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Tabata, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and interval training are all terms thrown around the fitness scene. These terms are often used interchangeably and sometimes incorrectly, even by fitness professionals.
What’s the difference between these workouts and which one might be right for you? Let’s take a look at the science, the pros, the cons, and the bottom line.
Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free people! Read the full disclaimer.
Tabata vs. HIIT vs. Interval Training
Tabata and HIIT are forms of interval training. But interval training alone does not make a workout Tabata or HIIT.
Stay with me, let’s break this down a little further.
Tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). The HIIT concept isn’t new to athletes but is gaining popularity in the mainstream fitness world, and you’ve likely heard of it in passing.
HIIT style workouts claim to burn more fat and calories in a shorter period of time, increase your metabolism, boost heart health and endurance, and other enticing headlines that get you to click.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, yes and no.
It depends on how you implement these programs, what’s right, and what’s right for you.
What’s the science?
To fully understand the HIIT phenomenon, we need to understand a few science terms first.
This word might give you visions of colorful leotards, but in this case, aerobic exercise means with oxygen. The demand for oxygen hasn’t exceeded the amount of oxygen the body can take in.
The aerobic energy system uses fuel sources such as carbohydrates, fats, and protein to break down into energy.
Low to moderate exercise intensities, as well as every day life activities use this energy pathway.
The aerobic system produces a lot of energy, but it at a slower pace. So what happens when you need a lot of energy, and fast?! Enter, the anaerobic system.
The anaerobic system provides short bursts of intense energy. The demand for energy has exceeded the amount of oxygen the body can take in, so the body turns to the anaerobic system to quickly convert carbohydrates into energy.
The anaerobic system can make energy quickly, but it can’t make that much at one time, therefore it’s not sustainable for longer periods (think sprinting). HIIT relies on getting to this training zone to reap the benefits.
Your body switches between the aerobic and anaerobic systems behind the scenes during workouts based on intensity and energy demands.
Excess post-exercise consumption – EPOC
Also known as the afterburn effect, this is a significant selling point of HIIT workouts.
The more intense the workout, the more oxygen your body requires to recover. In theory, you will continue to burn calories for some period of time following exercise.
Do I think EPOC exists? Yes, because I’ve read the science.
But I also think it’s somewhat oversold. (I’m just saying, the math will be different from person to person based on numerous factors.)
Let’s be honest; the fitness industry loves to take science out of context, not give you the full story, and sell you literally anything to make money. I love this article from Breaking Muscle, which digs deeper into the science of EPOC – a must-read.
The research also shows that EPOC varies considerably based on a multitude of individual factors in addition to the intensity one put into the workout.
So this is why you can’t believe the ad at the gym for a new program telling you, “this class will burn 1000 calories!” There’s usually a little asterisk next to that 1000 with some fine print, but who looks at that?!
And also, why you can’t ask the person next to you with a heart rate monitor how many calories they burned and think it’s the same for you.
Or believe it when the instructor says, “You’ll keep burning calories for the next 48 hours after this workout!”
The takeaway, if you’re counting calories, anything is a welcome bonus, but I wouldn’t bank on someone else’s numbers because we’re all different. Just focus on getting a good workout.
In 1996, Dr. Tabata tested a HIIT protocol on college-aged physically active males after witnessing improvements in performance with elite Japanese speed skaters using high-intensity interval training.
The protocol consists of:
- 20 seconds of high-intensity work
- 10 seconds of rest
- Repeat for 8 rounds (a total of 4 minutes)
Long story short, there were two groups and a stationary bike. One group did moderate-intensity cardio for 60 minutes at 70% VO2max (a fancy measure of oxygen uptake during exercise as a means to measure the intensity and aerobic capacity) five days per week.
The high-intensity group did the 4 minute Tabata workout with the work phase at 170% VO2max five days per week. One day per week, the high-intensity group did 30 min of moderate-intensity prior to the 4 minute workout. (170% VO2max is crazy intense, for those of you tracking that.)
After 6 weeks, the study found that the group that did the 4 minute high-intensity workout had improved aerobic and anaerobic capacity versus the group that did moderate-intensity cardio for 60 minutes.
Here’s where the wheels fall off the bus. Don’t interpret that as wow so I only have to exercise for 4 minutes and get the same results?! Or the opposite, if 4 minutes is good 60 must be better!
And if it works for cycling, it must work if we substitute other exercises in there too. Not so fast.
Then the idea gets kicked around the fitness world; people get cute and change the exercises but still try and say you will get the same results because it’s Tabata! Yeah, but you changed it, so, like, it’s not.
Tell me more…
The original research was reliant on the intensity of the work phase. 170% of VO2max is exceptionally intense, higher than many people can safely physically attain (or want to). Because you have to like what you do for fitness, right?
It was also tested with cardio on a stationary bike in a lab with lots of fancy equipment.
