HIIT or Tabata: Pick Your Poison

| Fitness

What is the difference between high intensity interval training (HIIT) and Tabata? This question is more common than you think, and that’s because these two workouts are very similar in sweat equity. Yet, if you were to go to a group fitness class for either workout, you would certainly notice a difference in rest times and work times as well as results. Either route you take, prepare to have your heart rate peak.

stopwatch workout

First, you need to understand the very basics of your body’s energy systems. A regular cardio workout like a power walk or jog will use your aerobic energy system, burning fat for energy. You can last 1-2 hours doing this type of work, like an endurance runner. If you push harder, your body shifts into an anaerobic system, which means there’s no way you can breathe in enough oxygen to transport to your muscles, so your body burns and breaks down carbs for energy. But this process won’t be sustained for long, usually 30 seconds to a few minutes depending on ability.

>> Read more: Beginner's Guide to Interval Training

Traditional Tabata is structured for a 4-minute work period, repeating the same exercise for 20 seconds then resting for 10 seconds. Ultimately, the 10 seconds feels shorter as you go and the 20 seconds seems to never end. By the end of the four minutes, you’ll have completed eight rounds of work. A solid Tabata workout can include up to five sets with five different exercises. During the workout, your heart rate will peak during the 20 seconds and slowly dip during the break. 

One very common variation of Tabata is rotating through multiple exercises in a four-minute working period rather than repeating the same one. This helps participants stay motivated and keeps the workout fresh. Most group fitness classes are structured this way, but blur the line between a circuit class and a true Tabata class. 

If you go to a HIIT class, you’ll notice your heart rate will peak just like it does in a Tabata class. However, the frequency and rate at which is peaks is much different. Click here for the best HIIT workouts for beginners to advanced pros!

In a HIIT workout, there is no traditional setup. Work periods and breaks are designed differently from workout to workout. You could have 30 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest for five minutes and then bust out two minutes of nonstop work followed by one minute of rest. Your heart rate might peak before the next person’s does during one exercise, but then stay in a lower zone while your neighbor’s peaks during a second exercise. It’s a personal experience.

>> Read more: Own Your Next Workout With Better Endurance

During a HIIT workout, you will always get close to your anaerobic threshold, the point at which your body produces more lactate than it can clear. It can only get there if you’re working within your anaerobic energy system. Your muscles require an energy source called ATP, which the body already stores, but then needs to create more of during high-stress times like HIIT workouts. Then your body has to replace whatever ATP was used and that replacement happens when you rest. This is work, and that means you are burning more calories at rest! It’s called an excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, effect.

Looking at the percentage of your maximum heart rate, or MHR, used during either of these classes, a HIIT workout will require approximately 85 percent of your MHR. During a Tabata workout, you need to aim for 75 percent or more of your MHR.

>> Read more: How To Find Your Target Heart Rate

The most effective way to get the EPOC effect is through a HIIT workout. It can last two to 12 hours depending on the individual. It’s important to understand a Tabata workout can also create this effect. But in a traditional Tabata workout, many participants work at a lower level to pace themselves.

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How often should you do these workouts? A HIIT workout should only be done two to three times per week with at least 24 hours of recovery in between. The recommended frequency for a Tabata workout is also two to three times per week, but with 48 to 72 hours of rest in between. Neither workout is more difficult than the other on paper; it truly depends on what the movements are and how fit you are.

The calories burned during either workout is almost negligible because of the amount of potentially burned calories afterward. This means you’ll want to work hard during those 20-30 minutes so your body can maximize the recovery period. Don’t you love science?

The bottom line is that the workouts are structured differently, but can provide the same type of result. The results depend largely on what type of exercises are included in the workout and how much effort the person puts into it. Consistently, HIIT provides a better workout with a larger EPOC effect. But you get what you give. Think of them as different means to the same end, so long as you give 100 percent.

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