Four Minutes to Fit: How to Train with Tabata

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By now, you've probably heard about the benefits of high-intensity interval training. It helps you smash through a plateau, get stronger and faster, improve endurance, and rev your metabolism to burn more calories, even when you're not exercising. But you may not have heard about one of the simplest methods to do it: Tabata.

The routine requires only four minutes – but they will be four of the most intense you've ever experienced. Here's how it works: For 20 seconds, you go as hard as possible, either eking out as many reps as you can of a move or, if you're doing cardio, moving as fast as you can. Rest for 10 seconds, then immediately repeat the 20/10 interval, for a total of eight times.

The method was studied in 1996 by Dr. Izumi Tabata (hence the name), after the Japanese Olympic speedskating team tested the routine. The athletes did the workout at 170 percent of their VO2 max (that's no typo – 170 percent). To give you an idea of how staggeringly difficult that is, think of sprinting a 100-yard dash. "Now imagine pushing 70 percent harder – that's true Tabata," says John Porcari, the program director of clinical exercise physiology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

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Even if you can't hit that Olympic-athlete level of intensity, you can still reap Tabata's benefits. "The key is hitting your max," says Michele Olson, an exercise physiologist at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, who studies Tabata. "You should be pushing yourself hard enough that you can't utter a word, and if you're not sucking wind by the end, you need to work harder."

For that, you'll get a lot in return. Doing Tabata regularly can raise your anaerobic capacity 28 percent higher than doing moderate-speed cardio for an hour a day, five times a week. Anaerobic exercise is proven to develop strength and muscle mass faster, stimulate testosterone production, and teach your body to fight fatigue by increasing your muscles' ability to flush lactic acid. New research also shows that one intense micro-workout can lower blood sugar by up to 17 percent for hours afterward. "Do Tabata right, and it's one of the best ways to get results," says Porcari, who evaluated the training protocol for the American Council on Exercise. Just budget time for a shower. "Even after four minutes," Porcari adds, "you'll be lying on the floor in a pool of sweat."

How to Train with Tabata
Besides brevity, Tabata is handy because it works for almost any exercise. Try one of our go-tos, below, at the end of a workout, or on an off day. You'll want to download an app to get the timing right. (If you're actually going all-out, you'll barely have a second to breathe, much less check your watch.) We like Tabata-Timer. You'll hear a beep each time you need to push for an interval and when it's time for a break.

For a pure cardio blast, you can't beat a sprint Tabata. Get on a treadmill so you can easily set and control your pace. Aim to run at least 10 mph if you're coming off the couch, 12 or higher if you're fit. Warm up with a jog for 2 minutes, then sprint 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, jumping to the treadmill's rails during the breaks, eight times.

Attack Your Abs
Sit-ups might not challenge you – but a Tabata of them will. Lie faceup, knees out, with the soles of your feet touching to engage more ab muscles; reach toward your feet for every rep. Your objective: Notch the same number of reps during each of the eight 20-second intervals. Bored of sit-ups? Sub in wood chops or mountain climbers.

Do A Circuit
You can get a total-body workout with this routine (also ideal if you think doing one move for 4 minutes sounds crazy): Perform two 20-seconds-on, 10-seconds-off intervals of jump squats (aiming to notch the same number of reps for each), then do two intervals each of lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups. Maintain maximum intensity the entire time.

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