Neutralizing any excuses not to work out since 1996!!
There can be many obstacles that can prevent us from committing to exercise during a working week. Heavy working lifestyles, parental roles, and other responsibilities? Maybe the gym is too far away, too expensive and you have no gym equipment yourself? Lockdowns anyone? Maybe it’s simply a lack of discipline or energy? Whatever is hindering you from progress, it’s always a good idea to have some sort of workaround. A backup plan for when the going gets tough. One type of workout to use on a busy/lazy day, that you can easily squeeze in are Tabata workouts. These workouts are very intense and thankfully don’t involve a great deal of time. In fact, this workout only requires four minutes. Intrigued? Please read on!
Tabata workouts are named after Japanese Professor Izumi Tabata. Professor Izumi led research into HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. His study looked at the effects of HIIT on aerobic and anaerobic fitness, comparing it to regular steady-state training.
In his research, he used highly trained athletes, which he divided into two groups. The first group undertook five sessions of hour-long, steady-state training per week. The second group undertook four HIIT workouts plus one steady-state workout per week.
The HIIT sessions for group two involved 20-second bursts of very intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. This was repeated eight times for a total of four minutes. The 4-minute workouts were preceded by a 5-minute warm-up and followed by a 2-minute warm-down. All the exercise was cardio-based and undertaken on a stationary bike. Throughout the intense exercise sections of the study, athletes had to maintain a pace of over 85 RPM to avoid disqualification.
The results of the study revealed both groups had an increase in their VO2 max (a measure of how efficiently the body can use oxygen). However, those who had used Tabata’s 4-minute protocol also improved their anaerobic fitness.
Tabata training is now considered any workout consisting of 20 seconds work/10 seconds rest for 4 rounds. Tabata workouts are very popular today as an effective way to stay in shape, especially for people short on time.
The Science Behind the Workout
A Tabata workout might only last 4 minutes, however, the idea is to push yourself as hard as possible. The heart rate throughout the workout needs to remain at around 90% of your MHR (maximum heart rate) throughout. Indeed this may sound similar to HIIT (high-intensity interval training). However, circuit times in regular HIIT classes are much longer (on average around 30-45 minutes).
The workouts are designed to elevate your heart rate to a high anaerobic zone and allow the body only a short recovery period. Since you will not completely be able to get your breath back you effectively push the body into this anaerobic zone*. The body will be working overtime to find oxygen for fuel. Unable to get sufficient energy for the exercises it will then have to look elsewhere. Your body turns to other sources of fuel (fat cells), which it will continue to burn long afterward.
*Aerobic capacity (the measure of the ability your heart and lungs have to get oxygen around your body). Anaerobic capacity (the maximum amount of energy that can be produced by the body in the absence of oxygen).
Preserving Muscle Mass
As well as promoting fat burning, Tabata workouts can help with preserving muscle mass at the same time. Undertaking cardio to exhaustion for long periods can promote fat loss which is great. However, overlong cardio sessions also put your body into ‘catabolic mode’ which can result in muscle mass loss. This is something dreaded with overlong cardio. Due to the short nature of a Tabata workout, the body targets fat for fuel instead of muscle. This enables you to develop a good cardio level without losing all your hard-earned gains.
This brings us onto what is known as the ‘Afterburn effect’ or EPOC (Excess Post Exercise Consumption). EPOC is a factor that can allow the body to burn through calories 16-24 hours post-workout. With Tabata, although you are working for less time, the work is being undertaken at maximum output. Your body effectively continues to burn calories (fat) long after you are done with exercise. Torching your body fat as you go about your daily business.
Undertaking Tabata Training
Although Tabata training can be undertaken using all manner of weights or cardio, it’s best to use equipment that can be easily interchanged. Since the time limits for rest and exercise are so small, it can be tricky to stick to times if using more complex equipment. Easily managed equipment seems to work best with Tabata workouts. So Dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, sandbags, etc. Another factor to take into account with equipment is the safety aspect. You can easily injure yourself if using complex, heavy equipment and having to change that equipment in a hurry. As a general guideline, keep it light(er) with the weight. The reduced rest and high intensity will provide a grueling workout.
