What is a tabata?

If spellcheck tells me one more time that tabata isn’t a real word, I swear. I just want to scream at those stupid squiggly red lines underneath it “Tabata is a real word!” I have the same problem with my last name…

But tabata is a real word! And it is a very real, very effective, very fun, and very exhausting workout.

Tabata timer

I was introduced to them a few years ago by my mentor/trainer back home. Initially, it was just another way for me to do beloved kettlebell workouts, but now we use them for practically everything. Jump roping, tire flipping, rope slamming, and (the dreaded) stationary biking – we can (and do) do it all. This is possible because the concept of the tabata is so versatile. Strength, cardio, conditioning. If you know a workout, you can make it a tabata.

So, really, what the heck is a tabata?

Simply put, it’s a timed interval workout. It has multiple work periods followed by shorter rest periods that all add up to one full workout. Traditionally, tabatas are four minute workouts, with 8 sets of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest.

The simple math : (20 sec. work + 10 sec. rest) x 8 sets = 4 minutes = 1 tabata workout

tabata timer

both photos lovingly taken on my laptop via screenshot

While I would love it if I did a four minute workout and called it quits, the little voice in my head (that sounds oddly like my trainer sometimes) says I can do more. I typically shoot for about 4 – 6 sets of tabatas for a total of a 20 – 30 minute workout, including rest times. The kicker is that, if I did my job and worked really hard and put forth effort, I’m wiped after those 20 minutes. I’m sweating, my muscles are quivering, and my lungs are burning.

The really cool thing though, is that tabatas are totally customizable. Longer work period, more sets, shorter workout – it can all be done with a tabata timer. I typically use this tabata timer online, but it’s got a downloadable app that’s nifty because you can create playlists and have music to play along with workouts (though, be forewarned that it tends to repeat songs throughout the workout and I don’t know why).

Tabatas are time effective, keep my body guessing, keep me from getting bored, and are fun. I’ve started creating my own tabata workouts for kettlebelling by combining some of my favorite moves in sets or choosing to focus on specific body parts for four minutes at a time. I have jump rope and TRX tabatas written down too. Because, again, you can make virtually anything a tabata.

Here’s the KB tabata workout I’m slated to do tomorrow. I’ll be using 20, 35, and 50 pound bells.

20 Minute Kettle Bell Tabata Workout

Tabata 1

  • Two-handed Swing
  • High Pull – left hand
  • Goblet Squat
  • High Pull – right hand

*repeat 2x*

Tabata 2

  • Lunge to Clean – right leg
  • Halo
  • Alternating Dead Snatch
  • Lunge to Clean – left leg

*repeat 2x*

Tabata 3

  • Alternating-hand Swing
  • Muy Thai Knees – right side
  • Clean and Press – left hand
  • Bulgarian Split Squat – right leg
  • Muy Thai Knees – left side
  • Clean and Press – right hand
  • Bulgarian Split Squat – left leg
  • Alternating Elbow Strikes

Tabata 4

  • Windmill
  • Two-handed Swing
  • Inverted Farmers Walk
  • Sumo Squat to Upright Row

*repeat 2x*


*If you’re an avid or novice kettlebeller, you’ll probably recognize a lot of these moves. If you’re not, then Google them, because there’s no way I’d be able to explain them 🙂

And there you have it! A crash course in the wonders that are tabatas! I highly suggest you give them a shot the next time  you’re looking to ramp up your workout routine!

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