Tabata: Is it Worth the Pain?


Is the main reason you don’t exercise the time demands and restrictions? Would you like to kickstart your health and fitness with 20 minutes a day? Tabata has been used to make claims like this, providing a form of short, high-volume exercise that can make a real change to your body and wellbeing.

Tabata is a type of interval training with timed rest and activity periods that can be applied to a variety of different styles of exercise with fantastic results. The real question is: ‘Can Tabata work for you?’ The answer is dependent on your goals and what you want from fitness.

Tabata will require hard work and persistence, but it can provide amazing results if you pay attention to detail and select the right types of movements. This article will provide you with everything you need to know about Tabata, how it works, and how to get the most out of it.

What is Tabata? A Closer Look

Tabata is a form of structured High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) that relies on timed work and rest periods to deliver an effective workout in a relatively short space of time. This style of working out can be applied to almost any form of exercise from resistance training to calisthenics, and even intense cardiovascular exercise. The common thread is working to a specific work to rest ratio. In this sense, Tabata is simply the refining of traditional HIIT workouts.

HIIT is a type of exercise that alternates between high- and low-intensity periods of exercise. Intensity in this context is psychological intensity – how hard you’re working. This might mean periods of sprints and then light jogging, extended over tens of minutes (rather than hours). HIIT is a great way to improve your cardiovascular health, lose weight, and develop some athletic characteristics with less time commitment than you’d need for a conventional workout.

Tabata is a great example of this, and follows a simple, easy-to-use structure that allows you to get individual circuits done in 4 minutes each. The structure is as follows:

  • 20 seconds of intense work followed by 10 seconds of rest

These periods are repeated 8 times overall, making an overall structure of 8x30s segments. These 4-minute workouts can be sequenced to provide a larger, more effective workout. For example, 5 blocks of Tabata can provide 20 minutes of intensely efficient exercise – enough for you to start making serious progress with your health and fitness.

Why Might Tabata Work for You?

The question remains: why should you use Tabata in your training? The applicability of Tabata to a variety of endurance and strengthening exercises makes it a widely-applicable method, whatever your training style and goal.

One of the best reasons to use Tabata, or any HIIT protocol, is the time-efficiency that it affords you. When looking at developing a great workout, especially when you have other time commitments, the amount of time necessary to gain real effects is a big factor. If you have a busy professional, academic, or family life, the speed of your workout is a big deal. The structure of Tabata makes it easy to perform maximum intensity workouts, repeatedly, allowing you to do the same hard work in less time.

There are also some possible athletic characteristic improvements associated with HIIT and Tabata. When you perform regular cardio exercises, you’re not likely to be training the strength or power of the muscles. Depending on the movements you use, as well as the weights you choose and how you perform the movements, you can use HIIT and Tabata to improve the strength and power. If you perform weight-based resistance exercises or power movements like jumps, you can burn fat, build endurance, and improve your strength and power all at once.

Dangers of Using Tabata

Tabata may be a great choice for many, but there are also some concerns about Tabata that need to be addressed in order to make the most of the workout. First, the fact that it can be used for every type of exercise is not enough to make it a whole program. There are still many things to think about before you structure a workout: exercise selection, loading, volume, and technique. Tabata is a great tool but it is neither the only way to perform exercise, nor a complete guide to it.

The main thing to remember when you’re structuring your training is that there are many more variables to effectiveness than simply the timing of the workout. Tabata and other forms of HIIT can improve time-efficiency, but this is not the only thing that should be considered for long-term progress. Long-term progress requires overload (more work, or more resistance, progressively over a long period of time), technical improvements, development of different athletic characteristics (strength, power, speed, endurance, balance, and co-ordination), and other non-quantitative measures of progress.

The important thing to consider is what your goal is and how Tabata fits into your overall fitness program. Your goal is the biggest determinant of what sort of training you should be doing – Tabata will not contribute to the development of technique or overall muscle growth in optimal fashion. Tabata is a great way to develop overall fitness and various athletic capabilities, but it will not maximally develop one characteristic.

