How to know whether tabata or HIIT is the right workout for you


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In this quick-hitting era of fitness—in which 10-minute micro-workouts are rising in popularity and even  five-minute workouts are legit—it’s no surprise that bajillions of people are drinking the HIIT Kool-aid. Including moi.

But in the world of high-intensity interval training is a whole variety of sweaty options to choose from. You can do a HIIT running workout (a personal fave), HIIT weightlifting, or, hell, even daily HIIPA, or high-intensity incidental physical activity (which can involve your household vacuum). One of the most OG types of HIIT, though? Tabata.

Although HIIT has been around for a long time, the whole tabata style developed out of it—kind of as its own branch—in the ’90s, according to CeCe Marizu, group fitness manager at Equinox. “Tabata is a form of HIIT, and is probably one of the more popular versions,” she says. “It has such a recognizable name that it’s been able to separate itself as a specific way of training HIIT.”

The difference between the two comes down to their ratios of work to rest. The thing about HIIT is that it’s essentially a loose term in which you can make up your own interval lengths—there’s not a set ratio. “HIIT is a system of organizing cardiorespiratory training, which calls for repeated bouts of short duration, high-intensity exercise intervals intermingled with periods of lower-intensity intervals of active recovery,” explains Justin Thomas Sanchez, trainer at Exceed Physical Culture. “HIIT training calls for challenging work-rates such as sprints for short time frames lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes.”

The difference between the two comes down to their ratios of work to rest.

Tabata, on the other hand? It’s intense. “Tabata training features exercises that last four minutes with intervals of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest multiplied by eight,” says Sanchez. Marizu adds that it’s fast and to the point. But both workout methods have essentially the same goal: They both want you near your maximum effort, Sanchez explains.

“The duration of work in a HIIT workout can vary up to two minutes,” says Sanchez. “For example, you could do a five-station circuit with 30 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest between stations and it would be considered HIIT. You could also do a battle-rope tabata of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off eight times and that also is HIIT.”

And when it comes to selecting the exercises in a HIIT or tabata circuit, you’ll have fewer to choose from for a tabata workout. “While some exercises will work for a HIIT class, they may not be the best exercises for a tabata training session,” says Sanchez. “Twenty seconds doesn’t leave you much time for a complex exercise combination like a burpee box jump or a TRX full matrix, so you will need to select exercises that are simple and effective in the time you have. With a HIIT workout you can be a bit more complex because you can vary your duration of work.” Either one you go with, however, get ready to work—because both are quick-fire, badass workouts that are designed to boost your metabolism (and to make you very sweaty).

Here’s a four-minute tabata workout for faster digestion. And this is how to use the battle ropes at your gym, which you can incorporate in your next HIIT or tabata workout. 

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