Is it possible to actually get fitter while only exercising for 4 minutes per day? Probably not, but the Tabata protocol can be used as a fun way to exercise when limited on time. And doing something is always better than nothing.
In this article we’ll cover what the Tabata protocol is, how to use it effectively, and…
Ya know, just check out the table of contents and choose your own adventure.
What is the Tabata protocol?
The Tabata protocol is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), that alternates from 20 seconds all-out efforts, with 10 seconds of complete rest.
The Tabata study was conducted in 1996 at the Japanese National Institute of Fitness and Sports by Izumi Tabata, Ph.D., and his team of researchers. Dr. Tabata took two groups of elite athletes and put them through 6 weeks of 5 days per week training.
The first group ran 60 minutes per day at about 70% of their work capacity (VO2 max).
The second group did sprints following the Tabata protocol. They would sprint 20 seconds all out (170% of their V02 max), rest 10 seconds, then sprint again for 20 seconds, followed by another 10 seconds of rest. Alternating 20-second sprints with 10 seconds of rest was done for a total of 4 minutes or 8 rounds.
At the end of the 6-week experiment, Dr. Tabata and his team discovered the following.
The group that ran for 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week increased only their aerobic capacity or how long you can run by 9.5% and their anaerobic capacity or how long you can run at a max effort by 0%.
The group that performed the Tabata protocol increased their maximum aerobic capacity by 14% and their anaerobic capacity by 28%. The difference between the aerobic and anaerobic systems is mostly related to the duration and intensity of the exercise being performed and the type of fuel (fat, carbohydrate, etc..) that the body uses.
The Tabata protocol has evolved
If you’ve done a Tabata workout at a local CrossFit or created your own, the odds are you didn’t really do a Tabata workout. Yes, you worked out really hard for 20 seconds and took a 10-second break. But a real Tabata workout is probably impossible for most of us.
Professor Tabata’s study used Olympic speed skaters. These skaters performed their Tabata’s on a mechanically-braked cycle ergometer. Subjects in the study were disqualified if they could not keep a steady pace of 85 RPM for the full 20 seconds. This level of intensity was needed in order to achieve 170% of their VO2max. Most of us would struggle to work at that level of intensity for multiple sets, multiple days per week.
The Tabata protocol: Doing less to do more
In the article How to Perform Cardio For Better Results, we discussed what cardio actually is and how you can use it to maximize your results. In that article, you and I talked a lot about high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and how to include it in your workouts.
For a quick refresher on the benefits of HIIT:
- Increased fat loss
- Preserves lean muscle tissue
- Is more sport specific (better for athletes)
- Improves work capacity or ability to work at maximal efforts for longer periods of time
- Builds mental toughness and grit
- Is much easier on the joints
- Improves your bodies ability to oxidize fats and carbohydrates in muscles
- Uses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways (improves your “cardio” and maximal efforts)
- Releases more fat-burning hormones like growth hormone (GH), testosterone (don’t work ladies), and adrenaline.
- Requires less TIME than traditional longer bouts of cardio
- Burns more calories per minute when compared to traditional forms of cardio.
- Basically, high-intensity training offers you far more benefits in a fraction of the time.
- Instead of spending 60 minutes in the gym, running outside, or biking you can practice HIIT for 20 minutes (and often less than that) and still get results.
So let me get this straight. You’re telling me to workout less?
Well, yes and no.
The main point of this article is to show you that you don’t need to workout 60 minutes every day in order to become the fittest version of yourself (2). This article is intended to remove the time excuse from your vocabulary.
If I asked you on a scale of 1 to 10 how confident you were that you could exercise 5 days per week every day for 60 minutes for the next 30 days what would you say?
Ok, now if I asked you on a scale of 1 to 10 how confident you were that you could exercise 5 days per week every day for 20 minutes for the next 30 days what would you say?
The 20 minutes right? It’s far less daunting of a challenge and easier to implement into your already hectic enough schedule.
Here’s where the good news gets even better!
I’m not even going to ask you to exercise for 20 minutes. I’m going to ask you to exercise for 4.
The Tabata protocol: What a 4-minute workout looks like
Here’s what a 4-minute Tabata protocol could look like.