Good technique is also necessary for performing Tabata – if you’re going to use complicated multi-joint exercises (especially with weight), you need to have a solid basis of technique on any exercise if you’re planning to perform it repeatedly.

How Can You get the Most out of Tabata?

The limitations of Tabata aren’t enough to make it a “bad” form of exercise. When faced with these kinds of limitations, the correct approach is simply triage: ‘how can I adapt Tabata to make it work for me, my goals, and my limitations?’. Fitting Tabata into your routine is a matter of figuring out what works for you and how Tabata can best serve that – we’re going to give you a quick guide to using Tabata right, so that you can incorporate this great exercise structure into your current training.

1. I.S.S. – Exercise Selection for Tabata

Exercise selection for Tabata is the first place to start. Using the wrong exercises is the easiest way to ruin a good workout. Tabata is high-intensity, as fast as possible, for time which places limitations on technique, so you should use exercises that are relatively simple – even the best in the world will struggle to perform barbell snatches on a Tabata time-structure. Choose simple, full-body exercises that have minimal loading, or loading through “implements” like the kettlebell, sandbag, or similar light weights. Keeping it simple will mean that you can focus on moving well, and quickly, with less risk of injury – this will allow you to spend your 20 seconds working out as hard as possible.

When selecting exercises for a Tabata workout, it is important to consider how you can use Tabata to develop important postural positions. For example, including core and buttock exercises in your Tabata circuits (or even using a whole circuit to focus on these muscles) will help to develop proper posture through the hips and spine. This is a great way to combat lower back pain and ensure that you remain healthier and more mobile as you age.

This also extends to the “planes” of movement that each exercise represents. When designing a Tabata circuit for maximum efficiency, it is important to consider how you are required to move and what types of movement you’re using – as well as how they contribute to overall health and balance. For example, training with more lateral (sideways) movements can contribute to proper joint health by strengthening the muscles that support the joints, which you probably don’t train as much as you should. This is true of unilateral movements (exercises that use one leg, for example, or other asymmetry) and transverse (rotating) movements. Considering how your circuits require you to move is a great way to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your 20 minute Tabata circuits.

2. Balancing Your Training

Tabata should also be tempered against more technique-, strength-, and power-focused training. Tabata is a good choice for developing both aerobic and anaerobic endurance, but it is a relatively inefficient way of building size, strength, or power. Combining workouts specifically designed to boost these athletic characteristics with Tabata is a great way to develop “slow” characteristics like strength and stability, as well as the endurance that Tabata is so famous for developing.

How you split up your workout is a matter of how much time you have and how you want to structure your workout. One great example of structuring your workouts to develop multiple athletic characteristics like this is splitting up each session into a strength or power and endurance section. For example, you may want to perform heavy barbell work in the first 45 minutes of a strength workout, then finish off with 20 minutes of Tabata for endurance.

Alternatively, you can dedicate certain training days to strength or power, while using other days for Tabata and endurance exercises. This may mean splitting your training into 3-day blocks, like so:

  • Day 1: Strength workout
  • Day 2: Tabata/Endurance workout
  • Day 3: Rest

This can be repeated indefinitely and will contribute to developments in both strength and endurance, as well as developing muscle and burning fat. The real question is how well this sort of balance suits your training.

3. Remember: Tabata is Conditioning

This is an essential principle of training well: your exercises and overall workout structure should be aimed at goals and should reflect what you want to achieve. Tabata is, fundamentally, a conditioning tool for hiking your heart rate up and giving you a great solution to the problem of restricted time. While it can contribute to strength and power, it is important to remember that it is primarily a tool for burning fat and boosting endurance.

A Fantastic 5-Circuit Complete Tabata Workout

These 5 circuits provide an amazing 20-minute workout that can contribute to improved endurance, structural balance, power, and weight loss. If you’re looking to make big progress in only 25 minutes, this series of workouts is an amazing place to start. Try and rest for 60 seconds between each circuit. Best of all, you will only need a kettlebell, skipping rope, and something to step up to!

