Learn the Nuances of High Intensity Interval Training

Sometimes you may feel you need a PhD just to understand the differences between all the cardio terminology. For example, do you grapple with how to perform a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session or a Tabata protocol? Do you understand the subtle differences? Not to worry, most people from my experience don’t really know either. The following information includes insight on some of the more well-known cardio terms that are used.

Cardio Terminology: The Difference Between HIIT and Tabata

Two of the main differences in these protocols are time and intensity. Tabata is completed in just four-minutes using maximal intensity. In respect to rest periods, Tabata has shorter rest periods then HIIT, which are always 10-seconds. Other HIIT protocols have longer recovery periods, typically 30-seconds to one-minute but sometimes up to two-minutes. Finally, Tabata involves 8 rounds of intense exercise using a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio (20 seconds on and 10 seconds off). The total workout time equates to only 4-minutes, not including warm-up and cool-down. Keep in mind, your heart rate and breathing are really elevated and you shouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation during that time.

The one key word in all of these cardio definitions is INTENSITY. The workout time is less than steady state cardio, therefore, it has to be performed at a higher intensity level. As explained by leading HIIT expert, Martin Gibala, PhD, author of the One-Minute Workout. “The harder you go, the shorter the duration and the fewer intervals you need to achieve the same benefits of a much longer endurance-training workout.”

The Obsession with Intervals

Athletes have been using forms of interval training since 1902, a runner by the name of Joe Binks was one of the first athletes to understand the value of this type of training. By 1910-12, it started gaining more popularity after a few Finnish Olympic runners won Gold medals using intervals as part of their training. It wasn’t until 1930, though, when Franz Stampfl, who coached Roger Bannister (world’s first sib-4-minute miler), took interval training to new heights. He is considered the person who “was responsible for introducing the notion of interval training as we know it today (Noakes).”

The idea behind interval training is to push your body past anaerobic threshold (typically 85 percent of maximum heart rate) for a desired time. Following this, you return back to more of a comfortable aerobic threshold before repeating this sequence for “x” amount of intervals depending on your proposed training outcome. The final goal is to improve your overall performance level.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT has gained popularity because it brings an understandable “to do” message that gets across to the public. Meaning, health guidelines continue to push 150-minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. Another option for that is 75-minutes of vigorous exercise per week to accumulate health benefits. The issue however is most people don’t get close to reaching those numbers. HIIT is more manageable, more challenging yes, but doable. High intensity interval training is simply a method of training where the intensity of the workout is manipulated, in an undulating fashion, for a specific period of time.

I like to think of HIIT as the driver of the bus and all other cardio-type workouts (terminology) as unique features of the bus. Think of it like HIIT being the parent and their kids are Tabata, Fartlek and Intervals, all belonging to the same family but yet slightly different.

A big take away from HIIT is the following. The harder and faster you can work in a training session, the less time you need to exercise. Go as fast as you can using short bursts. As a results, you can get the same endurance benefits but with less than 5 percent of the time exercising hard. Not to mention you’re working out only a third of the time compared to someone doing traditional or steady state cardio (i.e. 150-minutes a week) for longer duration.

Who Created Tabata and What is it?

Why none other than Mr. Izumi Tabata, PhD, a Japanese research scientist. He actually had a little help from a Japanese Olympic speed skating coach but that’s a story for another day.

What is it? Tabata training is a method of endurance training. A 4-minute workout sounds way too simple I know but trust me, it’s not! The original study used a type of stationary bike and had test subjects perform seven to eight 20-second, all-out sprints, each separated by just 10 seconds of rest. Following 6-weeks of training college students, five days a week, participants increased their aerobic fitness by 14 percent.

By comparison, a second group – who performed more traditional steady state exercise on the same bike for 60 minutes – experienced an increase in aerobic fitness by only 10 percent. In other words, the 4-minute workout was found to be more effective than an hour of cycling at a moderate pace. Even more significant was the fact that the Tabata participants saw a 28 percent improvement in anaerobic capacity. This was the first study of its kind that showed both aerobic and anaerobic benefits received from biking.

What’s a Fartlek?

The word fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. Think of it as continuous running with intervals mixed in. The intensity of the intervals used depends on how good the person feels that day. Back in the 1930’s coaches started using this type of training with their athletes. According to the Science of Running website, “fartlek training was a very informal type of training where you vary the speed based on the athletes feel. This means you vary the speed throughout the run often times alternating fast/slow, or fast/medium, or medium/slow.” 

Keep in mind, the different forms of interval training mentioned here are basically, high-intensity interval training. Each of which is very strenuous on the body and require only 1-2 sessions a week to obtain real benefits. More is not better when it comes to interval training. The focus should be about quality of training not quantity.

Workout and Stay Strong with Jefit

Millions of members are having great success using the Jefit app that comes equipped with a custom fitness tracker, training log, the ability to track data and share workouts with friends. Take advantage of Jefit’s 1400 exercise database for your strength workouts. Visit our members-only Facebook group. Connect with like-minded people, share tips, and advice to help get closer to reaching your fitness goals. Stay strong with Jefit.


Noakes, Tim, Lore of Running (4th edition), Human Kinetics: IL, 2003.

Gibala, Martin, The One-Minute Workout, Avery: New York, 2017.

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