Author: James O’Sullivan • Fact checked by: Gainful Registered Dietitians • May 19, 2022
In modern fitness, cardio-based workouts are some of the most popular in gyms and studios around the world. From small classes led by trainers to remote workouts streamed to home devices, it seems like innovation based on different kinds of cardio workouts is happening constantly.
Tabata workouts and HIIT workouts – also known as high intensity interval training – are two varieties that form the foundation for some of the most common cardio training programs available today. Both tabata and HIIT are types of interval training, which aims to boost your heart rate with bursts of high-intensity training followed directly by a period of rest. This also provides a high degree of calorie burn in a relatively short amount of time.
The biggest general difference between tabata and HIIT is that tabata training prescribes a specific interval with 20 seconds of high-intensity work periods followed by 10 seconds of rest. Both types can be beneficial for athletes and others who want to improve their endurance and burn calories quickly.
The tabata protocol was developed by a Japanese sports medicine researcher and coach Izumi Tabata, who studied at the Oslo Institute of Muscle in Norway and Washington University in St. Louis. While working as a coach for the Japanese Olympic speed skating team, Dr. Tabata found athletes made surprisingly great leaps in performance after training that involved short periods of intense effort followed by a short period of rest.
He went on to publish a paper in 1997 on the benefits of this type of cardio exercise for cyclists in both aerobic systems and anaerobic systems. In the years since, "tabata" has become synonymous with the 20-seconds-on, 10-seconds-off method of interval training. Tabata can be done with many different movements depending on your goals and experience level. For beginners, bodyweight exercises like push-ups, high knees, jumping jacks and jump squats are a great choice, since these movements can be started and stopped quickly.
A normal tabata workout involves eight of the 20/10 intervals for a total workout time of four minutes. That might not seem like a lot, but if done properly, you shouldn't feel like you have much energy left after just four minutes.
Because it requires a rapid transition between different speeds, tabata might not be best with cardio machines like a treadmill or stationary bike – although it can be adapted to almost any form of exercise.
High intensity interval training – commonly abbreviated as HIIT – is a more broad variety of workout that includes any type of interval with a certain amount of intense effort followed by a period of rest. HIIT has been around for a while, but has experienced a recent surge in popularity with the rise of spin and boutique cardio classes.
HIIT is valuable for a few different reasons. Research has shown that high intensity exercise is especially valuable for improving your metabolism even after you finish working out, due to a concept known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. The resulting increase in metabolism after your workout is also sometimes known as the "afterburn effect."
HIIT workout plans are also more efficient than steady state cardio exercise protocols, since they require less time. Studies have shown that higher intensity exercise can have the same beneficial effect on your VO2 max - or your body's oxygen capacity - in far less time than steady state training.
Finally, HIIT training has been linked to improvements in both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Studies showed an observable improvement in cholesterol after a combination of body fat reduction and eight weeks of HIIT.
Unlike tabata, which is usually done in a set form of intervals, HIIT can refer to a broad range of work and rest periods. Someone new to HIIT might start with a 30 seconds of work/1 min. rest interval, for example.
As mentioned, a big reason interval training like HIIT or tabata is preferable over steady-state cardio is efficiency. It might take you 45 minutes or longer to burn the same amount of calories as an all-out interval workout that lasts only 10 or 12 minutes.
HIIT is also preferable for those looking to increase aerobic capacity, or train their body to be able to use more oxygen as fuel. There is also evidence that connects high-intensity interval training with the production of important hormones like testosterone and others that play a role in muscle building and fat loss.
On the other hand, there are some reasons to prefer moderate intensity training over interval cardio. Beginners who haven't spent much time in the gym will probably want to start out with steady state cardio in the beginning, until they get more used to pushing their cardio system.
Also, HIIT and tabata can be relatively high-impact on the knees, feet and other joints. People with sensitivity in these areas may prefer the lower impact of moderate-intensity cardio activities. Finally, HIIT workouts that are performed with muscle-building activities like crunches, rows or push-ups can have the added benefit of helping you build strength and muscle mass. There is also evidence that higher intensity interval training can help you burn more fat than steady state, although this subject is hotly debated in the fitness community.
As mentioned, HIIT and tabata workouts are very similar, and neither is inherently better or worse. It's always best to discuss workout plans with a personal trainer, doctor or health provider before making any serious adjustments.
Because tabata is a bit more advanced, beginners may want to start off with HIIT before adopting the more intense 20 seconds on/10 seconds off interval. Whether you decide to go with tabata or HIIT, neither should be performed every day – especially if you're approaching time in the gym from a muscle-building perspective and looking to add mass. Tabata and other forms of high-intensity intermittent training are often best used as a way to switch up your normal fitness routine. This idea is especially important if you are used to doing moderate-intensity cardio exercise like walking at an incline or using an elliptical bike.
Training your cardiovascular system in any manner is valuable for improving your overall fitness and circulation. HIIT and tabata are two forms of interval training that will push you to your limits, but in return will help you torch calories, burn fat, and maintain healthier cholesterol levels. Depending on your particular goals, both tabata and HIIT can be valuable tools to help you maximize gains while minimizing the time you have to spend in the gym when compared to endless sessions on the treadmill or stair-stepper machine.
Continue to do your own research and make sure to consult with a professional to help you get expert advice on which form of cardio is right for your needs. With enough time and effort, you'll be able to create a customized cardio program that helps you achieve your specific fitness goals, whether you want to add muscle mass, lose fat or anything in between.
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