1. Strength and power

00:00 – 00:20 Kettlebell Swing
00:30 – 00:50 Air Squat

01:00 – 01:20 Squat Jump
01:30 – 01:50 Lunge

02:00 – 02:20 Kettlebell Swing
02:30 – 02:50 Air Squat

03:00 – 03:20 Lunge
03:30 – 03:50 Vertical Jump (for height)

2. Structural balance/Functional movement 1

00:00 – 00:20 Kettlebell Pull-Through
00:30 – 00:50 Kettlebell Rotating Lunge

01:00 – 01:20 Kettlebell Kosack Squat
01:30 – 01:50 Kettlebell Lunge

02:00 – 02:20 Hand-Release Push-Up
02:30 – 02:50 Swimmer’s Holds

03:00 – 03:20 Hollow Rock
03:30 – 03:50 Russian Twist

3. Structural balance/Functional movement 2

00:00 – 00:20 Kettlebell Goblet Squat
00:30 – 00:50 Kettlebell 1-Legged Deadlift

01:00 – 01:20 Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift
01:30 – 01:50 Jump Squat

02:00 – 02:20 Russian Twist
02:30 – 02:50 Hollow Rock

03:00 – 03:20 Russian Twist
03:30 – 03:50 Plank

4. Muscular Endurance

00:00 – 00:20 Kettlebell Squat
00:30 – 00:50 Kettlebell Lunge

01:00 – 01:20 Air Squat
01:30 – 01:50 Lunge

02:00 – 02:20 V-Up
02:30 – 02:50 Russian Twist

03:00 – 03:20 Lying Leg Raise
03:30 – 03:50 Russian Twist

5. Finisher

00:00 – 00:20 Kettlebell Deadlift
00:30 – 00:50 Skip

01:00 – 01:20 Kettlebell Squat
01:30 – 01:50 Skip

02:00 – 02:20 Kettlebell Lunge
02:30 – 02:50 Skip

03:00 – 03:20 Box Step-up
03:30 – 03:50 Skip

tabata title card

Overview: Is It Worth the Pain?

Every form of exercise comes with pain and discomfort – even if this is a sign that you’re not exercising often enough, it comes with the territory. The real question of whether Tabata is worth the pain is whether Tabata is suitable for your goal and if you require a short-duration, intense burst of exercise to get your heart pumping and muscles aching.

If your goal is to maximize muscle mass and become as strong as possible, Tabata won’t be worth the pain – at least, not by itself. Combining Tabata with other forms of exercise is a great way to make the most of this increasingly-popular method of conditioning, but it is important to do so properly. Proper training program design is always an art form, and a great Tabata workout (like the one we’ve provided) can start to make a real difference to your health, fitness, and long-term health.

The positive results of exercise come at a high effort-cost: the rewards for hard work are huge. You might see a lot of “miracle shortcuts” on the supplement market lately, but the reality is that transforming your body and health is a process of hard work – Tabata just packs the same hard work into 20 minutes!

Action Steps: Tips for Making Tabata Work for YOU

  1. Be sure to develop a strong foundation of technique – only use exercises that you’ve spent some time learning. If you can’t do it safely, with good technique, you shouldn’t use it during a Tabata circuit.
  2. Always keep your goal in mind – perform workouts and exercises that make you better at the stuff that matters TO YOU.
  3. Be sure to spend adequate time warming up, working on technique, and ensuring that your body is ready for the workout. Injury is never a good thing, so take steps to protect yourself.
  4. Balance Tabata workouts against strength, power, and technique workouts to ensure that you’re developing a well-balanced physique and athletic profile.
  5. Be sure to take your training seriously: implement plenty of core, glute, and stability exercises. Remember the importance of different types of movements, but experiment with new movement types that continue to challenge and develop your overall abilities.

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