Tabata: The Definitive Guide

Short on Time? Then why not get fit in 4 minutes with the growing trend, that is Tabata Training.

 

Between keeping long hours at work and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, sticking to a consistent workout schedule when you’re busy all the time can seem like a total pipe dream. Spending a whole hour at the gym five days a week? Forget about it.

But don’t feel bad. You’re not alone, and that’s why interval workouts have risen in popularity in recent years.

The basic idea behind interval training is to alternate between two activities that require varying degrees of effort to perform, allowing you to complete a full workout in a short time period. Interval training maximises your time by burning more calories than a steady state activity (like running on the treadmill) would. If you’re someone who gets bored easily during workouts, you’ll love interval training because as soon as you adapt to the challenge of one movement, it’s time for the next one!

Though there are a number of different versions of interval training, the topic of this post is the Tabata protocol. Tabata training is the namesake of Dr. Izumi Tabata, a physician, researcher, and exercise expert. It’s a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) that was developed by Dr. Tabata in the late 90s as a training protocol for Olympic speed skaters. If you’ve seen the physique of a speed skater (think Apolo Anton Ohno), you know they’re lean, muscular, and built to move fast. That alone should tell you what you’re getting into when it comes to a Tabata workout!

Definitive guide to Tabata fitness

So what is Tabata exactly?

Tabata workouts are cardiovascular training circuits that alternate between 20 second bursts of challenging exercise and 10 second periods of lower-intensity movement. Their heart-pumping intensity means you’ll spend less than five minutes completing the workout (say what?), but you’ll kickstart your metabolism and cause it to remain at a boosted rate for hours post-workout.

There are plenty of benefits to incorporating Tabata workouts into your fitness regimen. You get a high calorie burn for a low time commitment, and if you perform Tabatas consistently, your cardiovascular endurance (and therefore your overall fitness) will increase over time.

Tabata training is great for those who want to lose fat but maintain muscle because it activates fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers, as opposed to slow-twitch fibers, are the ones that can increase in size, enhancing your physique and increasing the amount of calories your body can burn even at rest.

Since Tabata workouts involve a repetitive sequence of work and rest, there’s nothing complicated to remember like there might be with a full body superset workout. Plus, although you can incorporate weights and other equipment if you’re up for a challenge, the minimum you need for a great workout is your own body weight.

Definitive guide to Tabata fitness

Ok, I’m sold. How do I do a Tabata workout?

First, get the logistics out of the way by deciding on the method you’ll use to time your intervals. You can purchase an interval timer like the Gym boss, find a web-based interval timer, or download an interval training app to your smartphone. There are lots of free interval training apps available, and plenty of them are free to download. Here are a few of our favorites:

 

 

Another fun option is to tune into some music specifically designed for Tabata workouts. Instead of beeping or buzzing to remind you when to switch exercises, Tabata music incorporates spoken audio cues that go along with the beat of the music. Sounds like fun, right? We’ve rounded up a few free Tabata music resources for you to try:

 

Definitive guide to Tabata routine

Once you’ve got your timer ready, you have a few options when it comes to designing the workout itself. The classic protocol that Dr. Tabata used with the speed skaters he was training only involved two exercises — the 20 second “work” exercise and the 10 second “rest” exercise. If you’re just starting out with interval training, this is a good place to start because it makes workouts simple to remember.

With that in mind, choose one challenging exercise and one less strenuous exercise. (We give lots of examples below, or try the classic Tabata combo of sprinting and jogging.) The challenging exercise will represent your 20 second periods of work and the easier exercise will make up your 10 second rest periods.

Then, set your timer for eight sets of 20 seconds work/10 seconds rest. When you’re ready, hit the start button and get moving!

Even though this circuit involves just two exercises and will only take you four minutes to complete, you’ll be surprised at how intense it is and how exhausted you are by the end. If you dare, complete up to five circuits, for a total of 20 minutes. Feel free to rest for up to one minute between each 4-minute circuit.

If you’re up for more of a challenge, consider incorporating more than just two exercises into your Tabata session. Use this template to plan it out:

 

Exercise 1 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 2 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 3 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 4 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 5 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 6 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 7 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.
Exercise 8 20 sec.
Rest 10 sec.

 

Tabatas are completely customisable based on your skill level, fitness level, and the amount of equipment you have at your disposal. Choose a different exercise for all of 1-8, decide on exercises for 1-4 and then repeat them for 5-8, or use a separate exercise for the odds and evens. It’s up to you!

 

Exercises to incorporate into your Tabata routine

Almost any exercise can be incorporated into a Tabata workout, but if you’re new to it, we recommend that you start with a straightforward combination of cardiovascular and bodyweight exercises. As your endurance increases, you can add weights or resistance to those exercises to challenge yourself further.

Here’s a list of exercise combinations to try, with the 20 second “work” exercise(s) listed first and the 10 second “rest” exercise listed second:

 

  • Treadmill sprinting (>8 mph) + jogging (<4 mph)
  • Spin bike sprinting + slow pedaling
  • Stair sprints + pulse squats
  • Jumping rope + alternating lunges
  • Burpees + pyramid pushups
  • Box jumps + box step ups
  • Kettlebell swings + kettlebell goblet squats

Definitive guide to Tabata fitness

Resources for Tabata workouts

If you’d rather let someone else to the heavy lifting when it comes to designing your workout routine, don’t worry; there are plenty of free and paid options out there for you. To get you started, we’ve listed some below:

 

 

If you’re not regularly incorporating Tabata training into your workout regimen, you should be. It allows you to get a solid workout in even when you’re short on time. Pretty much everyone has 5 or 10 minutes to spare, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.

If Tabata’s low time commitment doesn’t sell you on it, the long-term benefits of interval training might. Regular Tabata training increases your cardiovascular endurance and helps you burn fat without sacrificing precious fast-twitch muscle fibers — not only do bigger muscles look great, but they increase your base calorie burn too. What’s not to love?

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