January 16, 2012

Tabatas: HIIT Made Evil (and Awesome)

Photo: Tim Ellis

What's a Tabata?  Simple: It's a 20/10 HIIT protocol repeated 8 times.

Wait, you want that in English?  Sorry, let's try that again!

A Tabata is a form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Tabatas require 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and this cycle is repeated consecutively for a total of eight times. So it really is "simple," though it sure as hell ain't easy.

And you math majors are all probably way ahead of us here... yep, that's a FOUR MINUTE workout.

Everyone knows that that HIIT interval training comes with great health benefits.  And there are lots of different approaches to doing interval training, including the program we introduced at Cranky Fitness a while back.  Remember Somewhat High Intensity Interval Training?  However, strangely enough, "doing S.H.I.I.T" never really caught on in the fitness community the same way that "doing Tabatas" has.

Go figure!

I'd been doing a rather slapdash, off and on HIIT program myself for years--but with fewer, longer, intervals than Tabatas, and with way more recovery time.  But seeing that Tabatas were getting more and more popular, and inspired by Charlotte's recommendation over at The Great Fitness Experiment, it finally seemed time to check 'em out and report back.

It's been a few weeks now and... wow, they're, um, interesting!

Tabata Basics

A few important things to keep in mind when contemplating adding Tabatas to your fitness routine:

1.  They're intense.  You need to be in good shape before you start messing with high intensity intervals, or else you need to build up to them gradually.  Check with your doctor first, and don't go suing me if you jump on a treadmill and have a heart attack your first time out.  (Note: wouldn't it be amusing if every time someone told us "check with your doctor" before doing something, we all actually ran off and made appointments and dutifully went in and asked our busy doctors?  I'm sure my PPO would just love that! But, um, seriously, it's probably the smart thing to do).

2. You should warm up for a few minutes first.

3. Choose a simple, demanding exercise. You should be using lots of large leg muscles so that you can work intensely enough to cause yourself to  gasp for breath, curse the universe, and seriously ponder whether your heart might explode out of your chest.

This means the exercise can't be too complicated, dangerous, or reliant on small muscles that can tire out quickly.  Sprinting on an uncrowded track or pathway, running up a hill, pumping away on an exercise bike at high resistance (especially standing up), cranking up the resistance on an elliptical, etc are good places to start.

Treadmills work well for some folks, but can be a bit scary for others.  I, for example, fear that if I'm sprinting all-out to exhaustion, it would be all too easy for me to trip up and go flying off the back. And while pausing to suffer major life-threatening traumatic injuries might make a nice break from the Tabatas, they do come with health complications.

4. Consider getting some sort of interval timer.  You will be amazed at how quickly your ability to count to three, let alone eight, is impaired when you are distracted by wanting to die.  There are free phone apps if you have a smartphone that will give you a visual countdown and even blow a whistle at you.  Note: not recommended for those suffering from PTHGCSD (Post Traumatic High School Gym Class Stress Disorder).  I think this is the HIIT app I have.  If you don't have a smart phone, some workout watches come with interval timers, or you can buy cheap stand alone gadgets that will keep track for you.

5.  Don't do this more than 3 times a week; in fact, I'd recommend only once or twice a week.  These get old very quickly!  And once the novelty wears off I suspect they could easily make one start dreading workout times.  You may want to alternate "official" Tabata intervals with adding other more flexible sprint intervals to your cardio workouts.

What Totally Sucks About Tabatas:

If you're doing them right, they get unpleasant rather quickly.  The ten second "recovery" period feels like two seconds.  You have to force yourself to pump harder and harder, even as your body is saying "Leave me the f@#ck alone goddamnit!"

Also, depending on where you work out, you may feel a bit conspicuous.  You will be flailing around, gasping, possibly grunting, and definitely cursing.  Doing Tabatas may make you look trendy in some settings but in others you may seriously freak people out.

What's Mind-Blowingly Fantastic About Tabatas

They are amazingly fast and efficient and gratifying.  You will feel SO damn smug when you're done!  They rev up your metabolism, blast fat, boost your mitochondria, and help you feel superhuman.  It's counterintuitive, but research suggests that somehow these super-short workouts also boost your endurance as well as your peak efforts.  They leave you with a lovely pumped-up feeling long after you're done.

Tabata Variations

You may find it easier to stick to Tabatas over the long haul if you can find ways to mix it up, either across workouts or even within a single workout. Charlotte has a great article featuring a bunch of Tabata variations over at Shape.  Or for the testosterone-soaked version, T-Nation has a big bad-ass list as well, including barbell, kettlebell and bodyweight variations.

I'm thinking if you have a workout partner, some sort of race, contest, or competition might add a bit of real-time motivation.  (Although pie-eating or beer drinking competitions are not highly recommended for this purpose).

Personally, I've experimented with spinning bikes, ellipticals, a stepper, and a dumbbell/bodyweight series of 4 exercises repeated twice.  They all were great!  And by "great" I mean, of course, excruciatingly awful.

