Tabata Squats: How-To, Common Mistakes, & Workout Sample

tabata squats are squats performed in an interval-style that generally is a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio

Tabata squats have become a popular way to incorporate squats into a training program for those training for strength and aesthetic goals, because they feel like a tougher workout in a short amount of time. 

But, what are tabata squats? Tabata squats are squats performed in an interval-style that generally is a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio. The most widely accepted framework for tabata training is 20 seconds of work, with 10 seconds of rest, which is repeated for 8 rounds, giving a total work time of 4 minutes.

To get the most out of tabata squats we need to know how to use them correctly in our training.  So in this article I’ll discuss…

  • How they benefit us
  • How to incorporate them for our goals; and,
  • How to avoid the common mistakes that people usually make

Tabata Squats: Overview

tabata squats are squats that are performed in an interval-style with a set work and rest period 2:1 work to rest

Tabata squats are squats that are performed in an interval-style with a set work and rest period (2:1 work to rest). 

Tabata is characterized by 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest with exercise bouts consisting of maximal efforts for 8 intervals – with a total time of 4 minutes.  The key part here is that you have to be working MAXIMALLY, i.e. as hard as possible.  

That being said, sometimes this framework is adapted so that multiple rounds of the 4 minutes are performed.  But with this approach, the intensity is normally lower as it’s hard to sustain this level of intensity as time increases.

While tabata was designed to include maximal efforts, this was mostly possible because the movements used were bodyweight movements (jump squats, lunges, push ups) or cardio-based (cycling, sprinting), which were performed to challenge the cardiovascular system. 

When we’re looking to do tabata squats with a weight, the weight on the bar will likely not be maximal, but more so the amount of effort exerted will be maximal, i.e. how fast you’re moving and how many reps you get within the prescribed time.  

This is because it’s impossible to use a heavy load for our squats with the framework of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off without risking injury. Instead, the intensity will be increased based on metabolic effort more than muscular effort.

Key takeaway: When we’re performing tabata squats it will be to improve metabolic conditioning, improve endurance, or to increase energy expenditure (calories burned), rather than to encourage strength and muscle growth. 

This is important to know before we include them in our program so that we know what the results will be – if we’re expecting a good amount of strength gain and/or muscle growth as a result from tabata training, then we will likely be disappointed.

Tabata Squats: Muscles Worked 

Tabata squats work the following muscles:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Erectors
  • Upper Back
  • Trunk Musculature

The legs are going to be performing the majority of the work to exert force when we’re doing tabata style of squats, but we will also get some activation in the muscles that support our torso position such as the trunk musculature, the erectors, and the upper back.

Tabata style squats will challenge our muscles in a more endurance-based fashion, which will improve our muscles ability to exert force for a longer period of time but will not increase the maximal strength output of our muscles (i.e. how heavy we lift).

To learn more about the function of each of these muscles in the squat, check out our Complete Guide for Muscles Used In The Squat.

4 Benefits of Tabata Squats

the 4 benefits of doing tabata square

The 4 benefits of doing tabata square are: 

  • You Can Do More Work In A Shorter Amount Of Time
  • You Improve Muscular Endurance
  • You Improve Metabolic Capacity
  • You Can Burn More Calories

1. You Can Do More Work In A Shorter Amount Of Time

When performing tabata style training, we are able to accomplish a higher number of repetitions very quickly, which allows us to perform more work in a shorter amount of time. 

For this reason, tabata squats are ideal for those who are trying to stay in shape but don’t have a lot of time available in their daily life to train. Tabata squats will make it possible to keep some stimulus on the lower body specifically, when we’re in a time crunch.

However, it’s important to understand that with tabata squats we will not get the same strength/ hypertrophy results as we would if we performed our squats with a moderate-to-heavy load and longer rest periods. 

If strength is our goal, then tabata squats shouldn’t be our only means of squatting – even when in a time crunch. 

However, if increasing our cardiovascular health and improving metabolic capacity is our primary goal, then tabata squats are the best option when we’re short on time.

2. You Improve Muscular Endurance

Tabata squats can help improve our muscular endurance, specifically in the lower body musculature, because we’re performing higher repetitions with very short rest periods. 

This style of training results in increases in muscular endurance because it requires the muscles to exert force over a longer period of time.

It will be especially effective for those who are new to tabata-style training, because it will be a new stimulus that we are not accustomed to.

3. You Improve Metabolic Capacity

Our metabolic capacity refers to our ability to provide energy to our working muscles, and this can happen in 2 different ways based on how quickly we need energy and how intensely we are exercising. 

The 2 pathways we can use to provide energy to our muscles are: anaerobic and aerobic.

Anaerobic Pathways

The anaerobic pathways are the main source of energy we use when we need energy quickly for more intense exercise (think: sprinting, jumping, lifting heavy weights).

The aerobic system doesn’t need oxygen to provide energy.  

Aerobic Pathways

In contrast, the aerobic system produces energy with oxygen and therefore takes longer to supply energy to the working muscles, but once it kicks in the energy supply is long-lasting and sustainable.  

Tabata squats will improve our metabolic capacity both aerobically and anaerobically.  

The reason for this is that we will be exerting force with more intent for 20 seconds, which will activate the anaerobic system because we’ll need energy more quickly to keep up with the increased intensity. 

However, the aerobic system will also be involved because we need a steady stream of energy for 4 minutes or more.

The one caveat about using the anaerobic system is that because we are producing energy without oxygen, we will accumulate what we call “oxygen debt” – which essentially means that we haven’t taken in enough oxygen and we will have to make up for it once the workout is over.

