The Difference Between HIIT and Tabata, Explained

These terms are often used interchangeably (sometimes with the term AMRAP thrown in for extra confusion). While both are effective, they have individual qualities you should keep in mind.

hiit vs tabata: woman doing a sit-up with a padded and weighted ball during a workout class
Photo: Tempura/Getty Images.

If exercise is part of your regular routine, odds are you're familiar with the terms HIIT and Tabata. For years, trainers have been preaching the gospel of high-intensity interval training (which is what HIIT stands for) — and now, HIIT and Tabata have infiltrated the fitness world, from gyms to boutique studios and online workouts.

Actually, you've probably done both types of workouts a million times, but do you know what sets HIIT and Tabata apart? If not, you wouldn't be the first person to confuse the two. HIIT and Tabata are similar in a couple of ways: Both focus on using maximum effort over short periods of time with only brief rest breaks, and the two are great for improving endurance.

But there are characteristics to distinguish the two, as explained here by Daphnie Yang, an ISSA-certified personal trainer and creator of HIIT IT! fitness classes.

The Difference Between Tabata and HIIT

Long story short, Tabata is a type of HIIT — just one subsection under the broad umbrella of high-intensity interval training methods. Specifically, Tabata is a workout consisting of eight rounds of 20 seconds of work at maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest. (To add it all up, the entire workout only lasts four minutes — so if you want some quick and dirty HIIT, Tabata is where it's at.) If a class or workout deviates from this time frame, it's not authentic Tabata, says Yang.

The exercise style is named after a researcher, Izumi Tabata, who discovered the benefits of this training method back in 1996. In his study, he found that athletes increased their VO2 max and improved their anaerobic capacity — aka the amount of energy produced during quick bursts of effort — by doing a Tabata workout five days a week for six weeks. These improvements were not seen in subjects who performed longer workouts at a less intense pace.

So, Tabata is strictly regimented and defined, whereas HIIT workouts as a whole are more flexible with the time allotted for work and rest intervals. Simply lengthening either period of time means you've entered HIIT territory. However, the intervals still look the same: There's an "on" period of maximum effort followed by an "off" period of rest.

Why switch up the interval timing? For one, by lengthening the work sections of the workout, you can play around with movements that might not fit in the 20-second Tabata window, says Yang. "Maybe you want to try a crisscross jumping jack or a burpee–mountain climber combo — 20 seconds isn't a lot of time to do anything complex, so HIIT workouts are a great place to get creative," she says. (And HIIT also has proven benefits comparable to the Tabata method.)

So, Which Is Better: HIIT or Tabata?

Both options are great for fat burning and muscle building, says Yang. Results are shaped by the exercises mixed into your circuits (and, of course, the effort you put in). But with either "all out" method, building in recovery days is crucial, notes Yang. That means you probably shouldn't do HIIT and Tabata workouts on consecutive days, she recommends.

Bottom line? There's a time, a place, and a reason for both HIIT and Tabata in your fitness life. "Tabata is a great stepping stone," says Yang. "If you're short on time or maybe just getting into an exercise routine, four minutes is all you need to get a great workout. Then as you get stronger, you can graduate to lengthier HIITs and do more rounds with more complex moves to really challenge yourself," she adds.

HIIT and Tabata Workouts to Try

Now that you're a pro with the fitness lingo, get moving with one of these killer workouts:

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