Tabata is a type of High-intensity interval training (HIIT), named after the scientist who discovered its benefits. It challenges you to give it your all for just 4 minutes a day. These 4 minutes may be the most intense of your life, but in return, the benefits of a Tabata workout far surpass those of more conventional exercise regimens.

Tabata is based on the practice habits of elite athletes

This ingenious program was developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata, who noticed that elite speedskating athletes could get the same training benefits in less time by training with more intensity. He tested his theory by comparing athletes who trained using different exercise programs for 6 weeks. One group trained conventionally, exercising at moderate intensity for 60 minutes at a time, 5 days per week. The other group took on the Tabata protocol, exercising at high intensity for just 4 minutes per day, 4 days per week. Amazingly, at the end of 6 weeks, the high intensity group, who had slashed the time they spent on exercise, actually made bigger gains than the conventional exercise group. They increased their aerobic capacity by 15%, and their anaerobic capacity by 28%, far surpassing the others, who increased their aerobic capacity by just 10%, and received no anaerobic benefit at all.

What does a typical Tabata workout look like?

Pick an exercise, like stationary cycling or the elliptical, and give it your fullest, absolute max effort for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds. Now repeat until you’ve done a total of 8 sets. Eight rounds of Tabata will take you just 4 minutes to complete, but if you’ve done it right, you will be out of breath, and feeling like you can conquer anything.

Tabata provides unique benefits

How can such a short workout achieve such striking results? The key to the success of this method is in its intensity. By limiting the recovery period, your body is pushed to its limit in very little time, causing your heart rate to soar. This kicks several body systems into gear, triggering gains in aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and burning fat at a faster rate than traditional programs. It also triggers an effect called “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption”, or EPOC, which means you continue burning calories even after you finish your workout. Due to its special intensity, the EPOC benefits of Tabata are huge.

All this adds up to more progress, in much less time. When you commit to a Tabata regimen, you can expect:

  • Increased athleticism
  • Improvements in aerobic AND anaerobic capacity
  • Increased VO2 max (an important indicator of cardiovascular fitness)
  • Higher resting metabolic rate and metabolism of glucose
  • Faster weight loss without losing muscle

Getting started with Tabata

Although the original protocol focused on just one exercise, repeated 8 times over 4 minutes, modern variants have expanded Tabata principles to include other types of exercise. Dumbbells, elliptical and treadmill workouts are just some examples. Bodyweight exercises, like burpees and squats, are also an excellent option, especially if you are just starting out. Some programs even combine several exercises in one body-ripping powerhouse workout.

Make no mistake, this protocol is grueling. But if you’re looking for the biggest return on your time investment, and are willing to push yourself, the results can be remarkable.