Find Your Fit: What is Tabata?

Jake Newby

| 5 min read

Twenty second workout bursts may not seem so physically taxing when you know a 10-second break is on the way. But by the third or fourth round of this pattern, even the biggest endurance buffs are doubled over trying to catch their breath.
The timing-based workout described here is called Tabata, a member of the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) family. Named after the Japanese scientist who created it for the benefit of the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating team in the early 1990s, Tabata training requires no equipment. Classes can be weight-based or include no weights at all. Some incorporate a full circuit of workouts.
Tabata classes are based around the same time-based interval system; eight intervals of 20-second exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a four-minute round (there is one minute of recovery after each round). Keil-led classes repeat this cycle for eight rounds.
“It doesn’t have to be necessarily all cardio or all weights. You set the clock and you work for 20 seconds; you rest for 10. Work for 20 seconds; rest for 10, and there’s eight rounds” explained Kim Keil, owner and trainer at The Training Room Brighton, which hosts up to three Tabata classes per week. “You can pick to do the same exercise for eight rounds, or you or you can change it between multiple exercises – or like a circuit – if you feel like that will switch it up and make it more exciting for everybody.”
Keil’s Tabata classes are heavy on the cardio because her gym sprinkles in strength training classes during other points of the week. A circuit-based Tabata class might look like a handful of participants jumping from a slam station to a kettlebell station to a burpee station to a battle rope station, etc., etc.
“A class without equipment might be like burpees for the first 20 seconds of the eight rounds, then squats for the next 20 seconds. Then back to burpees, then back to squats,” Keil said. “It would rotate.”

What are the benefits of Tabata?

Keil’s Tabata classes last between 50 and 60 minutes, which can lead to more than 800 calories burned depending on body weight. A small study consisting of 16 subjects found that participants burned an average of 15 calories per minute.
Tabata’s high-intensity nature is all about building endurance. Tabata can improve a person’s aerobic capacity, which is the maximum amount of oxygen the body uses while working out. A healthy aerobic capacity boosts performance and allows muscles to receive a healthy flow of oxygen to the blood, which aids recovery. A study conducted by Dr. Tabata himself resulted in a pair of participants who did Tabata training for six-to-12 weeks increasing their aerobic capacity by 9 to 15%. 
“I use Tabata – and I look at it as a trainer – as an exercise that gets heart rates up,” Keil said. “I use it as a HIIT cardio workout.”
This aerobic capacity benefit is in addition to the upper and lower body muscles participants work during all those intense 20-second workouts. 
“The cool thing with Tabata that a lot of my members like about it, is the class goes by really fast,” Keil said. “They always say the 20 seconds seems so long and the 10 seconds go so fast. Then, before you know it, it’s over. It is a tiring class, but it does go by very fast.”

Modifications for Tabata newcomers

Keil asks newcomers to inform her whether they have health conditions, so she can adjust accordingly during instruction. She said she’s cognizant of making sure beginners start slow, even if they resist that notion. And some have.
“I will force some of my newcomers to avoid doing as much as the people who have been there for a long time,” Keil said. “Some people push back. But it can be very dangerous. I know it may hurt people’s feelings or egos when I say, ‘that’s enough for the day,’ but that’s how we keep everyone safe. Pushing someone as hard as a class member who has done it every week for two years is not smart whatsoever.”
Tabata is generally safe for people of all ages and fitness levels, though some folks may need to make modifications. An example of a Tabata modification, Keil said, is instead of completing a full burpee, a person should have a bench in front of them so they can drop into the push-up portion of the burpee by touching the bench instead of going all the way down to the floor.
“It’s modifying the exercise to make the exercise a little bit easier,” Keil added.

How Tabata classes foster friendships and accountability

It’s not uncommon for class-based exercise regimens to forge longtime friendships. Keil has witnessed this over and over in her time as a trainer, specifically with Tabata and the early-morning members on her Training Room Brighton weekly schedule. She calls them “the 9 a.m. girls.”
“We’ve just created this gym family that I really wanted from the beginning,” Keil said. “The 9 a.m. girls, from Monday through Friday, it’s a great group of people that pretty much know everything that’s going on in everyone’s life. Before class starts, you’ll hear things like, ‘what happened with that doctor’s appointment yesterday?’ ‘What happened with your kids?’ We go to lunch, we text. We’re close.”
Keil joked that she has to sometimes “kick the girls in the butt” to get class started. There’s the accountability factor, too, which Keil has seen play out repeatedly in her classes.
“If you don’t show up and you’re like, ‘oh I’m not feeling it today,’ there’s that guilt,” Keil said. “It’s like, ‘this person’s going to ask me where I was yesterday.’ They hold each other accountable. I love that about our place, and I think a lot of gyms are like that. Because you’re spending a lot of time with these people if you’re committed to going to the gym and having a gym routine every week.”
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