It is 20 seconds of very high-intensity work followed by 10 seconds of rest. This would be repeated for 8 sets. A total of 4 minutes.
There are many ways you could do this:
- Jump roping
- Battle ropes
- Bodyweight movements (squats, push-ups, pull-ups, etc…)
You could also use oxygen sucking exercises like these:
- Kettlebell swings
- Wall balls
- Medicine ball slams
A few basic Tabata workouts that you could try:
- A Tabata running protocol: Run at an all-out effort for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds and repeat 8 times.
- Tabata bike protocol: Using a stationary bike, peddle all out for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, and repeat 8 times.
- A Tabata jump rope protocol: Do as many double-unders or single-unders as possible in 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, and repeat 8 times.
- Burpee Tabata protocol: Do as many burpees as possible in 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, and repeat 8 times.
Tabata protocol: Should you go all out and what to expect
Tabata style workouts can be very demanding on the body. But they can also be very easy. It depends on how intense you decide to train.
For beginners looking to move more in less time don’t worry about going all out. Work at a pace you’re comfortable with for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds and repeat for 8 sets.
If you’ve been training consistently for a while and are an intermediate to an advanced trainee that has good form and is injury-free. Step up your game and work a little harder.
Keep in mind there is also a greater risk for injury when you’re working at such a high intensity. Your form can often be sacrificed for speed during workouts like this so make sure to focus on doing all of the exercises correctly.
If you’re doing your first Tabata style workout here is what you can expect.
- Your body temperature is rising extremely quickly
- Your bodies source of fuel and energy is getting depleted extremely quickly
- Changes in your blood PH are happening extremely quickly
- Your body fluids are decreasing extremely quickly
- It’s hard for your body to get enough oxygen to where it needs to be fast enough and you may get light-headed or feel sick.
How should I approach my first Tabata protocol?
Don’t do your Tabata’s at an all-out effort at first. In order to maximize the benefits you will eventually need to but if you’re going from couch to Tabata this might be difficult. Even if you’ve been working out regularly or running consistently workouts like this may still be very difficult. You’ll be using a new energy system and easing your body to do something very foreign to it.
- Do fewer rounds. Instead of 8 just try 6, 4, or even 2.
- Increase the rest. Instead of only resting 10 seconds try 20, 40, or even a minute.
- Don’t go all out. Work at a lower intensity
Use easier methods.
Running is very demanding on the body and there’s a high risk of injury. Also, if you’re using a treadmill to do your Tabata’s you’ll have to get comfortable with jumping on and off of one while it’s moving.
Treadmills are also very deceiving. Running at 10 mph is about a 6-minute mile. But on a treadmill, it will feel much easier than if you were to do this outside on a track.
Running on a treadmill also underutilizes the hamstrings. If you decide to do running Tabata’s head outside if you can but if that is not an option use an incline to increase the level of difficulty.
I recommend using a recumbent or stationary bike instead. The risk of injury, especially for a beginner is much less and it will be far easier to adjust to your work and rest intervals. When using a bike make sure to adjust the resistance based on your body size and level of conditioning.
Who should try a Tabata protocol?
Anyone can do a Tabata workout. But be honest with yourself and your level of fitness. If you’re a beginner start slow and build up. If you’re already well-conditioned you can probably step up your game a little. Try including a variety of exercises, increased sets, and intensity.
Beginners will need time to adjust to the intensity. 20 seconds at an all-out effort with 10 seconds of rest for 4 minutes can be extremely uncomfortable. The workouts are difficult and only get harder the more sets, exercises, and variety in exercises you use.
Those with limited time can make it easy on themselves to build a consistent exercise habit. Only dedicating 4 to 16 minutes of your day to exercise is far less intimidating than trying to create time for an hour.
What do I need for a Tabata workout?
You won’t need a whole lot to get in a Tabata workout.
