The Four Minute Workout - Is Tabata Training Effective?

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According to Benjamin Franklin, there are only three constants in life: death, taxes, and the desire for quick workouts that train both aerobic and anaerobic metabolic pathways. Enter Tabata Protocol, a training regimen involving 20-second intervals of maximal effort interspersed with 10-second rest periods. Wash, rinse, and repeat the cycle between six and eight times for an exhaustive four minute workout.

Tabata Bing, Bada BOOM! – Why It Matters

Developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata for Olympic speed skaters, Tabata Protocol is a form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) that’s been adopted by bodybuilders, CrossFitters, and plenty of folks in-between [1]. The 20 seconds work/10 seconds rest pattern has been shown to tax both aerobic and anaerobic pathways more— and in less time— than intense exercise with longer rest periods, meaning improved overall cardiovascular fitness [2]. By taking rest periods only half the length of the intense bursts, the body is forced to perform without full recovery, so at some point between rounds six and eight, the athlete hits the point of maximum oxygen intake. The whole thing leaves us breathless. (Ba-zing!)

While the 20/10 protocol is most readily applied to traditional cardio movements (sprint for 20 seconds, rest for 10), the regimen is also suited to all manner of resistance training, bodyweight exercises, and even explosive movements. Whether performing squats (try the challenging bottom-to-bottom version), a dumbbell press, or cha-cha-ing real smooth, the trick is to find a weight and speed that can be handled for multiple reps across multiple cycles. A good rule of thumb is to use one’s 20-rep max (or a good estimate thereof).

Kicking Into High Gear – The Answer/Debate

Like many forms of HIIT, Tabata Protocol is an effective way to improve both metabolic pathways, initiate calorie after-burn, and can even stimulate growth of the mitochondria that powers muscles [3]. It can mix up an otherwise dull running routine and even suits road warriors looking for a quick and effective hotel workout.

But Tabata isn’t for the faint of heart (literally or figuratively). The routine was developed to fully exhaust Olympic athletes, not to mention those who never made it past little league (*cough* me *cough*). It requires a pain threshold for maximum level effort for multiple cyclesanyone with preexisting cardiovascular conditions should consult with a doctor first.

Just starting down the road to fit? Instead of the full Tabata, begin with just 4 or 5 rounds and gradually build up endurance from there. And even the super-fit will likely want to avoid using the protocol every day to let their bodies adequately recover.

Ready to try the ‘bata? Put on the sweatband, anticipate gains, and prepare for the longest 4 minutes in exercise history.

Updated December 2011

About the Author
David Tao
I'm the chief research officer for Greatist.com and a greatist since 2011. Originally from Kentucky but now calling NYC home.

Works Cited

  1. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.
  2. Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. Tabata, I., Irisawa, K., Kouzaki, M.,  et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kanoya City, Japan. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1997 Mar;29(3):390-5.
  3. An acute bout of high-intensity interval training increases the nuclear abundance of PGC-1{alpha} and activates mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle. Little, J.P., Safdar, A., Bishop, D., et al. McMaster University. American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative, and Comparative Physiology 2011 Mar 30.

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