Workout Wednesday: Getting My Cardio On With Tar Heel Tabata

By Emily Wheeler

Twenty seconds on, ten seconds off.  Twenty seconds on, ten seconds off.  One minute down. Repeat four times.  This is Tabata.

Last semester, I developed a love for yoga, and started doing it regularly enough to consider it my main form of exercise (other than walking miles back and forth across this campus every day…).  Between the yoga and participating in the Women on Weights specialty fitness class, as the semester came to a close I realized that it had been weeks since I had regularly done any sort of intense cardiovascular exercise (ex: running, elliptical, anything that makes your heart pound and gets you breathing hard). Then, due to having minor surgery over winter break, I had to take 4 entire weeks off from exercising! It was killing me! (Ask my family; I tend to get a bit tense when I can’t exercise—it’s my stress relief).

As soon as I got back to Chapel Hill to start off the new semester and get back to my exercise routine, I found the perfect way to get a great cardio workout two times each week: the Tar Heel Tabata specialty fitness class.

At first I thought that a thirty-minute class of high intensity interval training didn’t sound too bad at all.  Having become accustomed to my workouts lasting an hour on average, I figured that thirty minutes would be no big deal! Little did I know that there is a lot more behind the development of this thirty minute class, and the benefits reach even further than those of regular moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise!

What is Tabata?

Tabata is an exercise regime developed in Japan by health and nutrition researcher Izumi Tabata (1).  The coach of a professional Japanese speed skating team, Mr. Irisawa Koichi (this guy deserves some recognition, too!) asked Tabata to analyze the benefits of a new training technique that he had come up with for his team which involved shorter workouts requiring bursts of maximum exertion from his athletes, followed by short rest periods to recover before the pattern was repeated.

In order to test the success of this new workout, Tabata designed an experiment in which two groups of athletes participated in two different cardiovascular exercise regimes for six weeks: the first group exercised for one hour per day, five days per week with moderate cardiovascular exertion (70% exertion and can be sustained at approximately the same level for the duration of the workout, such as a long distance run or an hour on the treadmill).  Group two trained using high intensity workouts, four days per week for a total of six weeks.  But get this: each session of the high intensity workout for this group lasted only 4 minutes—twenty seconds of intense training (170% cardiovascular exertion and cannot be sustained) and ten seconds of rest repeated eight times.

The results? Group 1 had great improvement in their aerobic cardiovascular system, but little or no improvement in their anaerobic system, which translates into little to no muscle improvement. However, group 2 showed great improvement in their aerobic systems as well as a 28% increase in their anaerobic system! And thus, the research was published and what was named the “Tabata Protocol” was born (2).

What is Tar Heel Tabata?

The Tar Heel Tabata class follows the same time intervals set out in the original study by Tabata himself, but on repeat for half an hour.  We start the thirty-minute class with a short warm-up that includes jumping jacks, jogging, and other typical warm-up exercises to get our muscles warm and our heart rates elevated.  After a couple minutes of this, we start the first four-minute cycle with two exercises that are given to us by Malika, the instructor.  An example might be jumping jacks and butt-kicks.

With popular songs sped up to extremely fast tempos playing in the background, Malika starts the timer and we do 20 seconds of jumping jacks, followed by 10 seconds of jogging or marching in place as the rest period, followed by 20 seconds of butt-kicks, and again followed by 10 seconds of jogging in place.  This takes 1 minute, and we repeat the cycle with the same two exercises three more times to make 4 total minutes.  We typically do 4-5 of these four minute circuits, and take the last five minutes to cool down and stretch, allowing our heart-rates to slowly return to normal.

On Mondays, we focus strictly on cardio and take super-quick water breaks in between sets if we need them.  On Wednesdays, we follow the same Tabata interval pattern, but add a focus on strength exercises, such as push-ups or holding a plank position while bringing one knee after the other up quickly to meet the triceps. Since this doesn’t make our hearts beat quite as rapidly as on Mondays, instead of water breaks, Malika throws in a quick ab workout in between each set.  We could definitely feel the burn!

Although we have only had three sessions of Tar Heel Tabata so far, I’m looking forward to the next five weeks as we slowly increase the intensity of the workouts in correlation with our increased cardiovascular endurance!  I started off thinking that thirty minutes might even be easy, but instead I left sweaty and exhausted, not having panted that hard in weeks!

Overall, Tar Heel Tabata looks like it’s going to be a great way to make sure I’m getting a fantastic cardio workout twice per week, which will allow me to increase my endurance so that when I’m doing any sort of workout on my own, I will be able to do more without getting tired so quickly. The setting is fun and high-energy, the class is small (about ten of us), and everyone, no matter what their exercise history, is able to work out at their level to receive all of the benefits of this awesome program! Not to mention that if you signed up with a friend, the total cost was $25, or about $2 per session to have an instructor who can help you individually at any time to modify the workout to your comfort level.

I’ll look forward to the next five weeks and will be updating my progress and overall impression of the class at the end of the twelve sessions—stay tuned!

Workout Wednesday blog posts are written by UNC Campus Recreation staff members. Each Wednesday we’ll be swapping blog posts with the Tarheel Tone Up blog so that readers can view more diverse post topics that will benefit their health and wellness. Workout Wednesday blog posts can be found both here and on