While Tabata exercises were originally developed to enhance athletic performance, many people also use it for fat loss. But how effective is the Tabata method for burning fat and where did it come from?
What is Tabata?
The Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata developed these four-minute interval exercises for his national speed skating team in 1996. He believed this workout would build speed and endurance more effectively than other interval training or steady-state workouts.
In its original incarnation, Tabata exercises consisted of 20-second all-out sprints on a bicycle ergometer, followed by 10-second rest periods. Repeated eight times, for a total of four minutes. These sprints have to be truly maximal efforts—in the original study, the subjects sprinted at 170 percent of VO2max, meaning 170 percent of the maximum intensity that they could sustain over a distance.
The original method has been adapted to use other types of exercise instead of the bicycle ergometer. Perhaps the most popular variation involves outdoor running where trainees will sprint for 20 and rest for 10. The Tabata method can’t be effectively performed on a treadmill because it takes too long to change speed.
Tabatas can also be performed with a mix of different exercises to create a training circuit. For example, you might do a Tabata with push-ups, air squats, crunches, and jumping jacks. Perform the first exercise for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, move on to the next exercise, repeat eight times for a total of four minutes.
Tabata exercises are difficult but they allow you to get a superior workout in less time. Check out the Spartan version of Tabata on Day 5 of this week-long workout plan.
In the original 1996 study, the experimental group performed four-minute Tabata exercises four days a week and a steady-state workout once a week. The control group did steady-state workouts five days a week.
At the end of the six-week study, the experimental group had raised its VO2max—a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness—from 48 to 55 mL/(kg•min). The control group raised its VO2max from 52 to 57. The control group ended up higher, but started from a higher baseline. Whereas the Tabata group made greater gains in an absolute sense.
The thing is, it’s easier to make progress when you start from a lower baseline. When you first start running, you can shave 30 seconds off your mile time in the first week. A few years later, you might be struggling to improve your mile time by five seconds a month.
On the other hand, the Tabata group gained anaerobic capacity, while the control group didn’t. This shouldn’t be surprising—the group that sprinted got better at sprinting.
This reinforces the concept of exercise specificity—the type of exercise you do makes you not just better overall, but better at the thing you’re doing and things that are highly similar to it. In other words, sprint to get better at sprinting. Run long and steady to get better at endurance running.
Recent studies suggest that you can maximize your anaerobic capacity with fewer sprints and more rest time. The Vollaard regimen involves 10-minute workouts with two or three 20-second maximal-effort sprints, with several minutes of low-speed walking or cycling in between. A 2017 meta-analysis showed this to be just as effective as the Tabata method. However, this analysis only looked at studies of non-athletes. There is still a possibility that highly-conditioned athletes might need to perform a more grueling workout for maximum benefits.
How Much Fat Do Tabata Exercises Burn?
Fat loss is ultimately a matter of burning off as many calories as possible. How many calories you burn is mostly a function of how much work your body does. Work harder or longer, and you’ll burn more calories. The Tabata theory focuses on working harder to burn calories in a shorter period of time.
One study found that Tabata exercises burn 54 calories. That’s a lot for four minutes of movement, and the total is more like 60 calories with the “afterburn effect”. Still, it’s less than 100 calories. You can only do so much in four minutes.
If you're looking for the best fat loss, studies suggest doing a 20-minute Tabata exercise. That's four Tabatas with an extra minute of rest between them. This 2013 study found that the 20-minute Tabata-style workout burns between 240 and 360 calories in 20 minutes. Again, that’s really good for 20 minutes, but you could also burn more calories with a longer steady-state workout.
A Journal of Diabetes Research study comparing work-equated interval training and steady-state workouts (both workouts were calculated to burn the exact same number of calories) found that they both burned the same amount of fat in obese young women. The interval workout took half as much time but was more difficult.
A 2017 meta-analysis found that interval training—like Tabata—was superior to steady-state training for fat loss. However, the steady-state protocols included in the analysis were all 30–45 minutes long—and again, steady-state is easier than interval training. This leaves open the possibility—indeed, the likelihood—that a steady jog could burn more fat than Tabata by simply jogging for a longer time. Whereas doing high-intensity interval workouts for long periods of time isn’t always realistic.
The Bottom Line: Tabatas Are Good, But Not Miraculous
Tabata exercises are brutally difficult to perform as intended. If you lose the motivation to sprint all-out and start to slow down, you’re not doing a Tabata anymore and might as well switch to a less demanding exercise. If you want to burn as many calories as possible and aren’t concerned with doing it fast, then steady cardio can allow you to burn more. You’ll just have to work out longer.
Tabata exercises burn more calories per minute than any other training protocol, hands down. But you can only burn so many calories in four minutes. If your goal is to burn fat while making the most efficient possible use of your time, and you have the willpower to keep exercising when your whole body feels as if it’s on fire, a 20-minute “quadruple Tabata” workout is arguably your best option.