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HIIT vs. Tabata: What’s the Difference?

iFit Team

READ TIME:7 min.

Exercise enthusiasts have a lot on their plates. When it comes to highlighting the difference between HIIT exercises and Tabata exercises, the explanation needs to be as optimized as a HIIT workout itself. To break it down: HIIT—which is an acronym for high-intensity interval training—is an all-inclusive umbrella term that’s used to categorize 20- to 40-minute workouts that pair short stints of maximum-effort exercise with periods of low activity or rest. Tabata is a specific type of HIIT. It refers to a very exact formula: 20-second bursts of maximum effort, followed by rest for 10 seconds, repeated eight times, to create a four-minute circuit. It’s often recommended to repeat—or include a variety of—these four-minute blocks in order to hit that 20–40 minute range.

Woman using an iFit-connected elliptical during a HIIT workout

What are the similarities between HIIT and Tabata? 

Tabata is actually a form of high-intensity interval training, so there are many similarities between these training methods. Both rapidly spike and drop the heart rate by encouraging maximum exertion for short stretches of time, interspersed with periods of rest.

Both HIIT exercises and Tabata workouts are used to burn calories more quickly than traditional endurance workouts like walking, running, cycling, or rowing. Studies have shown that both HIIT and Tabata sessions boost endurance and speed while burning fat.

Neither HIIT nor Tabata workouts require that specific exercises be completed, so they are incredibly versatile, making them a favorite for at-home fitness enthusiasts and personal trainers. Either can be tailored to your desired focus, from muscle building to cardio. For instance, if you want to hone in on cardio efficiency, both HIIT and Tabata can incorporate kinetic kick-starters, like jumping jacks or squat jumps. More muscle-motivated? It’s easy to swap out cardio-centric moves for push-ups and kettlebell exercises. 

iFit trainer leads a Tabata workout

Do HIIT or Tabata workouts have shorter recovery periods?

The main difference between HIIT and Tabata is the recovery period. Tabata intervals always include 20 seconds of all-out efforts, followed by 10 seconds of recovery. (The work time is always double the recovery.) On the other hand, HIIT circuits are more versatile and have various recovery intervals based on the structure of the program and work-to-rest ratio that’s being performed (i.e. HIIT rest periods may be shorter or longer than the interval pushes). 

Who invented Tabata?

Tabata is the brainchild of Dr. Izumi Tabata, who developed the concept in 1996, alongside a fleet of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan.

Dr. Tabata was intrigued by the concept of a “miracle workout,” or the idea that a shorter fitness routine could produce more calorie burn than a longer fitness routine. To determine if such a workout existed, Dr. Tabata collected a crew of elite athletes and divided them into two groups. The control group worked out at a moderate intensity level consisting of five-hour-long workouts each week for six weeks. The experimental group increased their activity level to high intensity, which consisted of a four-minute, Tabata-style workout five times a week for six weeks. 

When the experiment ended, Dr. Tabata discovered that those athletes that had engaged in the Tabata-style workouts had elevated both their metabolism and anaerobic capacity (i.e. the amount of energy they were able to produce during a maximum-exertion, 20-second burst) at a greater rate than the control group.   

Man doing a HIIT workout using a iFit-connected treadmill

What are the benefits of Tabata exercises vs. the benefits of HIIT exercises?

The main difference between the benefits of Tabata and HIIT—and the key takeaway from Dr. Tabata’s 1996 study—is that Tabata boosts anaerobic fitness levels. In other words, Tabata increases an individual’s ability to produce more energy during high-intensity activity bursts, thereby making these intensity bursts easier to execute over time. Since Tabata increases the heart rate, other benefits include an elevated metabolism, a greater post-workout calorie burn, and an increase in lean muscle mass.

The benefits of HIIT are similar to Tabata but generally are accepted to be more moderate than those of Tabata. The benefits of HIIT include enhanced cardiovascular fitness, endurance, and stamina. HIIT can also aid in increased weight loss, reduced body fat, and increased strength. Blood pressure is also impacted, as HIIT can assist in decreasing blood pressure, lowering LDL cholesterol, and boosting HDL cholesterol—the “bad” and the “good” cholesterol, respectively.

Who should focus on Tabata workouts?

