by: Yuri Elkaim

5 Mistakes Most People Make When Doing Tabata Intervals

In case you haven’t heard, long cardio workouts on the treadmill are over. For good.

At least, they are if you want to see real results when it comes to fat loss.

If you’ve read any of my previous pieces on cardio, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and the reason is simple:

Because it works.

HIIT is any workout that involves alternating between period of high intensity exercise and low intensity exercise. These alternations are performed in “bursts.”

For example, a very basic HIIT workout might involve sprinting for 15 seconds, walking for 25 seconds, then repeating for a total of 15 to 20 minutes or so.

Studies show that these types of workouts are significantly more effective than steady state cardio for fat loss. Why? Because they increase your metabolism for hours after your workout.

This effect is referred to as excess-post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC (we’ll just call it afterburn). It’s a gold mine when it comes to burning more calories over the course of your days.

Just how much can HIIT increase our metabolism, you ask?

One study found a 4.2 percent boost in metabolism after high-intensity resistance workouts. It resulted in “significantly elevated” fat oxidation over a 16-hour period (1).

Another found that out of two groups – one performing regular aerobic exercise and another performing HIIT exercise – the aerobics group burned 48 percent more calories per session than the HIIT group. But here’s the kicker: the HIIT group burned 900 percent more fat over the 15 weeks than the first group burned in 20 weeks (2).

What kind of HIIT workouts can we do, aside from sprinting, that produce these kind of results?

Tabata Intervals

One fantastic way is through tabata workouts.

Tabata was created in the late 1990s by Irisawa Koichi, the head coach of the Japanese Olympic speed skating team, and was later tested by his training coach, Izumi Tabata.

It originally used a cycle ergometer for its intervals, but any exercise that produces a high level of intensity can be substituted.

Tabata intervals look like this:

  • 20 seconds of all-out effort
  • 10 seconds rest
  • Repeat for 8 cycles through, or a total of four minutes

At this point, one can either stop the workout here or rest for a minute or two, then repeat the four minutes.

Like HIIT, tabata has been proven to be effective for fat loss and improving cardiovascular performance (3). However, before getting into tabata workouts, there are several mistakes many people make that need to be addressed.

Below we’ll take a look at these, then follow up with some sample tabata workouts for you to try.

5 Mistakes People Make when doing Tabata Intervals

1. Not Pushing Hard Enough

tabata-interval-mistakes-not-pushing-hard-enough

This is the number one mistake most people make when they do tabata workouts.

Remember how we spoke about intensity earlier? Here, doing high knees at a moderate pace is not the kind of intensity we need when trying to get the most out of tabata.

Simply put, you shouldn’t be able to talk and should definitely be very out of breath during a tabata workout. You should be pushing yourself, frankly, at about 110 percent effort.

This is why I recommend increasing your fitness level with beginner-style bodyweight moves in HIIT workouts before attempting a true, full-out tabata workout. Your heart rate will be very high, so your system needs to be able to tolerate this level of intensity.

The reason you need to push so hard during tabatas is because it’s truly the only way to get the maximum results you’re looking for in such a short period of time.

Studies show that there is a direct correlation between the intensity of the exercise performed and your results, with the best results coming from strenuous resistance exercise performed in bursts (4).

In terms of fat loss results, one study from the University of New South Wales Medical Sciences found that HIIT burned three times more body fat than steady-state cardio.

Scientists studied two groups that exercised following different protocols. The group who sprinted on a bike for 8 seconds, followed by 12 seconds light exercise for a total of 20 minutes, lost 2.5 kg of fat. Meanwhile, the other group, who exercised at a continuous, steady pace for 40 minutes, showed no loss of fat (5).

If that isn’t motivation to push a little harder, I don’t know what is!

2. Not Using Weights

tabata-interval-mistakes-not-using-weights

Tabata intervals are classified as a cardiovascular workout, which keeps many from doing anything but traditional cardio exercises.

This is a huge missed opportunity to up your fat-loss game while still getting an aerobic workout.

This is because high-intensity interval training using weighted resistance has been proven to be superior to regular cardio for fat loss, not to mention that little thing called “afterburn” we talked about earlier (6).

Kettlebells might be your best bet when we talk about adding weight to tabata workouts, since they’re easily maneuverable. Think about integrating exercises like kettlebell swings, cleans, thrusters, and renegade rows into your intervals to boost fat burn and build muscle.

