Bored of your regular fitness routine or sick of hearing yourself explain that you don’t have time for a workout? Good news: You can transform your fitness levels and achieve your health goals, and all you need is four minutes. At least, that’s the idea behind Tabata, the fitness method that has taken the health world by storm. But is a short period of intensity worth the hype, and how do you know that you’re doing it right? Don’t worry: I asked experts all the questions so you don’t have to spend your gym time on Google. Read on for a beginner’s guide to Tabata and find out if you should try it yourself. Spoiler alert: It just might be the secret to achieving your fitness goals—#fitspo!
What is Tabata?
Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and his team from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports started Tabata in the early ’90s after researching short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by shorter rests, compared to continuous moderate-intensity. That’s right: This fitness practice didn’t come from a TikTok trend or wellness influencer claiming they found the secret to weight loss. It was a result of a study that found the test subjects benefitted more from shorter, high-intensity workouts, both aerobically and anaerobically. In other words, it was more beneficial for both cardiovascular health and building muscle.
While it may sound intimidating, Tabata is just a more specific type of the popular Instagram-favorite HIIT training. “Tabata is a short form of exercise with high bursts of work or energy usage,” explained Justin Meissner, a NASM-certified trainer and sports performance coach. Just like the HIIT circuits you know and love, Tabata uses intervals to maximize movement. The only difference is that the practice is defined by a specific amount of time, both in the length of the workout and in rest vs. intensity time. “Tabata workouts are short bursts of 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off, repeated eight times for a total of four minutes.”
So what’s the point of getting specific AF about a few minutes of movement? “Because of the work-to-rest ratio of 2:1, your heart rate rises in a short amount of time,” explained Emma Caird, a certified personal trainer and TRX Functional Training instructor. “The idea is to push yourself to your limit for a short period, rather than to spend half an hour or more on moderate exercise.” Four-minute workouts sound too good to be true, so do they really work?
What are the benefits?
We don’t have to look much further than Dr. Tabata’s original study to find that just four minutes of high-intensity intervals can have some serious fitness benefits, but many trainers and fitness experts alike swear by the method for a range of reasons. “Tabata can improve your VO2 max, AKA the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during a workout,” explained Kelly Cosentino NCSF-CPT, corrective exercise specialist and Daily Burn‘s director of fitness. “Increasing this maximum amount means your body can move more efficiently; it’s an indicator of cardiovascular health and aerobic endurance.” Nadia Charif, a registered dietician and Tabata practitioner, swears by the results she has seen for herself. “Tabata has done wonders for my focus and efficiency, improved endurance, and is great for burning fat,” she said.
Besides the benefits the body reaps, there’s one serious benefit we can’t ignore: It only takes four minutes. “Tabata is time-efficient and convenient,” Caird said. “You can do Tabata anywhere, with or without equipment.” Cosentino agreed. “You don’t need equipment or a lot of space to get your heart rate pumping and to start burning calories quickly.” In other words, you have no excuse to skip a good-for-you workout on days where you’re pressed for time. While we often believe we need 30-60 minutes of exercise for it to “count,” Tabata proves that when it comes to fitness, effort is more important than time.
Are there any cons?
Before you cancel your gym membership or throw out your at-home exercise equipment, know that Tabata isn’t meant for everyone or for all the time. “A Tabata workout can be efficient when you don’t have time, but it still does not equal a long workout. For the best benefits, mix it with longer workout days,” Meissner said. Just because four minutes of Tabata is a major multitasker (both aerobic and anaerobic benefits are impressive) doesn’t mean you’ll get everything your body needs. A 60-minute yoga class might benefit your mental health or weight training sessions can be important for bone health and reducing injury risk.
Overall, the goal of fitness should be to live less sedentary, so an efficient workout is good on days where you wouldn’t otherwise fit it in, but you should still be conscious of moving the body more often. Also, if your body is not prepared for high intensity, you might be setting it up for some serious damage. “The fast-paced nature of Tabata workouts could make you focus on more reps and forget to focus on proper form,” Cosentino explained. “If your form is not correct, it can lead to injury, muscle soreness, or activation of the wrong muscles.” Bottom line: Prepare your body before diving into the practice and mix it in with a variety of other workouts.
Interested in trying Tabata for yourself? Here’s how:
If you’re a newbie to interval training or have not built up endurance and overall cardiovascular health, start slowly. Try a couple of interval rounds at a lower intensity and work up to the full four minutes at your highest intensity. Also, consult with your doctor or trainer before trying Tabata, especially if you have chronic pain, heart issues, or asthma. When you’re ready to start experimenting, consider buying a stopwatch or downloading an app for interval training like Tabata Timer. If you’re interested in trying cardio exercises, you can use your favorite form, whether it’s biking, running, or going on the elliptical. Think: sprinting for 20 seconds and walking for 10 seconds. Meissner recommended following cardio Tabata with strength training for optimal benefits.
If you’ve never been much of a runner and don’t own a bike, you can still apply the principles of Tabata to your favorite workouts. “Almost any exercise can be done in Tabata,” Cosentino explained. “Try alternating between strength and cardio moves in each four-minute round: pair jumping jacks with squats, high knees with burpees, and mountain climbers with uppercut punches. You can also try finishing off your workout with Tabata by just adding four more minutes to boost that VO2 max and assist in cardio burn.” No matter what workout you prefer, think of working at full intensity for 20 seconds and then low-intensity for 10 seconds for four minutes.