Tabata or not Tabata

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The Wild Life approach to movement tries to be a broad as possible. We know that no single modality has the answer to everything.

To be a healthy, happy, harder to kill human we need a mix of easy, slow movements, a complete assortment of movement patterns, to lift heavy things, to rest our bodies sufficiently, to move really fast from time to time, and to occasionally work so hard we see God.

This was discussed previously in the posts here and here. But today I want to discuss High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

HIIT is a form of interval training that utilises very high intensity (near maximal effort) yet short periods of exercise, followed by lower intensity (usually shorter) rest periods. There is no definitive set perimeters for HIIT, and work to rest ratios will often vary according to the the fitness and experience of the participant and the exercises performed. Many traditional HIIT protocol work around a 20 second work/10 second rest ratio, though many others exist. HIIT typically lasts less than 30 minutes of total duration.

HIIT workouts are good for building overall work capacity and conditioning. One study concluded that both traditional endurance training and HIIT lead to significant cardiovascular fitness but with greater VO2 max gains (the measurement that is generally considered the best indicator of cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance) found with HIIT.

Another study shows how low volume (high intensity) sprint intervals was comparable to high volume endurance training at conferring rapid skeletal muscle and exercise capacity adaptations, but with a fraction of the time spent exercising.

HIIT has also been shown to increase fat metabolism, lower insulin resistance and elicit short term brain and cognitive improvements.

woman holding exercise ropes

But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.

HIIT is hard. It’s kind of baked in the cake. Working at near maximal intensity is never going to be anything but hard. It’s also very easy to overdo HIIT. CNS fatigue, injury and sloppy technique are all too present if you are not mindful. When working to near exhaustion it becomes very difficult to maintain perfect form, so some caution needs to taken.

Equally, and as with all exercise, get a doctors approval before embarking on HIIT, especially if you have any cardio-vascular issues.


Probably the most famous study and HIIT protocol is the Tabata regimen. This 1996 study, carried out by Dr Izumi Tabata, et al., involved Olympic speed skaters exercising on static bikes for an ultra intense 20 second intervals, followed by 10 second rest periods, repeated continuously for 8 rounds (4 mins total). The athletes spent 6 weeks training like this for 4 minutes a day, four days a week, with one other day doing a standard steady state workout, and exhibited the same gains as athletes that did 5 days per week steady state, but with only a fraction of the time spent and with other anaerobic capacity benefits.

4 minutes a day? Sign me up!

Now hang on there. It sounds to good to be true because in many ways it is. All the results are true but it comes at a cost. Anyone who follows the Tabata regimen to the letter spends 6 weeks dreading the next workout. A true tabata workout is probably the hardest workout I’ve ever done, and that was just one session. I felt like I was dying. The thought of doing that for another 23 sessions would have pushed me over the edge.

There is always a balance to keep. In this case, to gain the benefits of a short workout we have to pay the remainder in gut wrenching effort. And that’s not to say don’t do it, just be aware that it’s not overly fun.

Fast forward 25 years and Tabata has become a household name in HIIT. You get Tabata everything: Tabata deadlift, Tabata yoga, Tabata pilates, Tabata knitting, everything.

Basically anything that follows the 20s work/10s rest ratio for 8 rounds (and sometimes more, a lot more) gets called ‘Tabata’.

And this really upsets the die-hards. And it’s true, holding a downward dog pose for 20 seconds is not going to elicit the benefits of Dr Tabata’s protocol. Equally, performing an hour long ‘Tabata’ session means you are unlikely to working at near maximal intensity.

This is all just interval training, some high intensity, some not, but none of it true Tabata. And this really gets some people in the fitness industry’s pants in a bunch. So much so that anything with Tabata in the title get instantly scoffed at and disregarded.

But does it matter?

Well if someone is telling you that doing Tabata step ups will bring you the same gains as those original speed-skaters then yes, because it wont. But that doesn’t mean everything ‘Tabata’ should be dismissed outright.

The term Tabata is now firmly out there in mainstream world. Just as Hoover came to mean any kind of vacuum cleaner and Jeep any kind of 4×4, fighting against the trend to Tabata-ize interval training is probably futile.

Tabata intervals, ie. 8 round of 20s work and 10s rest, when designed intelligently are an excellent form of interval training.

I use them all the time. Sometimes I will make a whole workout out of a single cycle, as per the original regimen, sometimes sprinting, sometimes burpees, always revolting.

Other times I will perform multiple cycles with a minute or so, rest between each, sometimes with a single exercise, sometimes with a different exercise each round. I never do more than 4 cycles, around 20 minutes.

They are also perfect, in my opinion for finishers at the end of a session.

The main thing to keep in mind is the need to keep the intensity up. If you are doing a single movement keep count of how many you are able to do on that first 20 second work period and aim to match this for each subsequent round. If you are doing multiple rounds and you start to flag, unable to match your target number continuously, then maybe it’s time to finish. Same goes for shitty form; it’s time to stop.

As I mentioned earlier you can put any exercise into those 20 second work periods with differing degrees of results. For a good intensity, my favourite movements for ‘Tabata’ intervals are:

  • Burpees
  • Sledgehammer tyre hits
  • Tyre flips
  • Medicine ball slams
  • Running sprints (This one is an absolute lie, I hate them. But I love them.)
  • Rowing sprints
  • Kettlebell movements
  • Speed skipping
  • Battle ropes
  • Heavy bag work

The options are endless.

This type of of interval training is not a replacement for other types of training modalities, it is merely one more tool in the box to choose from.

One of the biggest ‘reasons’ people give for not moving their bodies is time. I think you would be hard pushed to find someone who can’t fit in a 5 minute warm up and 4 minutes of intervals. And even if they aren’t going full on ‘balls to the walls’ intensity like the original Tabata experiment, as long as they are going hard for each of those 20 second periods, it is undoubtedly better than not doing anything.

So here is one of my favourite go-to ‘Tabata’ intervals using a kettlebell. It’s just four moves, each can be substituted by another. They are swings, snatches, thrusters and push press.

I always go into this with the intention of doing 4 cycles, then wanting to quit after the first one, then getting a second wind between each one.

Kettlebell tabata from the old website

Nowadays, there are a seemingly infinite number of Tabata timer apps available. But if you’re like me and don’t want your phone looming over you, like the all seeing eye of Sauron, during your gym sessions then there are a couple of other good options:

The Gymboss interval timer is a handy little clip on device that can be programmed for any timer interval, that beep and vibrates to keep you on track. It’s very customisable too.

And then there are Tabata Songs ( These are tunes synced in to the 20/10 timings of the Tabata protocol (8 rounds), that have a very helpful, but slightly passive aggressive young man shouting encouragement and prompting you when to work and rest.

Here’s a little bit of insane inspiration for you from Zack Ruhl.

So is HIIT worth adding to your training plans? I’d say yes, if cautiously or with simple movements for beginners.

The classic Tabata timing works as well as any other in my opinion, it’s the movement choice and intensity that you bring to it that makes all the difference. Give it a go and see how you feel.

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