Tabata Training: The Most Efficient 4 Minutes of Your Life

Warning: This article deals with a highly advanced exercise routine.  Attempt at your own risk, and make sure you’re physically fit enough to do so.

Jamaica Internationa Invitational MeetThere are hundreds of websites, workout DVDs, and equipment that claim to make you lose 20 lbs, build rock-hard muscles, and look like Hercules in just a few minutes a day.  They’re all full of crap…or so I thought.  It turns out one method ACTUALLY WORKS: Tabata.

Developed by Izumi Tabata, Ph.D., a former researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, Tabata is a method of exercise that lasts only 4 minutes long but absolutely kicks your ass.  Here’s what you do: pick an activity and go all-out for 20 seconds, and then rest for 10 seconds.  Repeat this cycle 8 times straight for a total of 4 minutes.

Does it work?

Dr. Tabata took two groups of elite atheletes and put them through 6 weeks of training (5 days a week). Group 1 Ran 60 minutes a day at 70% capacity, while Group 2 did sprints in the Tabata principle (sprint for 20 seconds, rest for 10, sprint for 20, etc. for 4 minutes.  At the end of the 6 weeks:

  • Group 1 increased only their aerobic capacity (how long you can run) by 9.5% and anaerobic capacity (how long you can run at maximum effort) by 0%.
  • Group 2 increased their maximum aerobic capacity by 14% AND increased their maximum anaerobic capacity by 28%.

For more information on this study (that goes WAY more in depth), read this article.

Starting out?

You might think you can survive a measly 4 minutes; however, if you’re not in great shape, Tabata workouts are probably too intense.  If you’re just starting out with fitness and looking to work your way up to Tabata, start with regular interval training (explained in detail here) first until you’re ready.  Then, mix in some Tabata by starting with only 2 minutes of exercise (4 sets of intervals) and work your way up to 8.  Concentrate on safely going all out so you don’t pull a hamstring or hurt yourself.  Remember, this was developed for Olympians, and at the end of 4 minutes it left them lying on the floor.  It will take both physical and mental strength to get through these routines on a consistent basis.  Mind of matter!

Which exercises should I do?

Start with a 5 minute warm-up to get your heart pumping and loosen up your muscles.  Always end with a 5 minute cool down/stretch to bring yourself back down to earth.  You want to try and pick exercises that recruit the most muscles possible for maximum fat burning:

  • Sprints – Simple enough.  Sprint for 20 seconds, rest for 10. Sprint for 20, rest for 10.  This is tough to do without a partner yelling out your times to you.  I run with a stop watch with big numbers and glance at it around 20 seconds to make sure I stay on time.
  • Elliptical Machine – Less wear and tear on your joints, but tougher to go “all out” because it can only go so fast.  Crank the resistance all the way up if you can handle it.
  • Rowing Machine – Ow.  This will explain why guys that rowed Crew in college were freaking ripped.
  • Stationary Bike – It’s a bike.  Pedal like hell.

If you can, have a friend help you for the 4 minutes to both motivate you and keep track of time.  Tomorrow morning will be my first attempt

-Steve

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  • http://www.divergentshadows.com/ Evan

    The nice thing about Tabata is it can be applied to specific training for almost any sport as well. I first learned about it in reference to muay thai, you just pick a move – punching, kicking, knees, etc – and go as fast and hard as you can on the bag during the intervals. Tried it once last year… wasn’t really ready for it at that point! I’ve gotten stronger now but started running again recently because I’m feeling like my endurance isn’t keeping up with my strength – may be time to give Tabatas another try.

  • http://www.divergentshadows.com Evan

    The nice thing about Tabata is it can be applied to specific training for almost any sport as well. I first learned about it in reference to muay thai, you just pick a move – punching, kicking, knees, etc – and go as fast and hard as you can on the bag during the intervals. Tried it once last year… wasn’t really ready for it at that point! I’ve gotten stronger now but started running again recently because I’m feeling like my endurance isn’t keeping up with my strength – may be time to give Tabatas another try.

  • http://www.nerdfitness.com/ Steve

    Yeah, tomorrow morning is going to be my first attempt at Tabata. I’m both excited and scared after reading about how the olympic athletes trained by Tabata often ended up on the floor at the end of the 4 minutes.

    Awesome.

