Trainers break down Tabata vs. HIIT, the benefits of the workout style, and exercise ideas and workouts that are guaranteed to make you sweat.
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When you're in the mood to smash a cardio workout that also leaves your muscles shaking in less than half an hour, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is likely your go-to. After all, the bread-and-butter workout style has proven benefits for your heart health and can be done with or without strength-building equipment. But when you're ready for an even bigger burn in a fraction of the time, HIIT's sibling, Tabata, is your new best friend.

Here, fitness pros spell out Tabata's meaning, explain its biggest perks, and share the exercise ideas and workouts you'll want to add to your routine ASAP.

What Is Tabata?

Created by Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata in 1996, Tabata is a style of HIIT involving 20-second work periods and 10-second rest periods, which are repeated eight times to create a four-minute workout, explains Danyele Wilson, a NASM-certified trainer, HIIT master trainer, and Tone & Sculpt coach. "It's going to be 20 seconds of super-high-intensity, push-your-limit, give-it-all-you-got exercise followed by a 10 second rest period…[which] is never enough for a full recovery, so you're gassed," she says. "It's a higher intensity form of high-intensity interval training." These specific time intervals are the key difference between Tabata and HIIT. With traditional HIIT, you have the freedom to set your own intervals, such as 60 seconds of work followed by 60 seconds of rest or 30 seconds of each, says Wilson. 

Throughout each four-minute Tabata circuit, you'll typically work through one single exercise. Depending on your goals and time available, you can perform a single circuit and call it a day, or you can power through five different circuits back-to-back to form a killer 20-minute Tabata workout, says Wilson. "That will give you a full, fire-packed workout that is super efficient in a short amount of time and can really be done anywhere or applied to the gym, as well," she adds.

The Benefits of Tabata Workouts

They improve cardiovascular health.

Even if you only have time for a two-circuit Tabata workout, you can still make progress toward hitting your weekly activity recommendations — and improving your heart health. Reminder: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommends adults power through at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity weekly. Just a single session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can reduce blood pressure, and folks who stick to that moderate-intensity quota have significantly less risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the DHHS. HIIT falls into the "vigorous-intensity" category, and since Tabata is an extreme form of the training style, you're likely to reap those benefits. 

They improve endurance.

By regularly tackling Tabata workouts, you'll be able to power through long, endurance-focused sweat sessions without feeling totally winded. A small 2020 study found that performing eight-round Tabata workouts twice a week for eight weeks increased V̇O₂ max by 11 percent. ICYDK, V̇O₂ max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. The higher your V̇O₂ max, the more energy your body can use, and the longer you can exercise, according to UC Davis Health

You can do them with or without equipment.

You don't have to use equipment to score the cardiovascular benefits Tabata has to offer, says Wilson. Quick, cardio-focused, bodyweight movements, such as mountain climbers and squat jumps, can all get your heart pumping and muscles quivering after just a few rounds, she explains. That said, you can still incorporate equipment into your workout if you have access. You can challenge your muscles by adding a kettlebell or set of dumbbells into the mix, and you can make use of your cardio machines by performing sprints on a treadmill, stationary bike, rowing machine, SkiErg, or even a simple jump rope, says Wilson. 

They work with progressive overloading.

Progressive overloading — increasing the difficulty of your workouts by increasing volume, intensity, or resistance in order to progress toward your fitness goals — isn't just for bodybuilders. "You can add overload to achieve more progress over time, whether that's kicking up the speed on the treadmill or hitting more power on your load," says Wilson. For example, "if you're using dumbbells and the first time you try it you have a 10-pound weight, then you can progressively overload that to a 20-pound weight." 

When you're first giving Tabata a shot, take note of how you feel throughout each circuit, suggests Wilson. "Even write it down in the notes in your phone, like, 'Round four: I was calling for Jesus,' and 'Round five: I was literally on the ground,'" she says. Then, repeat the workout the next week and the following, keeping track of how you're feeling and your rating of perceived exertion so you have clear evidence of how your cardiovascular fitness is improving and an idea of when you might be ready to up the difficulty, says Wilson.

They can go anywhere in your workout.

If powering through a 20-minute Tabata workout isn't your jam, you have options, says Kendall Wood, a fitness coach with Tonal. You can use a four-minute circuit at the start of your weight-lifting session to get your body warmed up, in the middle of your run as a form of conditioning, or at the end of your session as a burnout, she suggests. "It's really just based on the person and what they're looking for," says Wood.

The Best Tabata Exercises

When choosing a few movements to include in your Tabata workout, consider the basic exercises you can quickly bang out, says Wilson. "The whole point of Tabata is really to get that intensity up, get that speed up, so you want quick movements rather than something that's going to take you a long time to set up," she explains. That means skipping movements such as sit-ups or push-ups, which the average person can't rapidly perform while keeping their form in tip-top shape, says Wilson. 

If you're opting to use weights, stick with exercises that are super simple, adds Wood. "Obviously those intervals are really quick, so the more equipment or set-up you involve, the less time you're going to have to actually work," she explains. "You want to make sure that you're able to work for the full 20 seconds and get in the most amount of reps as possible without fidgeting with equipment." 

On the same token, choose a weight you'll be able to use throughout the entire round, says Wilson. "I would be cautious of not going too heavy because the goal is power and volume, getting in as many reps as possible," she says. "You don't want to pick a weight that is going to compromise your form too much when you start to get fatigued and [so you] injure yourself."

All things considered, these Tabata exercises, suggested by Wilson and Wood, are generally safe, effective moves to include in your workout:

Tabata Workouts to Try

Once you're ready to give the HIIT-style workout a shot, pick one of the Tabata exercises above — or any other heart-pumping move you adore — to complete during each circuit. Then, plan to have at least two minutes of rest between each circuit, says Wood. "Between two to five minutes, you should be able to fully catch your breath, return to a resting state, and then start a new round feeling totally ready to go to your max again," she explains.

Not up to DIY a Tabata workout? Follow along with one of these pre-set sweat sessions that are sure to leave you dripping in sweat. 

No matter which Tabata workouts you choose, consider sticking with just one to two of the intense training sessions per week if you're a beginner or two to three if you're more advanced, suggests Wilson. "This is such an intense thing you're doing — jumping and doing a lot of in-place — [and it] could be very high impact," she explains. "So you want to protect yourself in that regard, especially if you're doing the full 20 minutes." (Related: This Low-Impact Cardio Workout Will Get Your Blood Pumping Without Killing Your Joints)

And when you feel like you simply can't finish those 20-second rounds, remember: "You're stronger than you think," says Wilson. "You committed to doing this circuit, so don't cheat yourself and give just 18 seconds or 19 seconds — those seconds add up. Commit to the full 20, and you're going to surprise yourself."