How to Use Tabata Training for More Than Just HIIT Workouts

Anyone who has delved into the realm of High-Intensity Interval Training is likely familiar with the Tabata Method. Well today, we're going to put a spin on it and use it for more than just getting epically winded. 

Brock Armstrong
4-minute read

Photo of people doing a Tabata workout

Repeat this "20-on and 10-off" cycle eight times through, for a total of four minutes and boom! Tabata.

A former researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Izumi Tabata, Ph.D., invented a method of exercise that lasts only four minutes but packs an undeniable punch.  To perform a Tabata set you simply pick an activity (sprinting, cycling, swimming, even burpees) and do it as hard as you can for 20 seconds, and then recover for 10 seconds. You repeat this "20-on and 10-off" cycle eight times through, for a total of four minutes. Boom! Tabata.

Dr. Tabata developed this method by recruiting two groups of elite athletes for six weeks of training (five days a week) and putting them through the wringer.

Group One ran 60 minutes a day at 70% of their V02 Max (which is comfortably uncomfortable). Group Two did running sprints following the Tabata principle (hard for 20 seconds, easy for 10, eight times through).

After six weeks:

  • Group One increased only their aerobic capacity (how long they could run) by 9.5% and anaerobic capacity (how long they could run at maximum effort) by 0%.
  • Group Two increased their maximum aerobic capacity by 14% AND increased their maximum anaerobic capacity by 28%.

Impressive results! But it doesn't end there. This workout method seems to activate mitochondrial biogenesis (the formation of new mitochondria) in skeletal muscle, which is something we lose as we age. Tabata training also significantly boosts your metabolism and improves both your aerobic and anaerobic cardiovascular and muscular endurance.

Why Is Tabata So Effective?

The body responds to this stress by rapidly increasing its capacity to increase oxygen uptake, which is the best measurement we have of fitness.

In an interview with Muscle & Fitness, Dr. Tabata explained how his method works so well in such a short amount of time:

"Tabata not only burns the same calories in four minutes as an hour of steady-state exercise (biking or jogging), but there's also a significant 'after burn' effect, where an additional 150 calories are being burned up to 12 hours after you leave the gym."

"Tabata training—if done correctly—is very demanding during that four minutes, and the body responds to this stress by rapidly increasing its capacity to increase oxygen uptake, which is the best measurement we have of fitness."

By taking rest intervals that are only half the length of the work intervals (2:1 work-to-rest ratio), your body is forced to perform without a full recovery. That means by the sixth or eighth interval, you will (or should, if you are working hard enough) hit a point of maximum oxygen intake and really start to kick your body's natural stress responses into full gear. This is a good thing!

Tabata Is Not Just for Cardio

Tabata intervals are usually done on stationary bikes, elliptical machines, treadmills, kettlebell swings, or rowing machines. But lately I have been using them to get a good pump going as well. Most lifters will tell you that a ten-second rest is nowhere near enough recovery to perform a serious resistance training workout but, with the correct alterations, I beg to differ.

If you pick the right exercise and choose a weight that is on the lighter side, you can target a particular muscle group extremely effectively with the Tabata method.

The trick is to choose a weight that you know you can lift for about 2 minutes straight, without losing form or getting sloppy.

I have tried this for bicep curls, push-ups, squats (weighted and body weight), crunches, mountain climbers, overhead press, and even calf raises. The trick is to choose a weight that you know you can lift for about two minutes straight, without losing form or getting sloppy. Then once you start to fall apart, be ready to strip the weight (or choose a lighter weight) during the 10-second rest period. That way you can make it through the entire four minutes without hurting yourself or pooping out.

Here is an example of how you could do a Tabata set of Bicep Curls (keep in mind that the weights listed are just an example, your weights will likely be different):

  1. Start with a 20-pound dumbell in each hand and curl as fast as you can, with good form, for 20 seconds.
  2. Let the dumbbells dangle for 10 seconds.
  3. Curl like crazy for 20 seconds.
  4. Let them dangle for 10.
  5. Another set with the 20-pound weights for 20 seconds.
  6. Put the 20-pound weights down and grab the 15-pound weights.
  7. Curl like crazy for 20 seconds.
  8. And so on, for 4 minutes.

Depending on the day, you may last one more set before you need to strip the weight from 20 to 15 pounds and you may also need to drop down further to 10-pound weights before the set is over but you would want to wait until your form is suffering or the number of curls you can execute has gotten pitiful before you lower the weight. You want to be able to keep going but at the same time it should be intense, so you don't want to sell yourself short. The lactic acid burn is impressive and not for the faint of heart and by the end of the workout, you have likely done upwards of 100 curls!

A Full Workout

If you have time and the grit, you can then choose another body part and do the same thing for your shoulders, back, or legs. Since you have only spent four minutes working out so far, you can likely do four different body parts before finishing up with the more traditional Tabata Set doing burpees, sprints, or any other heart-raising exercise. Make sure you take 1-2 minutes between each exercise so you can HIIT it hard (see what I did there?) but don't wait too long—we want the fatigue to compound, not dissipate.

In the end, you'll feel like you have gotten as much of a targeted, muscle-specific, and high-intensity workout in about 20 minutes as you would from lifting heavy at the gym for close to an hour.

This isn't something I would suggest that you do every day but on days when your time is tight, this is an extremely effective way to get your pump on in a short amount of time. Just make sure that you are mentally prepared to suffer. As Dr. Tabata said himself, "If you are doing Tabata correctly (and many people do not) you would only be able to ever do one round of it—and indeed you’d be unlikely to even finish that before complete exhaustion sets in!"

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.