  • http://www.nerdfitness.com Steve

    Yeah, tomorrow morning is going to be my first attempt at Tabata. I’m both excited and scared after reading about how the olympic athletes trained by Tabata often ended up on the floor at the end of the 4 minutes.

    Awesome.

  • Jordan

    I love it when science demolishes preconceived notions… turns out that while aerobic training increases aerobic performance to the detriment of anaerobic performance, anaerobic training increases both!

    Everyone who reads a magazine or watches TV while working out is probably short-changing themselves.

  • Jordan

    I love it when science demolishes preconceived notions… turns out that while aerobic training increases aerobic performance to the detriment of anaerobic performance, anaerobic training increases both!

    Everyone who reads a magazine or watches TV while working out is probably short-changing themselves.

  • http://www.nerdfitness.com/ Steve

    Yay science!

  • http://www.nerdfitness.com Steve

    Yay science!

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  • kathie

    If you do tabata training, doing a cardio activity, then an upper body exercise, then a lower body exercise, and reapeat this a few times, how long should you rest between each exercise after repeating it 8x 20 seconds, and resting 10?

  • kathie

    If you do tabata training, doing a cardio activity, then an upper body exercise, then a lower body exercise, and reapeat this a few times, how long should you rest between each exercise after repeating it 8x 20 seconds, and resting 10?

  • zainal

    great article.

    any tips for using this for swimming?

  • zainal

    great article.

    any tips for using this for swimming?

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hey Zainal, other than a timer on your wrist that vibrates, or somebody screaming at you outside of the pool….might be tough to time right…practice counting to 20 seconds :)

    -Steve

  • http://recumbentexercisebikesreviews.com/ Recumbent Exercise Bike Review

    All those type of exercise mentioned are hard routine exercise. I agree with the author that these methods should be done at your own risk because this kind of exercise is really close to muscle injuries and you must be strong and fit to do those.

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  • Swill

    I’ve swam all my life and nothing is harder than doing 50′s on short intervals.

    If you can swim 50 yards off the wall in 30 seconds, then swim 8x 50′s on 50 seconds. It’s not a perfect tabata, but I’m betting it’s still going to pay dividends.

    If you’re still a novice swimmer, try doing 25 yards on a similar interval.

    FINAL alternative: There are these awesome harnesses that you can attach to a wall and swim against and get nowhere – you could use these and a deck clock that you can glance at on your breaths.

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  • Saeva

    If you’ve got a Mac with GarageBand you can make an MP3 file that plays one type of music for 10 seconds followed by 20 seconds of mellow music, with a click beat for a five-second count-in so you’re ready for the next sprint. I did this and it works perfectly for keeping me on time.

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  • Marianne

    You can actually download an MP3 that plays the beeps for the start / stop points in the tababta cycle, which can then be laid over any kind of music track.
    I’ve been to a few tabata sessions where we’ve done 6 cycles of tabata back to back (or actually 3 back-to-back with a few minute break before the next set of 3), but with different activities for each cycle, such as the tuck-jump burpee, jump lunges, squat to dumbell shoulder press, mountain climber, uneven pushup, etc. All done, of course, at the maximum intensity possible.
    It is incredibly intense, but extremely effective!

  • Randy Pakan

    from whatbinread the tabata group also did 70 minutes more workout, they did
    a fifth day, so that may add some benefit over the control group.

  • http://twitter.com/escapist Jason Carlin

    There are plenty of interval timer apps for iOS — no need for a stopwatch with big numbers. I use one called Seconds that comes with a number of interval patterns, including some for Tabata.

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/seconds-interval-timer/id475816966?mt=8

  • Rosslyn12

    That Tabata workout basically describes the action involved in a really good proper game of soccer. 20 seconds of mad sprinting, ten of just moseying, repeat. For a long time.

  • Rosslyn12

    Oh don’t worry- when I swam we always had people screaming from the poolside- ah, dear, dear Coaches. But yeah, 50s with tiny intervals are brutal.

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  • Ralph

    What kind of impact would this have on ability to do push ups or pull ups?

  • Ralph

    Never mind I just found the next post Lol

  • debbie

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. 

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  • Kere

    One time at soccer practice we did something like this. Mind I say we were about 14 years old. We were supposed to run for 1 minute and the jog for 30 sec. We had to do 10 sets of this. That was probably the hardest interval I have ever done.

  • Jordan

    Totally did burpees tabata style and ouch.