The Beginner’s Guide to Tabata Training

tabata training

Tabata training. You hear the phrase thrown around in gyms and probably see it incorporated in many of our fat-burning high-intensity workouts. But do you really know what it entails?

What Is It?

Quick history lesson: Tabata training was developed by Izumi Tabata, Ph.D., at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. It’s a timed interval method that alternates between 20-second intervals performed at maximum effort and 10-second stages of rest, repeated eight times for the ultimate exhaustive four-minute workout.

“In a time where most people are searching for efficient and effective workouts, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) techniques such as Tabata are ideal,” says Kristina Earnest, PT, NASM, a group fitness manager at Equinox.

By definition it only requires one exercise, but you can cobble together a tabata workout from a huge array of strength and aerobic exercises (think: rowing or running), Earnest says. The gist is it incorporates a greater work load or intensity and hits a greater range of muscle groups than traditional cardio in a shorter amount of time. Tabata forces you to work above your lactate threshold, meaning your effort is painstakingly hard. How hard? Participants in a study from The American Council on Exercise averaged 86 percent of their max heart rate and 74 percent of their VO2 max. Keep reading to learn all the benefits of Tabata.

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Benefits of Tabata Training

1. Obliterate Fat   
While Tabata intervals are short, they’re sure as hell not sweet. “They place a strong stress on the body as you continue to perform the exercises,” Earnest says. “Your body increases its Basal Metbolic Rate (BMR), or the rate at which the body uses energy while at rest to keep vital functions strong; and while your BMR is rising—and managing the demand being placed on your body—so will the level at which your body burns fat after your workout,” she explains. In fact, a University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse study found a 20-minute Tabata-inspired total-body workout prompted men and women to burn 15 calories per minute—pretty significant if you have a weight loss goal. Further research from Auburn University Montgomery Kinesiology Laboratory discovered doing jump squats, Tabata-style, for 4 minutes burns more calories per minute than traditional cardio, helps improve bone mass density, ramps up post-workout calorie burn, doubling your metabolic rate for a minimum of 30 minutes.

2. Increase Aerobic and Anaerobic Endurance
Your body’s aerobic capacity is the greatest amount of oxygen it consumes during exercise, and your anaerobic capacity is the greatest amount of energy your body can produce by burning carbs in the absence of oxygen. “Per Japanese research, four minutes of Tabata performed at extreme intensity four times a week can improve your anaerobic capacity by 28 percent, and your VO2 max (maximum oxygen uptake) and maximal aerobic power by 15 percent in as little as six weeks,” Earnest says.

3. Maximize Efficiency
Your excuse of not having enough time to exercise has run dry. These are intense, effective routines; and, though it seems counterintuitive, they also allow you to hone in on safety. “When exercising at an extreme level, you want to increase the focus on yourself as you grow into longer, more challenging routines,” Earnest says. “Plus, starting with just four minutes per day can increase your level of commitment to working out regularly,” Earnest adds.

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Why Tabata Is So Effective

“Since the 20-10 design is taxing to both your aerobic and anaerobic energy levels, it results in an improved overall cardiovascular fitness performance,” Earnest says. “By taking short rest periods at only half the time of the high impact intervals (a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio), your body is forced to perform without a full recovery,” she explains. Once you enter the second half of your Tabata workout, you’ll be working at maximum capacity.

How to Make a Tabata Workout

1. “Decide if you’re going to lift (choose a compound exercise like the bench press, deadlift, or squat) or do cardio,” says Rich Butkevic, a trainer and author of Four Minutes of Pain: The Ultimate Guide to Tabata Training. “You can transform virtually any cardio activity into a Tabata-style workout.”
2. Do a five- to 10-minute warmup on a stationary bike to get your blood flowing and muscles loose. Any dynamic warmup will work, though.
3. Do the first “set” of your exercise for 20 seconds. Just knock out as many reps as you can.
4. Rest for 10 seconds. Make sure to use good form, whether running or hitting the weights.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for four minutes. That’s it, you’re done. Trust us, you won’t be able to handle any more.

1. If you’re lifting, pick a lighter weight than you’re used to, since you’ll fatigue quickly.
3. As you advance, add more time but maintain the two-to-one work-to-rest ratio. Do more in each set than you did last time.
3. Don’t use Tabata training too often. Twice a week, tops, is plenty.

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Example Workouts

Directions: Perform the first exercise in each routine for 20-seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Next, complete the second exercise for 20 seconds and rest again for 10. Repeat. Each exercise will be completed four times to result in eight solid rounds of Tabata. *All workouts courtesy of Earnest.*

Workout #1
1. Battle Rope Waves
2. Battle Rope Burpee Slams
How to do it: Stand facing your anchor, holding one battle rope in each hand, feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, and knees slightly bent. Lift the right hand and rope up to shoulder level, while simultaneously lowering the left hand and rope down to hip level with enough force so the ropes move in opposite directions. Continue for 20 seconds, then rest 10 seconds. Next, still holding the ropes in each hand, bring both arms up overhead, then forcefully slam the ropes down to the ground, lowering into a high squat as you do. Drop down and perform a burpee. Continue for 20 seconds, then rest 10 seconds. Repeat this four times, as stated above.

Workout #2
1. Kettlebell Swings
2. Kettlebell Goblet Squats

Workout #3
1. Pushups
2. Double Unders
Expert tip: “For the double unders, hold the handles of a jump rope in each hand; begin to jump higher than usual while swinging the rope twice under your feet,” Earnest says. “Maintain a hollow body position while jumping for increased power to your jumps,” she recommends.

Workout #4
1. Box Jumps
2. Pullups

Workout #5  
1. Sprints
2. Walking Lunges
How to do it: Alternate sprinting at full speed for 20 seconds and taking 10 seconds to complete walking lunges so you’re moving forward in the same direction.

Workout #6  
1. Rows (hard)
2. Rows (easy, for recovery)
How to do it: Go 20 seconds hard on a rower/erg, then take 10 seconds to recover by rowing at an easy rate
Expert tip: Generally speaking, “hard” is the equivalent of >28 strokes per minute and “easy” (your recovery) is still active at <24 strokes per minute.

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