Your Guide To Tabata Vs. HIIT Workouts
Comparing the interval-based ways to sweat.
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is the go-to workout modality for anyone who likes to get their heart rate up, strengthen their muscles, and then move on with their day. It focuses on quick bursts of hard exercise — think burpees or jump squats — followed by brief moments of rest, meaning it packs a lot of punch into a short period of time.
Then there’s a branch of HIIT training that often gets conflated with the interval-based modality: Tabata. Tabata is a type of HIIT workout, but one that comes with its own, unique set of rules: A prescribed structure of 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times to create a four-minute round. So when you compare Tabata vs. HIIT, you’re talking about two very similar ways to sweat — but they each have subtle differences that set them apart.
For an example of a HIIT sesh, you might do a 50/15 workout: 50 seconds of work followed by 15 seconds of rest, says Carrie Hall, CPT, a certified personal trainer and co-owner of Fit Family Physical Therapy, but the exact interval times vary. Still, the overall goal of HIIT is to push yourself for the entire work period before focusing on recovery during your rest interval. (That’s when you’ll take deep breaths, march in place, or grab a sip of water.) Tabata also follows the philosophy of pushing hard before a timed (and brief) period of rest, but is more technical in terms of how its intervals are timed.
Here, fitness trainers explain the differences between Tabata vs. HIIT, including the unique benefits of each, so you can decide which one might be the best fit for you.
The Benefits Of HIIT
According to Hall, doing high-intensity interval training is akin to running sprints, where your body starts from rest and then works hard for a short period of time before recovering during the rest period. And this type of workout has been shown to contribute to improved cardiorespiratory endurance.
You’ll move through any number of staple strength training (or weight training) and/or cardio-based exercises during a HIIT workout, including mountain climbers, jumping lunges, and push-ups. While HIIT sequences are certainly challenging, the idea is that your body will eventually learn to better recover during the periods of rest with regular training, says Hall, so it’ll get easier. You’ll notice that everyday life gets easier, too, since you’re working on your strength and cardio endurance, aka engaging in functional training. (No more feeling out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs!)
For a traditional HIIT workout, you’ll want to give about 80 to 90% of your energy during each round. You’ll know you’re doing enough if your muscles “fail” by the end of the interval, says Danielle Gray, a certified personal trainer and founder of Train Like A Gymnast. In other words, you won’t want (or be able) to do another burpee or squat.
It’s why HIIT is such a great way to strengthen your muscles, especially when you add in resistance training through the use of a dumbbell or kettlebell (think weighted goblet squats or lunges holding dumbbells in each hand).
The Benefits of Tabata
The four-minute structure of Tabata is what makes it the perfect get-in-and-get-out type of workout for busy folks, without cutting corners. Since it’s a form of HIIT, you’re going to get all the same juicy benefits associated with this type of exercise, like improved cardiovascular health and strength, since the quick bursts demand that your heart works harder and adapts to physiological changes during your workout, Hall explains.
You’ll also notice muscular benefits associated with the moves you do. “Since Tabata refers to the timing and not a specific muscle group, the muscles it works depends on the exercises within the interval itself,” Hall adds. Do a bunch of jump squats, for example, and you’ll target your quads and glutes. Focus on mountain climbers and crunches, and you’ll hit the core. As Hall says, “This type of effort has potential to translate to strength gains that are not otherwise achieved with lower repetition and lower speed exercises.” And that’s because you’re working as hard as you can when completing those exercises.
One of the main perks of Tabata is that you’ll always know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, says ACE-certified personal trainer Kate Cherichello. It doesn’t matter which Tabata class you take: You’ll always do 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest for eight rounds of the same exercises, which is appealing if you don’t like surprises in your workouts.
Tabata Vs. HIIT
Traditionally, Tabata mostly focuses on cardio-based bodyweight exercises, meaning you’ll do moves like jumping jacks, high knees, crunches, push-ups, and lunges — no weights necessary. “This is great for those wanting to challenge themselves with explosive or plyometric exercises,” Hall says. It’s the explosiveness of each move that makes Tabata a better fit for folks further along on their fitness journey. That said, you can still incorporate weights into a Tabata workout — just expect even more intensity.
As far as benefits go, both Tabata and HIIT offer aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength) elements, so the two are great from an efficiency viewpoint. “They are the same in that they are both high-intensity classes with low intensity or rest intervals involved,” Cherichello adds. “Neither is steady-state and keep the same pace and similar heart rate throughout the workout.” As in: Your body won’t be bored.
That said, HIIT wins when it comes to flexibility and adaptability. “For example, an exerciser wanting to do a three-set interval could do 50 seconds of high-intensity resistance training, 30 seconds of maximum effort cardio training, then 10 seconds of recovery,” says Hall. Or you can put together intervals of exercises to work through over the course of an hour. In other words, you can essentially build your own HIIT workout with any kind of interval plus brief recovery period you'd like, whereas Tabata only consists of the standard 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off formula.
Moral of the story? Choosing between the two fitness modalities is like a sweaty build-your-own-adventure, and you can’t go wrong either way.
Martin-Smith R, Cox A, Buchan DS, Baker JS, Grace F, Sculthorpe N. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Improves Cardiorespiratory Fitness (CRF) in Healthy, Overweight and Obese Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Studies. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Apr 24;17(8):2955. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17082955. PMID: 32344773; PMCID: PMC7215828.
Tabata, I. Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods. J Physiol Sci, 69, 559–572 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12576-019-00676-7.
Viana RB, de Lira CAB, Naves JPA, Coswig VS, Del Vecchio FB, Gentil P. Tabata protocol: a review of its application, variations and outcomes. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2019 Jan;39(1):1-8. doi: 10.1111/cpf.12513. Epub 2018 Apr 2. PMID: 29608238.
Carrie Hall, CPT, certified personal trainer
Danielle Gray, certified personal trainer
Kate Cherichello, ACE-certified personal trainer