Tabatas: HIIT Made Evil (and Awesome)

Photo: Tim Ellis

What's a Tabata?  Simple: It's a 20/10 HIIT protocol repeated 8 times.

Wait, you want that in English?  Sorry, let's try that again!

A Tabata is a form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Tabatas require 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and this cycle is repeated consecutively for a total of eight times. So it really is "simple," though it sure as hell ain't easy.

And you math majors are all probably way ahead of us here... yep, that's a FOUR MINUTE workout.

Everyone knows that that HIIT interval training comes with great health benefits.  And there are lots of different approaches to doing interval training, including the program we introduced at Cranky Fitness a while back.  Remember Somewhat High Intensity Interval Training?  However, strangely enough, "doing S.H.I.I.T" never really caught on in the fitness community the same way that "doing Tabatas" has.

Go figure!

I'd been doing a rather slapdash, off and on HIIT program myself for years--but with fewer, longer, intervals than Tabatas, and with way more recovery time.  But seeing that Tabatas were getting more and more popular, and inspired by Charlotte's recommendation over at The Great Fitness Experiment, it finally seemed time to check 'em out and report back.

It's been a few weeks now and... wow, they're, um, interesting!


Tabata Basics


A few important things to keep in mind when contemplating adding Tabatas to your fitness routine:

1.  They're intense.  You need to be in good shape before you start messing with high intensity intervals, or else you need to build up to them gradually.  Check with your doctor first, and don't go suing me if you jump on a treadmill and have a heart attack your first time out.  (Note: wouldn't it be amusing if every time someone told us "check with your doctor" before doing something, we all actually ran off and made appointments and dutifully went in and asked our busy doctors?  I'm sure my PPO would just love that! But, um, seriously, it's probably the smart thing to do).


2. You should warm up for a few minutes first.

3. Choose a simple, demanding exercise. You should be using lots of large leg muscles so that you can work intensely enough to cause yourself to  gasp for breath, curse the universe, and seriously ponder whether your heart might explode out of your chest.

This means the exercise can't be too complicated, dangerous, or reliant on small muscles that can tire out quickly.  Sprinting on an uncrowded track or pathway, running up a hill, pumping away on an exercise bike at high resistance (especially standing up), cranking up the resistance on an elliptical, etc are good places to start.

Treadmills work well for some folks, but can be a bit scary for others.  I, for example, fear that if I'm sprinting all-out to exhaustion, it would be all too easy for me to trip up and go flying off the back. And while pausing to suffer major life-threatening traumatic injuries might make a nice break from the Tabatas, they do come with health complications.

4. Consider getting some sort of interval timer.  You will be amazed at how quickly your ability to count to three, let alone eight, is impaired when you are distracted by wanting to die.  There are free phone apps if you have a smartphone that will give you a visual countdown and even blow a whistle at you.  Note: not recommended for those suffering from PTHGCSD (Post Traumatic High School Gym Class Stress Disorder).  I think this is the HIIT app I have.  If you don't have a smart phone, some workout watches come with interval timers, or you can buy cheap stand alone gadgets that will keep track for you.

5.  Don't do this more than 3 times a week; in fact, I'd recommend only once or twice a week.  These get old very quickly!  And once the novelty wears off I suspect they could easily make one start dreading workout times.  You may want to alternate "official" Tabata intervals with adding other more flexible sprint intervals to your cardio workouts.

What Totally Sucks About Tabatas:


If you're doing them right, they get unpleasant rather quickly.  The ten second "recovery" period feels like two seconds.  You have to force yourself to pump harder and harder, even as your body is saying "Leave me the f@#ck alone goddamnit!"

Also, depending on where you work out, you may feel a bit conspicuous.  You will be flailing around, gasping, possibly grunting, and definitely cursing.  Doing Tabatas may make you look trendy in some settings but in others you may seriously freak people out.

What's Mind-Blowingly Fantastic About Tabatas


They are amazingly fast and efficient and gratifying.  You will feel SO damn smug when you're done!  They rev up your metabolism, blast fat, boost your mitochondria, and help you feel superhuman.  It's counterintuitive, but research suggests that somehow these super-short workouts also boost your endurance as well as your peak efforts.  They leave you with a lovely pumped-up feeling long after you're done.

Tabata Variations


You may find it easier to stick to Tabatas over the long haul if you can find ways to mix it up, either across workouts or even within a single workout. Charlotte has a great article featuring a bunch of Tabata variations over at Shape.  Or for the testosterone-soaked version, T-Nation has a big bad-ass list as well, including barbell, kettlebell and bodyweight variations.

I'm thinking if you have a workout partner, some sort of race, contest, or competition might add a bit of real-time motivation.  (Although pie-eating or beer drinking competitions are not highly recommended for this purpose).

Personally, I've experimented with spinning bikes, ellipticals, a stepper, and a dumbbell/bodyweight series of 4 exercises repeated twice.  They all were great!  And by "great" I mean, of course, excruciatingly awful.

Anyone else doing Tabatas or other sorts of HIIT?  Or does this all sound like crazy talk?

[And from our friends at Maxifuel: Need a boost to get through this intense workout? Try Maxifuel sports nutrition for the extra energy you need!]

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