Tabata vs. HIIT: What’s the Difference and Which Is Harder?

Tabata vs. HIIT: What’s the Difference and Which Is Harder?

In the fitness face-off of Tabata vs HIIT (high-intensity interval training), which takes the title for hardest workout? It’s a tough call.

First of all, “Tabata vs HIIT” is a questionable contest, as a Tabata workout is technically a form of high-intensity interval training.

To follow the Tabata workout protocol established and tested by its namesake scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata, you alternate between 20 seconds of maximum-effort work and 10 seconds of rest.

Make it through eight rounds, and you’ve just completed a workout proven to boost VO2 max and improve anaerobic capacity — in just four minutes.

But those four minutes of a Tabata workout can feel harder than the time you spend doing a typical 20- to 30-minute HIIT workout at home or in a group fitness class.

Here’s why.

Woman running on treadmill.

Tabata vs HIIT: Level of Effort

If you’re not pushing your limits during a Tabata workout, you’re not doing it correctly, says Saara Haapanen, M.S., a certified personal trainer and sports psychology Ph.D. candidate based in Denver, Colorado.

“You should be at maximum effort during the 20-second work phases,” she says. “You should want oxygen more than anything else by the end of the round. The exertion level should be maxed out!”

During a HIIT workout, the exertion level is high (between 75% and 85% of your max effort) but a bit more sustainable than that of a Tabata.

Rest is the other variable that differentiates Tabata workouts from other forms of HIIT training.

If you are working at your highest intensity, you would typically have a longer rest period to allow the body to replenish enough ATP and clear enough metabolic waste to allow you to produce the same amount of power during each interval, says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., BODi’s executive director of fitness and nutrition content.

That’s not the case with Tabata.

“You’re purposefully giving yourself insufficient recovery time,” adds Thieme. “That’s why you can pack an entire workout into just four minutes.”

Young woman doing home workout in living room

Tabata vs HIIT: Muscles Worked

In Dr. Tabata’s study, participants used mechanically braked cycle ergometers (stationary bikes), making the original Tabata a lower-body workout.

However, the Tabata protocol can be applied to almost any bodyweight exercise from squats to push-ups, and focus on almost any body part — or the entire body if you do a move such as a burpee.

But the key is you perform just one exercise for the entire four minutes.

The muscles you work during a HIIT workout will also vary depending on the workout design.

A HIIT workout packed with squats, lunges, and hip thrusts will tax the lower body, while a mix of kettlebell swings, dumbbell thrusters, and mountain climbers will work every major muscle group.

Tabata vs HIIT: Results

Both Tabata and non-Tabata HIIT training are ideal for busy people, as they’re both less time-consuming than the standard hour-long session of moderate-intensity cardio.

But you won’t find a quicker workout (with proven results) than a Tabata workout.

“The original study found that six weeks of Tabata training increased MAOD (anaerobic capacity) 19.4% and VO2 max by 4.7%,” Haapanen says. “That’s pretty good for less than five minutes a day.”

Tabata workouts can also ramp up your metabolism and help burn fat, she adds.

But the extra 20 minutes you spend on a HIIT workout may be worth your time, depending on your goals.

“You’ll burn more calories,” says Thieme, “and you benefit from a greater strength and muscle-building stimulus.”

Want to take a turn at Tabata and other forms of high-intensity training?

Check out Autumn Calabrese’s 9 Week Control Freak program, which includes Tabata workouts, strength complexes, and density training for a comprehensive approach to burning fat and building muscle.