3. Believing Tabata Must Be High Impact

tabata-interval-mistakes-thinking-it-has-to-be-high-impact

While high-impact moves like jump squats are a fantastic way to get your heart rate up quickly while also building muscle, your entire tabata workout doesn’t have to be filled with them.

Low-impact moves like pull-ups, kettlebell swings, and walking lunges holding heavy dumbbells will get your heart rate rocking. Cycling is also an option as long as the resistance is cranked up enough that you’re really pushing.

Heck, even swimming can be turned into a tabata workout provided you push hard enough.

4. Not Enough Recovery

tabata-workout-mistakes-not-enough-recovery

If you haven’t realized it yet, tabata workouts are extremely intense when you’re doing them correctly.

It’s because of this intensity that most people see quick results. Unfortunately, this leads to the mindset of “more is better,” which makes people start to favor tabata workouts over everything else in order to see even more results.

You should really think twice before doing this, as it can quickly become too stressful on the body. At best, you might see great results for a while, while at worst you’ll become injured, extremely fatigued, or thoroughly burnt out.

Instead, incorporate tabata 1 to 2 times per week as a way to shake up your workout routine and boost cardiovascular performance and fat loss. You can also use a tabata as a “finisher,” like those found in this post, to your regular workouts a couple times a week for an extra fat-burning boost.

Trust me, if you’re doing true tabata, you will still see the results you want (provided your diet and the rest of your workout schedule is efficient, of course).

5. You’re Using a Treadmill

tabata-workout-mistakes-using-a-treadmill

While I will always stand by the idea that any type of movement is better than no movement at all, there are ways you can get subpar results from your workouts. This is especially true when it comes to tabata.

One of the biggest ways to derail your tabata workout is to use a treadmill for your intervals.

The reason treadmill sprinting is a bad idea when doing tabata is simply because the active intervals are too short for a machine.

Think about it: how many seconds does it realistically take for a treadmill to get up to a sprint-level speed? Five to 6 seconds, right?

This may seem like nothing during a regular interval-style workout, but when you only have 20 seconds to go “all-out,” followed by a mere 10 seconds of rest, 5-6 seconds of additional rest time waiting for the treadmill interferes with your entire tabata setup.

Not to mention, trying to jump on and off the treadmill every half minute and sprint at full speed can lead to literal trips and injury, as there’s no real time to be mindful of how you’re moving.

This is why you would be far better off using a jump rope, sprinting on the ground, or even doing kettlebell swings for “cardio” tabata intervals, since you can go straight into them without delay.

Samples of How to Do Tabata Intervals

Below are two tabata workouts to get you started. One doesn’t use any weights and relies on a sprinting approach, while the other will integrate weights and full-body moves to get you feeling the burn.

Warm Up

Before we start, it’s important to always, always, warm up before leaping into a high-intensity workout.

Since the movements are usually quick and intense, not doing so can put intense strain on “cold” muscles, possibly causing a muscle or tendon injury.

Perform at least five minutes of a dynamic warm up that includes bodyweight lunges, squats, push-ups, and some light stretching to get your blood circulating before trying these tabata workouts.

Tabata with Weights

Note: Beginners should stick to bodyweight exercises until they improve their fitness levels enough to add weight and increase the intensity of their tabatas.

Keep in mind that you can do both of these workouts two different ways.

The first way is to do a short, four-minute tabata finisher using just one of the exercises listed below. Or, you can perform all four exercises for four minutes with 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest, which would give you about a 20-minute workout, including the rest periods.

  • Kettlebell Swings (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)
    • One minute rest
  • Goblet Squat with Kettlebell (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)
    • One minute rest
  • Renegade Row (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)
    • One minute rest
  • Jump Rope with High Knees (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)

Cardio Burn Tabata

  • Mountain Climbers (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)
    • One minute rest
  • Jump Rope with High Knees (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)
    • One minute rest
  • Burpees or Walking Lunges (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)
    • One minute rest
  • Jump Squats (4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest)

Tabata Protocol to Burn Fat

Congratulations if you completed even one round of a four-minute tabata full-out – they truly are no joke when it comes to intensity!

Again, add in a couple tabatas to your routine a week, and you will notice an increase in performance and fat loss.

Speed Burst Workout

Want a FREE interval training workout?

Get the ultimate follow-along interval cardio workout to burn more fat and improve your cardio endurance in just 5 minutes.

It’s a $19 value, but you can get the Interval Speed Burst Workout at no cost right now … Just click the banner below for an instant download.

Click here to subscribe

Yuri Elkaim

Yuri Elkaim

Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.