Anyone else doing Tabatas or other sorts of HIIT?  Or does this all sound like crazy talk?

[And from our friends at Maxifuel: Need a boost to get through this intense workout? Try Maxifuel sports nutrition for the extra energy you need!]


  1. PTHGCSD. Yes. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

  2. Wow! I definitely wouldn't be in the right shape right now for that.

  3. Before i had pneumonia, i did Tabatas three times a week. They are fabulous, as i like getting my workout done quickly.

    Now, i do them less often, but when i have little time to work out they are my go to.

  4. I have done these. They kick ass. I was doing a running variety, but then I hurt my hamstring(wah) I need to try again. They work great on a bike too. I need to get back at these. Gee, thanks for the motivation. Where did that come from.

  5. Fortunately (?), the terrain in this part of the world is such that you have no choice but to do intervals of sorts if you're running or cycling. Everywhere is either uphill or downhill (usually both) from everywhere else, and the angle never stays the same for long!

    I don't think it'd be wise to complicate the issue by trying to superimpose my own intensity schedule on top of the natural one. #8-)

  6. My natural exercise mode is Slow and Steady, so I'm not much attracted to this idea, no matter how healthy. I'm afraid I would fall off the elliptical, which takes more doing than falling off the treadmill!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  7. I always wanted to do them but I never wanted to give up my love of my weight routine! :-) I have done HIIT but with some of the bod probs now, I do HIIT in my own way on the treadmill. I could go faster but my feet & some other nagging issues don't want me too but I still move along pretty good. I might still try them in the future but for now, I am sticking with what I do cause I can't afford any injuries! ;-) Ya got me thinking though!

  8. I love to hatehatehate tabatas.


  9. It's a good idea to have some high intensity (within what you can do) in your workout program, but do not stop the slow cardio as HIIT does not replace it, in my opinion.

  10. I love HIIT!! I personally do Peak 8 for 3x a week which is 20 minutes! But this one is 4??! I will have to try it! I try to make my time at the gym as short and effective as possible!

  11. Oh, so getting up from the computer and going to the bathroom doesn't count as HIIT? Well, I'll have to add some squats in then :)

  12. I'm about to start incorporating tabatas into my workouts.
    I'm terrified,lol!
    Thanks for the post!

  13. No kidding about the "see your doctor".

    When it comes to HIIT, beginners, in my experience, have a hard time telling "you are at maximum intensity" apart from "self-destruction imminent, prepare to evacuate".

  14. I've done and continue tabatas once in awhile as a change of pace. Anyone who says they are fun is out of their mind! Also I wanted to point people to this interesting and relevant article in NYT about the trend toward intense workouts, I think it makes a valid point, and I'd be interested to see what people think about this uptick in intense/extreme workouts. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/personal-best-workouts-have-their-limits-recognized-or-not/. Thanks for the post!

  15. Well, I'm on the fence. Choosing to do something that makes you consider how relaxing removing your skin with a cheese grater doesn't strike me as a joyful experience, but I'm gonna do it anyway. Definitely gonna check both articles for suggestions of what to do, then I'll cuss you out in the most creative way possible while I fantasize how wonderful it would be to just have my face blown off by a shotgun afterward and them proceed to post a blog entry about it when I'm able to move, breathe and think again.
    Thanks, Crabby. (That was said out loud in a grumbly sarcastic Eff you voice, just so you know.) LOL

  16. Hey i love doing tabatas as it has really helped me getting workout in more better way and timely.

  17. You know, I misread Tabatas as "Tagatha," which is one of the names for the Buddha. He called himself the Tagatha.

    Um. Yeah. Not so Buddhist.

    But intriguing.

  18. I do not know what is is official termed, but I get on the thread mill and walk normally, then go full out for 20 seconds, then 20 seconds normal than 20 seconds between normal and full out then 1 minute normal and repeat for 20-30 minutes 3x a week. Heard about this on XM Doctor radio last year and gave it a try. I like it but to go all out sooner in the recovery period would be evil, evil, evil

  19. Tabatas are so evil and good...try the bottom to bottom tabata squats for some really awesome soreness. I mean, buns of steel. :)

  20. Tabata is the fastest way to lose weight. It can be performed while cycling, jumping rope, running or swimming. Combine it with a good work out music for your cue in the 20/10 intervals.

  21. HIIT is awesome. if i'm just at home i'll do high knees for the movement, where you just run in place but make sure you get your knees up as high as you can and also swing your arms as if running as fast as you can.

    this can be a good exercise for doing a tabata interval if you don't have a lot of room. there are interval timers too on youtube that you can use if you are in front of a computer at home, that will play tones between interval times

  22. HIIT is also the cardio of choice for folks who are trying to gain muscular weight. If you’re a hard-gainer, you’re going to make gaining muscle a heck of lot harder again if you’re chewing up the extra calories you need for growth with 2-3 hour cardio sessions. Brief, explosive forms of cardio will not just permit muscular gain, they will quite likely enhance it (see legs of speed skaters and top track cycling sprinters for convincing visual evidence of this phenomenon).


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