My point is, the mixed bag of YouTube results for “Tabata workout” where half of the workout is strength exercises or laying down doing crunches, will not deliver similar results. No matter how many bridges you do, your heart rate isn’t getting near that zone.
Exercises such as high knees, squat jumps, sprint intervals, and skaters will get you closer to the goal of high-intensity. Keep this in mind when searching for videos if you want that high-intensity experience.
Now before anyone gets excited, there’s isn’t anything wrong with doing 20:10 intervals of strengthening exercises or even something like crunches. After eight rounds, you’ll probably get some intense muscle fatigue. But what it won’t do is deliver the same results. It’s more like Tabata-inspired.
What how is HIIT different?
HIIT alternates between intense (80-95% of your max heart rate) efforts of work and rest. The intervals are not specifically 20:10. There isn’t a set ratio, but it may be 30:60, 30:30, or some other ratio.
There also isn’t a set time, however usually 30 minutes is the max. The longer the training, the less intense the intervals. It’s physically impossible to work those energy systems for long periods of time if you’re getting into that high-intensity anaerobic zone.
If you’re newer to HIIT, start with more extended rest periods and adjust the ratios as your fitness level improves.
Don’t know where to start? Check out the HIIT workouts on Aaptiv, a guided audio workout app that you can take anywhere!
What is interval training?
Both Tabata and HIIT are based on maximal effort during the work cycle to get into that anaerobic zone.
Interval training is simply exercising at different levels of intensity, but not specifically high-intensity. Work and rest ratios may also be longer.
Moderate intensity does not carry the same EPOC benefits that high intensity does.
Interval training might be suitable for those looking to work at a more moderate level.
How do I measure my intensity?
There are three easy ways to measure your intensity to make sure you’re getting the most benefit from HIIT style workouts: heart rate monitoring, perceived exertion, and the talk test.
Read this article for more information on how to monitor your heart rate during exercise by taking your pulse.
You can also use a heart rate monitor. Keep in mind many factors can alter the reading on your heart rate. The most accurate readings come from using a chest strap to monitor. (My favorite is Polar!)
Perceived exertion is how hard you think you’re working. This is usually measured on a 1-10 scale, 1 being extremely light and 10 being hardest work. Moderate intensity falls around 4-6. High-intensity is considered 7-9+.
The other super-easy way is by using the talk test. At low intensities, it should be very easy to talk. At moderate intensities, it should be more difficult to carry a conversation as your heart rate rises. At high-intensities, it will be difficult to manage more than a few words.
Pros/Cons of Tabata and HIIT workouts
- Ability to increase your heart rate quickly
- Useful when you’re short on time
- Option to vary fitness routines
- Perform anywhere
- No equipment necessary
- May be useful for weight loss
- Improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness vs. only performing steady-state cardio.
- Can be a great addition to an already existing training program, eg, for runners or other athletes as part of a cross-training plan.
- EPOC, increase in metabolism
- Increased risk for injury: quick movements, and transitions can be challenging to maintain proper form.
- In some studies, participants cited HIIT as less enjoyable than steady-state cardio.
- Although Tabata is touted as a 4 min workout, you still need to warm up. Going from zero to all out intensity increases your risk for injury.
- You can’t get a well-rounded fitness program in 4 min.
- Not everything labeled “Tabata” is Tabata (or HIIT). Know what to look for to weed out poorly structured workouts.
- The words “high-intensity” can be deterring to some who feel their fitness is not at a high enough level or that level of intensity is not safe for them.
- High levels of intensity are not for everyone, especially beginners. If high intensity is not your thing, you can still incorporate interval training at lower intensities – remember just move!
Key takeaway points
If you’ve read this far, I’m going to assume you have a genuine interest in making good fitness choices, here are some key takeaway points from this value packed article.
Evidence suggests interval training, including HIIT and Tabata protocols, can improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity over steady-state cardio in less time. These workouts have the potential to reap benefits such as improved fat burning, improved metabolism, etc. if they are performed at the right intensities. Always listen to your body.
There may be a place for one of these workouts in your routine based on individual needs, but not everything is great for everyone, so choose wisely to avoid injury. There are many different types of HIIT protocols, so you might have to dig a little deeper to determine the ones that work for you.
Understand the science behind why and how often you should use these workouts for results, not just “it’s popular right now.” The optimal prescription for HIIT workouts is 2-3x per week in your fitness routine. Adding more may increase your risk of injury. Incorporate these workouts as part of a well-rounded fitness routine.
The best workouts are the ones you will look forward to doing, so if high-intensity doesn’t interest you, the likelihood of sticking with a program, in the long run, is reduced. Interval training at lower intensities or steady-state cardio might be more your vibe.
Just keep moving!
P.S. – Don’t forget to check out my value packed Resource page, where you can find where you can find information about products and free resources around the web that I mention in my articles, all in one place.
What are your thoughts on Tabata, HIIT, and interval training workouts? Leave a comment below!
Featured image credit: Nandux / bigstockphoto.com
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