They are both popular forms of cardio.
But in a battle of Tabata vs HIIT, who wins when it comes to fat loss results?
Which form should you focus on?
Today, I’ll be putting each method through it’s paces and showing you which training protocol comes out on top overall.
In order to do this, let’s first take a look at the subtle differences between them.
I’ll also show you a mistake everyone – and I mean everyone – makes when performing HIIT.
What Is HIIT?
High intensity interval training is based around manipulating your heart rate.
It’s been shown to be almost 9x more effective for burning fat versus regular cardio. (1)
HIIT revolves around two aspects:
- short bursts of maximum intensity exercise
- interspersed with longer phases of moderate intensity recovery
Although there are various approaches to this style of training, studies confirm that interval bouts of 30 seconds followed by recovery phases of 3-4 minutes generally produce optimal fat loss results. (1, 2)
In fact, a 2011 study from Nebraska University found that performing HIIT with bursts of a maximum of 30 seconds even outperformed intervals lasting as long as 3 minutes. (3)
The “mistake” I briefly mentioned above involves the rest period which follows every burst.
Rather than succumbing to the age-old habit of restricting your rest period – i.e. the popular approach of “I’m gonna try to do a burst every minute” – try making your recovery periods more of a priority.
By allowing a full recovery between each burst, you’ll ensure every HIIT burst is done at your maximum ability, as opposed to still being gassed from the previous one.
You may find that you perform less intervals overall, but they will be of superior quality.
This is vital to maximizing results with HIIT, as those short intense bouts are where the gains are made.
The vast majority of studies performed on HIIT also suggest that the optimal total workout time for fat loss should be around 30 minutes. (1, 2, 3)
This means, if following science, your high intensity interval training session should look a little like this:
- total workout time around 30 minutes
- intervals working as hard as you can for 10-30 seconds.
- recovery phases of 3-4 minutes between each interval unless you’re at a fitness level which allows you to take less and still reach your maximum ability.
What Is Tabata?
In 1996, the much publicized Tabata principle arrived on the scene.
It was first published in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
You may know it as one of any of the following names:
- the Tabata method
- the 4 minute workout
- the 20/10 workout
Regardless of the name, it’s a highly effective training principle.
During the study in question, professor Tabata and his team were working with a group of highly trained athletes.
They were put through a workout consisting of the following stipulations:
- total workout length of 8 minutes*
- 20 seconds at maximum intensity
- 10 seconds recovery
* yes, despite the fact it’s often been touted as a 4 minute workout, the original Tabata principle was actually 8 minutes.
The results were astonishing, and sent shockwaves through the fitness industry.
Despite being only 8 minutes, the VO2 max – the best measure of cardiovascular fitness levels – soared by an average of 28% across the board! (4)
What is perhaps even more impressive is that the group of trainees in this study were elite athletes.
When you are near the peak of your ability in any sport, gains are understandably smaller and harder to come by.
Think of a bodybuilder striving to add an extra 1/4 inch to his arms, or a sprinter trying to shave 1/10th of a second from his fastest time.
To obtain VO2 max improvements of 28% here is incredible.
While fat loss was good, this seems to suggest that – for highly trained individuals, at least – shortened recovery periods are a great way of boosting cardiovascular fitness.
This gives the Tabata method the very unusual distinction of being an excellent principle for those partaking in distance running or other endurance events, despite being the exact opposite of an endurance event.
Now, a lot of people in gyms perform Tabata incorrectly.
It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of using this 20/10 approach for 15, 20 or even 30 minutes.
The Tabata method was designed for you to work so hard in those 20 second bursts that an 8 minute blast was enough to see you completely smashed.
To put it into context, it provided a nightmarish workout to elite athletes.
Sure, you could prolong the session by going “slightly hard” in the 20 seconds, resulting in a much longer workout.
But that’s not the Tabata method, it’s HIIT.
And, as pointed out above, if you wanted to perform HIIT you’d see optimal fat loss by taking adequate recovery phases between each burst.
Tabata Vs HIIT – Who Wins?
In truth, it’s not really a battle at all.
Because although both methods are effective for burning fat – and you can definitely see results with either if you are consistent – the Tabata style has never been shown to produce greater fat loss results than HIIT.
However, it is still an approach I’ll have my clients use as a secondary part of their fat loss regime.
Because the crossover benefits you can reap from increasing your VO2 max through Tabata training will help you to improve your performance in any other type of training you do, too.
Meaning when you lift weights or do regular HIIT, you can go slightly harder.
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1. Trembalay, A., et al. “Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism.” Metabolism, 1994; 43(7): 814-8.
2. Lemon, P. W., et al. ” Run sprint interval training improves aerobic performance but not max cardio output.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jan;43(1):115-22.
3. Zuniga, J. M., et al. “Physiological responses during interval training with different intensities and duration of exercise.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; May 2011; 25(5): 1279-1284.
4. Tabata, I., et al. “Effects of moderate intensity endurance and high intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2 max.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.