- A timer: You can use your phone, a watch, a stopwatch, or any of these cool apps. Tabata timer, Tabata trainer app, Tabata stopwatch, Tabata pro
- A list of exercises: Like this DIY chart. Use the bodyweight exercises or the cheat sheet below
- Your body: Equipment for Tabata’s is a bonus. All you really are going to need is your body
A Tabata protocol cheat sheet: Example Tabata workouts
The Tabata protocol
- Beginner – 8 sets of 20 seconds of high-intensity exercise with 10 seconds of rest. Total work time would only be 4 minutes
- Intermediate – 16 sets of 20 seconds of high-intensity exercise with 10 seconds of rest. Total work time would be 8 minutes
- Advanced – 16 to 32 sets of 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest. Total work time would be a maximum of 16 minutes
- Battle ropes
- Jump rope
- Box jumps (or broad jumps)
- Kettlebell swings
- Ring rows
- Inverted rows
- Jumping squats
- Jumping lunges
- Jumping jacks
- Wall balls
- Ball slams
- Mountain climbers
An effective way to combine exercises for a Tabata workout is to alternate lower body with upper body exercises.
Example Tabata Workouts
- Monday – Stationary bike sprints, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest x 8 sets
- Wednesday – Squats, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest x 8 sets
- Friday – Toe touch jump, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest x 8 sets
- Monday – Jump rope, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest x 8 sets. Right after your 8th set of jump rope rest 10 seconds and go right into push-ups (incline, knee, or wall) for 20 seconds on and 10 seconds of rest x 8 sets.
- Wednesday – Treadmill sprints (stairs at home or outside), 20 seconds on, 10 seconds of rest x 8 sets. Right after your 8th set of treadmill sprints rest 10 seconds and go right into pull-ups (or inverted rows) for 20 seconds on and 10 seconds of rest x 8 sets.
- Friday – Box jumps (or broad jumps), 20 seconds on, 10 seconds of rest x 8 sets. Right after your 8th set of box jumps rest 10 seconds and go right into speed burpees for 20 seconds and 10 seconds of rest x 8 sets.
- Squats: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds of rest x 4-8 sets
- pull-ups (or inverted rows): 20 seconds on, 10 seconds of rest x 4-8 sets
- push-ups: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds of rest x 4-8 sets
- star sit-ups: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds of rest x 4-8 sets
If you happen to have a kettlebell at home try substituting kettlebell swings for your pull-ups for a super intense workout.
Frequently asked Tabata protocol questions
Question: Can I do Tabata workouts every day?
Yes, but two things.
- Who the hell wants to work out every day?
- And why do you want to do them every day?
In the original Tabata study, Tabata workouts were done 4 days per week over 6 weeks. If you’re working out at a high-intensity level 1 to 4 workouts like this per week should be efficient. They make a great side dish to your main strength workouts.
Question: Can you lose weight doing Tabata workouts?
Yes and no. Moving more helps you burn calories. But your return on investment for weight loss is if you create a calorie deficit through diet. If you’re doing Tabata workouts and not eating in a deficit it will be hard to lose weight.
Question: Is Tabata good for beginners?
It could be. If you are limited on time a 4-minute workout like this is a great way to move more. But I would recommend that beginners start with regular walking, meaningful movement, or a beginner bodyweight routine.
Question: Is 4-minutes of Tabata enough?
Enough for what? Weight loss, building muscle, or something else? Probably not, however, it has been shown to be a great way to expend calories (1) and possibly improve cardiovascular health. More importantly, it is enough to get you moving and that matters most.
Wrapping this up Tabata protocol style in 20 seconds or less
For those of you that are struggling to build a consistent exercise habit give the Tabata protocol a try. A 4-minute movement routine is better than the 0-minute routine you’re not doing.
- Monday: Tabata workout based on your fitness level
- Tuesday: Walk, play, yoga, active recovery
- Wednesday: Tabata workout based on your fitness level
- Thursday: Walk, play, yoga, active recovery
- Friday: Tabata workout based on your fitness level
- Saturday: Walk, play, yoga, active recovery
- Sunday: Email me and tell me how this experience was for you 🙂
Use the examples I gave in this article or check out some of these awesome sauce Tabata resources for more examples of great Tabata style workouts.
- Greatist: 11 Tabata move you must try
- Fitsugar: Printable Tabata workouts
- Tina Reale: Full body Tabata routine
- Tabata Exercise: 15 tabata exercises