Woman does a HIIT workout using a iFit-connected bike

Given that Tabata workouts are generally more strenuous than HIIT workouts, they are best for those who have aspirations to pack an effective workout into a shorter time span. Tabata workouts are also recommended for beginners, especially when they’re modified. Rather than start with a full, 20-minute session, Tabata workouts can be pared down to a four-minute session or a few four-minute sessions.

While Tabata can be completed on a piece of equipment, like a treadmill or stationary bike, it is also an ideal form of exercise for those who don’t own any fitness equipment or have a home gym. Given the time constraints, the case can be made that Tabata is best executed equipment-free, using only your own bodyweight as a tool.  

Tabata is also a smart choice for those who prefer a highly structured workout. Especially for those who battle with motivation, curating your own 40-minute workout can be a challenge. Tabata’s regimented structure makes it easy to think of a workout in your head and stick to it, whereas HIIT workouts and associated work-to-rest intervals need to be planned ahead of time. 

Who should focus on HIIT workouts?

Those looking for a boot camp burn without the drill-like structure of Tabata will appreciate HIIT’s flexibility. At just 20 to 40 minutes, with two- to three-minute exertion intervals in between, HIIT workouts can be customized to incorporate multiple forms of exercise, ranging from bodyweight exercises to jumping rope. While Tabata’s 20-second intervals don’t leave much room for executing complex movements, HIIT’s comparatively long intervals allow you to integrate hybrid moves. Inspired to remix a pushup with a mountain climber? With HIIT, you can. Those who thrive by sprinkling in a little creativity at the gym will appreciate the variety that can be packed into these types of routines. 

Man using an iFit-connected elliptical during a Tabata workout

If you’ve taken the plunge and invested in a home gym or equipment, like a stationary bike, elliptical, treadmill, or rower, and you’d like to mix it into your routine, HIIT may also be a better fit than Tabata. It can be difficult to get into a workout on a rower or elliptical in just 20 seconds. HIIT allows you the time to build up an organic speed or cadence. If you want to take things up a notch, feel free to add a Tabata-dedicated circuit into your HIIT workout.

HIIT is also more likely to speak to those who crave longer recovery periods. If a 10-second breather just doesn’t cut it for you, or if you like to keep more of a pulse on your body throughout your workout by way of downtime, HIIT may be the better fit for you. 

Do you need equipment or a home gym to do HIIT or Tabata workouts?

Neither HIIT nor Tabata exercises require any tools. However, either can be partnered with fitness gear like dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, or jump ropes. Those who do want to factor in larger machinery, like treadmills and stationary bikes, may want to consider HIIT, as the longer activity intervals provide more time for you to settle into an effective rhythm on your equipment.

Woman does a HIIT class using the iFit TV app

Which Tabata exercises will give me the most effective workout?

Since Tabata is essentially a four-minute workout, engaging in exercises that target your whole body will theoretically yield the most transformative results. Remember: Increased muscle activation equates to increased caloric burn. High on trainers’ lists of full-body exercises are lunges, planks, push-ups, burpees, and squats. These movements will put multiple parts of your body into motion, giving you the most effective workout. 

The value of a legitimate warmup also can’t be overlooked when it comes to Tabata. When practicing, picture yourself like a sports car that accelerates from zero to 100 mph within 20 seconds. Keep your body calibrated (and thereby your workouts effective) by allocating time for an intense warmup session. Prepare your body for pending exertion by spending three to five minutes building some momentum with stand-in-place marches or get the blood flowing with some arm circles or standing squats.   

In contrast to the whole-body approach, if you plan on making Tabata a part of your core routine multiple times each week, switching up the sections of your body that you focus on can help drive results. A strength-focused Tabata workout one day, followed by an aerobic-oriented one the next, can also scale up the effectiveness of your workouts. 

HIIT and Tabata classes on iFit

Ready to give HIIT or Tabata a try? Remember that preparing your body for impact is critical with any kind of high-intensity interval training, so be sure to hydrate and loosen up those muscles before hitting the mat. Since a strict, 20-minute Tabata workout can be daunting for first-timers, ease into Tabata with this 30-minute workout that joins low-impact, strength-building sessions with hard-hitting Tabata intervals. The pace will recall more HIIT-oriented workouts while still providing you with that coveted Tabata burn. Try this iFit 30-minute Tabata workout now! 

Sign up for an iFit account to start a HIIT or Tabata class today!

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