If you want to burn major calories but you don't have hours to spend in the gym each week, you may want to try Tabata. In this form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), you go as hard as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds, and repeat for eight more rounds until you're dripping sweat. This results in a four-minute round of cardio, which you can then repeat (. . . maybe after taking a break). It's not easy, but the efficiency and short duration of Tabata workouts are definite perks, especially if you're looking to lose weight.
While working out hard for 20 seconds at a time may seem simple enough, make no mistake that this style of training is physically demanding, and you don't want to go into your first Tabata workout or class unprepared. Here's what you should know before getting started, including what Tabata is, how it differs from other types of HIIT training, how many calories you'll burn with Tabata, and a few Tabata workouts you can try right now.
What Is Tabata?
Tabata is a form of HIIT named for Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata, who first studied it in 1996. In Tabata, "the goal is to keep the heart rate up for the duration of the workout," Alex Carneiro, an ACSM-certified personal trainer in Denver, CO, told POPSUGAR. You'll go as hard as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds, for a total of eight rounds.
Carneiro explained that you can do any cardio or strength-training exercise you want in Tabata (think: squats, burpees, push-ups, or deadlifts), but he noted that compound exercises — multijoint movements that work groups of large muscles — will help you achieve the best results.
Benefits of Tabata
Tabata is one of the toughest workouts out there, so are the benefits worth the sweat? That'll be up to you, but this intense cardio workout does have some unique upsides.
- Tabata workouts are quick and efficient. Tabata workouts rarely last longer than half an hour (typically 20 minutes of work and 10 minutes for warming up and cooling down), which makes them a great choice to squeeze into a busy schedule. The high-intensity moves ensure that you'll still get a major cardio benefit in this short amount of time.
- Tabata workouts improve your cardiovascular fitness. Tabata has been shown to improve your VO2 max (the amount of oxygen you're able to consume during exercise) and overall cardio endurance, especially compared to moderate-intensity workouts.
- Tabata workouts are effective for weight loss. As a high-intensity form of cardio, Tabata burns lots of calories (more on that later) and, as a result, can definitely help you lose weight and body far in particular. The science backs it up: A small 2020 study focused on adolescent boys found that individuals deemed as overweight by the study were able to lose weight and lower their body fat percentage after following a 10-week Tabata program.
Tabata vs. HIIT
Tabata is a specific form of HIIT. In HIIT workouts that don't follow the Tabata structure, you'll see work and rest intervals that last for different lengths of time — maybe you'll work for 30 seconds and rest for 15, or work for 45 seconds and rest for 25. Tabata workouts, however, always have the same structure: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off. You can go into a Tabata workout knowing exactly what to expect; in other forms of HIIT, the intervals are not necessarily standard.
HIIT workouts may also last longer than Tabata routines, which are usually around 20 minutes (plus a warmup and cooldown). Since they're shorter in length, Tabata workouts are also typically done at a higher intensity to get the most out of the routine.
How Many Calories Does Tabata Burn?
While calorie burn varies from person to person, a small study conducted by ACE found that a person can burn up to 18 calories per minute during a Tabata session. The average participant burned 15 calories per minute.
"That doesn't take into account the calories burned due to the 'afterburn effect,'" Kyle Prescott, an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist and group exercise instructor in Philadelphia, told POPSUGAR. He explained that this phenomenon, also known as the EPOC effect, occurs as your body recovers from a workout, usually lasting one to two hours. You increase your oxygen intake during this period, burning a modest amount of calories in the process.
In total, the study found that people can burn anywhere between 240 and 360 calories during a 20-minute Tabata workout, but for a more personalized estimate, use a fitness tracker.
What You Should Know Before Starting Tabata
Both trainers emphasized that Tabata is tough — so if you're new to working out, you should probably work to improve your endurance before trying it. "If you're not willing to give near maximum effort for that 20 seconds, then you won't elicit the many benefits that [Tabata] produces," Prescott said.
Once you feel ready to give it a shot, Prescott recommends easing in, rather than signing up for five classes in a week right off the bat. "Tabata training is very taxing on your body, as you're expected to continuously put up 100 percent effort, and some people just aren't physically prepared for that," he explained. Try taking no more than two classes per week at the beginning and three per week after you've done the workout for some time.
Carneiro told POPSUGAR that staying hydrated before, during, and after a Tabata workout is a must. He said it's also important to understand that your heart rate will be up throughout the entire session, so you should make sure you're working at your own pace. "If you have to skip a round to catch your breath, that's OK," Carneiro said. "A proper warmup and cooldown is a must as well, as you want to avoid any potential injuries."
If you're ready to try out Tabata for yourself, these workouts are a good place to start:
- 15-Minute Low-Impact Tabata Workout
- 30-Minute No-Equipment Tabata-Inspired Workout With Raneir Pollard
- 20-Minute Tabata Dance Workout (set to Taylor Swift!)
— Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan