If you’re tuned into fitness trends, you’ve probably heard of Tabata. It’s a form of high-intensity interval training named after Izumi Tabata, a Japanese scientist who discovered that shorter bursts of all-out exercise are at least as effective as longer, moderate-intensity exercise—and certainly more efficient. What’s better than shorter workouts that produce the same (or better) results as a slog on the treadmill?
If you’re wondering whether Tabata is too good to be true, here’s a deeper dive on how it works, why it’s beneficial, and what you should know before trying it out.
Benefits of Tabata
Depending on where and from whom you take a Tabata class, the workout may vary slightly. But basically, Tabata classes involve a series of exercises, which get repeated for intervals of 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. Twenty seconds may sound like nothing, but during the 20 seconds of work, you are working hard—pushing your body to its maximum capacity. Then you recover for 10 seconds. Repeat.
You may be sweaty and spent at the end, but you probably won’t be bored.
“The most common thing I hear from people who do Tabata is that the time flies,” says Luis Weber, group fitness instructor at Equinox. “One minute you’re setting up for your workout, and the next thing you know, class is over.”
Tabata helps overcome the boredom and mental barriers that prevent many people from working out consistently—and to a level that produces results.
“Everyone used to think that the longer you worked out, the better off you’d be,” says CeCe Marizu, group fitness instructor at Equinox in New York City and Daily Burn trainer. “Tabata broke down that idea and showed that you can push to a deeper level in less time. Twenty seconds sounds a lot better than 20 minutes to most people, so it makes it easier to go all in and find your threshold.”
And your threshold is where you find results. The notion of plateauing is familiar to anyone who has spent hours on cardio machines only to see their weight and strength remain exactly the same. Tabata pushes you to take things up a notch, which forces you off the plateau.
“Tabata burns more fat than your traditional aerobic workout,” says Weber. “It increases muscle mass and also your resting metabolic rate, which refers to the fat and calories you burn when you’re not exercising.”
What to Look for in a Tabata Class
Not all Tabata instructors are created equal.
“A great instructor is a motivator, not a military sergeant,” says Weber. “Look for instructors who make you feel comfortable. It’s also a good sign when an instructor screens the class for injuries and offers modifications for the various exercises.”
Marizu agrees. “Find an instructor who drives you and focuses on form,” she says. “Tabata is a fast-moving workout, so it’s important to take your time learning the exercises so that you don’t injure yourself. There is no shame setting up the moves first and then picking up intensity as the workout goes on.”
You should also listen to your body.
“If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it,” says Marizu. “With Tabata, ego can get in the way for people sometimes. Moves can always be modified, and you can get a great workout if you’re willing to adjust.”
Finally, don’t overcomplicate it! At the end of the day, Tabata is really about moving with high intensity for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and repeating it.
“Tabata can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Marizu. “Sprint in place or do squat jumps for 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. You’ll be tired.”
Once you learn the ropes in a class, you can do a Tabata workout anywhere.
“Exercises involving no equipment, like high knees, burpees and push-ups, can really be killer,” says Weber. “You can easily create your own Tabata workout at home.”