 1 rep max for the duration of 8 rounds.
  • Pick movements which are difficult and where you can exert 110% effort to achieve the greatest results.
  • Do NOT forget to cool down, just because you’ve completed a shorter workout doesn't mean you should be skipping on your cool down.
  • Posted byVictoria Gardner /
  • Tabata