Tabata: The 4-Minute Workout That’ll Kick Your Ass

Every decade has fitness trends that we look back on with sheer disbelief. The 90s was no exception. Spandex, Tae Bo, step aerobics, and the thigh master—trends that never should’ve seen the light of day. But one workout from the 90s has stood the test of time. It’s been adopted by CrossFitters, boot camps, and people looking for a quick and effective workout. Enter Tabata training.

Tabata training is named after Dr Izumi Tabata, who developed the protocol with researchers at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. The workout was developed for Olympic speed skaters and designed to push them to their limits.

Let’s look at what makes Tabata unique. We’ll also check out the benefits of this crazy four-minute workout.

What Is Tabata?

Tabata training is a type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It uses timed intervals that alternate between 20-seconds of work at maximum effort (I believe puke-inducing is the scientific term) and 10-second rest periods (that are brutally short). The work and rest periods are repeated continuously for eight rounds of total annihilation in just four minutes.

On paper, the workout may seem easy. But done right, it’ll be the longest four minutes of your life.

Why It Works

Low-intensity cardio (e.g., long runs) train the body’s aerobic energy system, which requires oxygen to create energy. High-intensity exercise (e.g., weightlifting) trains the body’s anaerobic energy system, which doesn’t require oxygen to create energy. Tabata taxes both of these systems:

. . . the Tabata system stresses both the aerobic and the anaerobic systems maximally. Tabata training—if done correctly—is very demanding during that four minutes, and the body responds to this stress by rapidly increasing its capacity to increase oxygen uptake, which is the best measurement we have of fitness.

By hammering both energy systems, Tabata training improves your overall cardiovascular fitness with minimal time but maximum effort.

Do It Once, Do It Right

I wasn’t joking about the puke-inducing effort required to do Tabata. As Dr Tabata explains, the workout should be an all-out effort:

If you are doing Tabata correctly (and many people do not) you would only be able to ever do one round of it—and indeed you’d be unlikely to even finish that before complete exhaustion set in!

Many people do variations of the original Tabata protocol. They might do eight rounds on a stationary bike, rest, then move on to eight rounds of kettlebell swings. If you’re able to start another Tabata set within a minute or two of the last one, you’re not pushing hard enough.

When you finish a Tabata set, you’re going to be gasping for air and have absolutely nothing left. You could sit around and recover for a while and possibly work a different body part (if you’re conditioned), but it’s not necessary. The key is to do it once and give it everything.

How Hard Is It?

Tabata is an advanced training protocol, so it’s not recommended for beginners. The challenge with Tabata training is pushing your body to its limits. It requires mental toughness and a high pain threshold.

On an exertion scale of 1-10, a typical CrossFit or boot camp HIIT workout would be at a level of 7 or above. A Tabata training workout would be at a level 10. This can be hard to achieve if you’re deconditioned or just starting out.

If you’re not ready to jump into Tabata right away, there are other HIIT workouts you can do.

Tabata Alternative

If you like the idea of short workouts but aren’t ready for Tabata, you can try the below HIIT workout. It allows for more recovery time than Tabata by using a 1:3 work to rest ratio. You can knock this one out in around 20 minutes including a short warm up:

  • Pick a cardio (running, stationary bike, rowing machine, etc.) or bodyweight (air squats, pushups, etc.) exercise.
  • After a warm up, do 30 seconds of work at max effort followed by 90 seconds of rest.
  • Repeat for up to 8 rounds.

If done correctly, HIIT workouts burn a significant amount of calories and increase aerobic and anaerobic fitness. So, you don’t need to go as extreme as Tabata if it doesn’t appeal to you.

How Often Should I Do Tabata?

Because Tabata is so taxing, doing it once or twice a week is all you need. The same goes for other HIIT workouts. Ideally, you’d combine high-intensity and low-intensity work into your weekly exercise routine. This will allow your body to recover between intense sessions.

If you feel like you could do more HIIT sessions, make sure you’re pushing as hard as you can during your workouts. When doing HIIT or Tabata, keeping the heart rate above 85% is the key to getting all the benefits.

Benefits of Tabata

I probably haven’t sold Tabata training very well by telling you how hard it is. But it’s the extreme nature of it that gets serious results. I don’t believe in free rides in life—everything’s a tradeoff. Tabata is no different. Yes, you can do an effective workout in four minutes, but you’re going to have to push much harder than you would during an hour-long moderate intensity workout.

So, what are the benefits of Tabata training? Glad you asked. Let’s take a look.

Burn More Calories

Tabata has a huge metabolic effect resulting in a lot of calories being burned for a short (but far from easy) four-minute workout. As Dr Tabata explained during an interview:

. . . So we know that Tabata not only burns the same calories in four minutes as an hour of steady-state exercise (biking or jogging), but there’s also a significant ‘after burn’ effect, where an additional 150 calories are being burned up to 12 hours after you leave the gym.

The after burn effect is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC is off the charts when it comes to Tabata.

Increase Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity

As I mentioned above, Tabata taxes both the body’s aerobic and anaerobic energy systems maximally.

In the original Tabata study, participants increased their anaerobic capacity by 28% and VO2 max and maximal aerobic power by 15%. This was based on four Tabata sessions per week, which is not recommended because they’re so taxing on the body. But you can still get major benefits from one to two workouts a week.

Formation of New Mitochondria

Mitochondria convert food to energy in our cells. Tabata workouts may even stimulate the growth of new mitochondria in skeletal muscle. Which means more energy production during max effort exercise. So, you can smash out more PBs on your deadlifts or sprint harder to the finish line.

Quick and Effective

You’d be hard-pressed to find a workout that delivers as much bang for your buck as Tabata. If you do a single Tabata (which is all you should have in you) including a warm up and cool down, you can be in and out of the gym in less than 15 minutes! No more excuses about not having enough time.

You can also do Tabata anywhere with no equipment. It’s a good go-to workout when you’re travelling and want to spend your time by the pool, not in the gym.

How to Do a Tabata Workout

Tabata intervals work best with cardio exercises like the stationary bike and rowing machines. You can also do sprints outside, but they’re very hard on the body.

I recommend sticking to bodyweight movements or very light resistance training exercises that can be completed fast for eight rounds. Air squats, mountain climbers, battle ropes, and kettlebells work well.

I like the stationary bike best. It’s what was used in the original study. It’s also low impact and you can add a bit of resistance to allow you to pedal at max effort. As you fatigue, it’s quick to decrease the resistance.

So, you’d pick one exercise then use the Tabata protocol. A full workout would look like this:

  • 20 seconds of max effort work.
  • Followed by 10 seconds of rest.
  • Repeat 8 times.

You need to be strict about sticking to the work and rest periods. Use a timer app on your phone like this. It’ll display work and rest times as well as rounds remaining.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) try adding a HIIT or Tabata workout into your routine. Start out with an easy HIIT workout. Make it short so you have no excuses. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know if you’ve tried Tabata or HIIT before and how you found it.

Subscribe to My Blog

If you liked this post, you’ll love my weekly email. Short. Punchy. Packed full of gems of wisdom on life, fitness, and beyond! Enter your email below to subscribe. In addition to one weekly email (learn more), you’ll get instant access to download two FREE e-books: the Battle-Tested Body Transformation Guide and Quick and Clean Recipes.