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Tabata: What it really means

What is Tabata and how is it different from high intensity interval training

High intensity interval training (HIIT) has been having a “moment” for the last few years. Chalk it up to the fact that the workouts have been found to be as effective as longer routines, decrease your appetite, and increase your afterburn (which is basically the hat trick of the fitness world).

But lately, practically everywhere you get your sweat on, from barre to boot camp, instructors are throwing around one particular term related to HIIT: Tabata. As in, “Have a sip of water now, we’re going to do Tabata sprints.”

So while you might suspect something intense is about to happen, it might help to clarify just what Tabata really means.

Tabata is much more specific version of a HIIT workout (it’s like the vegan child in a family of vegetarians). The method is based on serious scientific research. In the mid ’90s, Izumi Tabata, a professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, led a study proving that exactly four minutes of really intense intervals is just as effective as hours of lighter, more moderate training. It was dubbed the “Tabata Protocol,” or the shorter, “Tabata.”

We spoke to PJ Stahl, Tabata program director and co-owner of Lock Box LA, to find out what a Tabata workout really looks like (and how to tell if your instructor is using the term correctly). Here are four things to know in order to master the method.

PJ Stalh tabata
PJ Stahl works directly with Professor Tabata to ensure the continued efficacy of the method. (Photo: Tabata)

1. The “Tabata” portion of your workout should be four minutes. The method revolves around doing one exercise (it could be squats, jumping jacks, lunges) for 20 seconds on—at super maximum intensity—and 10 seconds off. You do that eight times, for a total of four minutes, explains Stahl.

2. There should be a heart-rate revving warmup of 10 minutes. You want to increase your heart rate the way the participants in the Tabata study did, explains Stahl, which means completing a ten-minute warmup. In the workouts Stahl designs, including his new at-home workout DVD, he starts the sweat sesh with dynamic like lunges, high knees, or jumping jacks. “By the time you get to the Tabata portion, you’re prepared to push yourself harder,” Stahl says. (Side note: He likes to save core work for the “cool down.”)

3. It’s all about how hard you work during those 20 seconds. Just showing up isn’t enough. Tabata uses an intensity scale of 1 to 11, the idea being that in your 20 seconds on, you’re pushing yourself past ten (or, you know, as hard as humanly possible), in order to reap the workout’s benefits. That challenges your body to “break you through the aerobic and anaerobic threshold,” says Stahl. The Tabata protocol bases effectiveness on the heart rate you achieve working at your highest intensity.

4. So when is your Tabata workout not officially a Tabata workout? “When people say ‘I do Tabata,’ sometimes they mean they do 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, and manipulate it into a workout they want to do—like four minutes of pushups and then four minutes of squats,” Stahl says. To be doing a legit Tabata workout, you have to be exhausting the same muscles over the course of your four minute session—which happens fast when you’re hitting that 11 on the intensity scale. —Molly Gallagher

For more information, visit

(Photos: Tabata)

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