The fitness industry is rife with buzzwords like toning, shaping, and core, among others. Nowhere is this truer than when using the words “tabata” and “HIIT.”

You’ve likely heard both terms used before whether in magazines, TV, or at your local gym. There are probably specific classes that surround those words as well.

Intense workouts

These words also seem to conjure up the thoughts of workouts that leave you really tired, or crawling out of the gym.

These two forms of training definitely tap into people’s need or want to feel like they got their butt kicked, that a workout isn’t a workout unless they are completely beaten down.

So what is tabata? What is HIIT?

Are they the same thing? Can be terms used interchangeably?

Before we even get into answering all those questions, let’s set the record straight right off the bat. You are not doing, nor will you probably ever do a true tabata.

The Tabata protocol was a research study done by Professor Izumi Tabata in 19961. In it, he pushed high level athletes to 170% of their VO2 max, which is crazy to think about.

What is VO2 max? It’s a measure of maximum oxygen that a person can take in and use measured in milliliters per kilogram of bodyweight per minute.

Whether you are doing HIIT or Tabata, you are aiming to influence VO2.

In other words, when you increase the effort during exercise, it’s going to lead to an increase in oxygen consumption to keep up with energy demands. But there is a limit or a maximum to that. Makes sense?

Now that we have that little physiology lesson out of the way, we can take a look at Tabata and HIIT.

Tabata workout

Professor Izumi Tabata’s experiment

He did an experiment with the Japanese speed skating team to see how effective short burst workout would be compared to longer, moderately intense workouts.

In his experiment, he had one group cycle at 70% of their VO2 max for 60 minutes while the other performed 20 seconds of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest for 8 rounds or 4 minutes.

This is what we know tabata to be today. Even the average gym goer has probably heard the word.

Results in oxygen uptake 

What resulted from this study is that the Tabata group showed improvements in anaerobic capacity AND oxygen uptake while the control group (70% VO2) showed improvements in oxygen uptake only.

On top of that, the rate of increase between the two groups was about the same when it came to oxygen uptake. So same results in a fraction of the time. Sounds great.

Here’s where the tricky part comes…

hiit tabata_2The fitness industry and tabata

The fitness industry has taken this experiment and made it that everything can be a tabata and achieve the results of this experiment.

However, not everyone is capable of pushing themselves to 170% of their V02 nor should you on a regular basis. You’d be wiped.

So in that sense, you are not doing a true tabata according to the protocol listed in his experiment. The thought is still there in pushing yourself as hard as you can.

What you are doing is likely a version of it based on the 2:1 work to rest ratio Professor Tabata used in his research.

The key to a tabata is intensity.

By the time you finish one, you should be wiped and 4 minutes should be all you need.

HIIT workout

I’ve mentioned HIIT at one time or another as it’s one of the biggest trends in fitness for the past couple of years.

Essentially what it is, is doing an exercise as hard as you can for a given amount of time, and then resting a certain amount of time.

As where the ratio of a tabata was a hard lined 2:1 ratio on work to rest, a HIIT workout can be any ratio you want depending on what you are trying to accomplish. 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, 1:2, etc all work for given amounts of time.

With HIIT workouts, they can be any form of exercise you want or even multiple exercises.

Tabata HIIT
Work 20 seconds Varies
Rest 10 seconds Varies
# of Rounds 8 Varies
Intensity Above 100% 80-95%
Energy System Anaerobic Anaerobic or Aerobic

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Tabata, I., et al. 1996. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28 (10), 1327–30.

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