When we’re in this “oxygen-debt” state, we will experience “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption” (or EPOC).  

In simple terms this means that the body will intake oxygen at a faster rate than it normally would, until our oxygen levels are back to normal.

The more intense the tabata squats are, the more we will use the anaerobic system for quick energy – and the more we use the anaerobic system, the larger the oxygen debt will be that we have to make up for.

This is one of the reasons why tabata squats help us burn more calories…

4. You Can Burn More Calories

With tabata squats we are essentially keeping our heart rate elevated for 4 minutes straight, or longer if we’re doing more than the typical (20 sec on/10 sec off, for 8 rounds), which involves contributions from both the aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic energy systems (without oxygen). 

So we can see how this style of activity would require a lot of energy to perform, and if our goal is fat loss then we likely want to expend more energy to help us achieve a caloric deficit (burning more calories than we’re taking in, which results in weight loss).

While it may be obvious that we’re burning calories while performing the tabata squats, what we may not know is that we will continue to burn calories/expend energy following tabata training as well

This is because it costs us energy to repair the oxygen deficit that we would have created while training. This comes back to the EPOC concept (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption), which could last up to 24 hours depending on the intensity of the exercise. .

For some this may feel like a lot of jargon, but what’s important to take away is that as long as we’re putting in effort during the work intervals of tabata training, we will continue to expend energy even after tabata training is over.  

This will help to burn more calories even after training is over, and assist in fat loss by creating a larger caloric deficit.

Check out our complete guide on Powerlifting For Fat Loss: How To Do It.

How To Do Tabata Squats

how to do tabata squats

To perform tabata squats we must first decide if we’re doing 4 minutes total (which would encourage a higher intensity), or if we’re doing multiple rounds of the 8 intervals (which would be more endurance, and limit the intensity as we go on.

We will also need access to a timer, whether it be on our phone or a stopwatch.

How-To

  • Set up to perform squats, either with a barbell, dumbbell/kettlebell, or bodyweight
  • Take the feet approximately hip-width apart with toes turned slightly out – if comfortable
  • Prepare to squat down to slightly below parallel, keeping the knees in-line with the toes and a neutral spine, then come back to standing
  • Start the 20 second timer and begin squatting with intent, while maintaining the technique discussed above
  • After 20 seconds, stop squatting and rest for 10 seconds
  • Once the 10 seconds of rest is up, begin another interval of 20 seconds of squats
  • After the 2nd interval of squats is complete, rest for 10 seconds again
  • Repeat the process until 8 intervals of 20 seconds of squats and 10 seconds of rest have been completed – this is 4 minutes of total work
  • If doing more than one round of tabata (more than the 4 minutes), then rest for 1 minute after completion of the 8 intervals, and then prepare to repeat the process above 

Tabata Squats: Common Mistakes

1. Using Too Much Weight 

Although it’s good to be ambitious, when we’re dealing with higher repetitions and short rest times we won’t be able to handle much weight. 

This is because as the intervals increase, the more tired we’re going to be – therefore, we will be unable to maintain the same volume/intensity. 

To get the most out of the tabata squats we need to be able to keep our level of effort as consistent as we can across the intervals to avoid fatiguing early and not being able to continue.

2. Not Using Full Range Of Motion

Oftentime when we’re trying to get in as many repetitions as possible in the 20 second work periods, we will end up cutting the reps short and failing to achieve a full range of motion. 

When we do this we will actually be limiting the amount of progress we can achieve despite potentially getting more repetitions in.  

This is because when we don’t work the full range of motion of a movement, we are not recruiting as many muscle fibers as we would if we completed the full range of motion.

Not only would this potentially hinder our results, but it also encourages improper movement patterns and could affect our movement when we’re performing more strength or hypertrophy focused squats.

3. Performing Tabata Squats In Place Of Traditional Squats

It’s so important to understand that just because tabata squats do require us to perform a number of squats, they are not an adequate substitute for strength or hypertrophy focused squats – as they do not accomplish the same things. 

If we’re only performing tabata style squats and do not incorporate squats with moderate-to-heavy loads geared towards strength and/or hypertrophy, we will be limiting our potential for strength and muscle gain.

Regardless of if our goal is aesthetics or strength, we should be incorporating a form of traditional squats (goblet squats, barbell squats, front squats, etc) performed with a weight and adequate rest times, rather than only performing tabata style squats.

How To Program Tabata Squats

how to program tabata squats

Depending on your goal, here are 3 ways you can program tabata squats:

Tabata Squats For Fat Loss

If we’re using tabata squats as a way to expend more energy to encourage fat loss, then we could program them like this:

  • Week 1: (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8
  • Week 2: (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8
  • Week 3: (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x4
  • Week 4: (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x4

Tabata Squats For Muscular Endurance

If we’re using tabata squats to help increase muscular endurance in our legs, then we can include them in a program in the following way:

  • Week 1: (20 seconds of squats with a low load-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8
  • Week 2: (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x4
  • Week 3: (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8
  • Week 4: (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute rest, (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x4

Tabata Squats For Metabolic Capacity

Lastly, if our goal with tabata squats is to improve our metabolic capacity for sports performance or general health, then we can include them like so:

  • Week 1: (20 seconds of squats with a low load-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8
  • Week 2: (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a low-to-moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x4
  • Week 3: (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 1 minute of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8
  • Week 4: (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8, 30 seconds of rest, (20 seconds of squats with a moderate load : 10 seconds of rest) x8

Other Helpful Squat Guides


About The Author

Amanda Parker

Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.