Start off with a basic Tabata workout until you get used to the intensity/format of the workout. 4 minutes of 20 seconds of work may sound easy, but Tabata workouts are performed at maximum intensity. Indeed Tabata workouts can be 4 minutes of hell with the right exercises. If you aren’t drenched in sweat and unable to talk at the end of the session, then you are probably not sticking to the times, or need more grueling exercises.
After a few weeks, you can play around with the format and change times or add time/exercises. For example, changing the 20/10 work-rest format to 40/20. Another example would be having 4 exercises instead of 2, extending the workout from 4 minutes to 8 minutes. However, it’s a good idea not to make the overall workout too long, however. Unless you are a super athlete you will probably be unable to maintain the intensity required. One final thing to say here is to make sure you warm-up prior to tackling a Tabata workout. The intensity required for these workouts is easy to injure muscles not warmed up properly.
Tabata workouts can be a real challenge for beginners. The potential for injury can be high for a newcomer. So if new to physical training it is probably a good idea to get used to basic circuit formats and exercises first. This allows you more time to focus on form, stability, and overall conditioning. For intermediate and advanced persons they can be a real boon to cram in Tabata workouts during a busy week.
Tabata Made Easy
- Choose your exercise(s)
- Work out at maximum intensity for 20 seconds
- Rest for 10 seconds
- Complete eight total rounds finishing as the clock hits four minutes
The increased heart rate is essential to attain the full benefits of a Tabata workout. If the rest and work period times are not strictly observed then you are effectively cheating yourself.
Choose Your Exercises
The exercises you choose to include in your Tabata training are entirely up to you. However, as mentioned earlier, the exercises you choose should meet certain criteria to enhance the effectiveness of the workout. They have to be grueling enough to push you to exhaustion during the 4 minutes. Always vary your exercises, to target different muscle groups and give others a rest. Try to select compound (full body exercises) rather than isolation exercises. The more muscles you use, the more calories you burn.
Any exercises you choose should be perfectly interchangeable. So pick workouts that you can easily transition into within your 10 seconds ‘rest’. Exercises such as heavy barbells and TRX would be no good here.
The possibilities with exercise combination are endless with Tabata. You can stick with a single exercise for 8 rounds, or a combination of 2 exercises for 4 rounds each. You can extend the rounds from 8 to 16 with 4 instead of 2 exercises. You can even change the format from 20 secs work/10 secs rest to 40 secs work/20 secs rest.
And finally, you have to make sure you give it your all during the exercises, so maximum intensity throughout.
Like all intense workouts, make sure you warm up with at least 5 minutes of dynamic stretching prior to starting. Injuries come easily to cold muscles.
Example Tabata Workouts
Below are some examples of Tabata exercise combinations. Give them a go, or just go wild and make your own combinations.
- Kettlebell Swings/Burpees
- Explosive push-ups/Squat jumps
- DB Weighted Thrusters/Sumo Squat With High Pull.
- Bodyweight Squats/Mountain Climbers.
- Sandbag shouldering/Sandbag Standups.
- KB Push Press/KB Alternating Snatch
- Double KB Cleans/KB Windmill (alternate sides each round).
- Med Ball Slams/Med ball Wall throws.
- Dynamic lunge Jumps/Skier jumps.
- Ankle Touchers/Leg raises.
- Deadlifts/Military Press.
- KB Push-ups/Renegade Rows.
A Final Word
There are many benefits to throwing in Tabata sessions to your working week. Tabata training is very versatile and flexible. It can pretty much be done anywhere and anytime. So you can undertake these workouts, at home, at work, or on holiday. Tabata is great for people with crazy schedules since the time required to work out is minimal. Being short on time is no longer an excuse.
Another great thing about Tabata is that you can really make it your own and use almost any type of exercise move that already works with HIIT. Tabata can be used as an effective solo workout or thrown in as an additional workout to keep the metabolism high.
With physical benefits, Tabata is renowned for improving your overall fitness and can improve both Aerobic and Anaerobic capabilities. The intensity of Tabata can help stoke your metabolism and promote fat burning, during and long after the workout. Lastly, there is the muscle mass preservation factor. Due to the shorter durations involved with Tabata workouts, you won’t lose muscle tissue as with longer cardio sessions. So it’s a win-win!
A final note with Tabata workouts, don’t forget you are supposed to go as intense as you can physically handle during the session. In this case for those 20 seconds of work, remember you want 90% of your MHR! So don’t go easy on yourself, leave it all out there.