Tabata Protocol – Complete Exercise Guide

Tabatas.

You may have head of them, you not have heard of them. Either way in this article I want to show you a great addition to your training and/or give you some hints and tips to make your Tabata training better.

I first learned about the Tabata protocol or ‘Tabatas’ back in 2004, in an article by strength coach Dan John. Here’s how the article opened:

A couple of years ago, a company came out with an exercise machine that guaranteed results in only four minutes a day. The main problem? The $12,000 price tag. My car doesn’t cost that much. I’m not sure I’ve ever spent that much on anything, including my education.

Well, I’m going to save you a lot of money today because I’m going to show you how to do the same thing without an overpriced machine. This “top secret” training method may do more for you than all your other training combined and leave you with 23 hours and 56 minutes to live the rest of your day.

But there’s a price to pay. Think exhaustion, vomit and pools of sweat.

Exhausted From ExerciseThat’s gotta get your attention right?

Vomit, Exhaustion, Pools of sweat….only 4 minutes?

Get Real.

In the article Coach John recommended that you use 1 of 2 exercises – thrusters or front squats. I figured I’d give it a try. That afternoon I went down to my basement to train(I trained in my basement when I was at the University of Vermont Medical School as the gym was hard to get to). The basement ceiling was low so I couldn’t do any overhead pressing movements while standing, thus thrusters were out. That left front squats. I loaded the bar up with 95lbs (easy right?), turned on the music, kept my eye on the clock, and started squatting. 4 minutes and 5 seconds later…I was on the floor.

Whoa. Who would have thought that exercising for just 4 minutes could literally bring you to your knees?

So what did I do? What is a Tabata?

A Tabata workout is a timed workout that is only 4 minutes long. It consists of 20 seconds of hard (intense) exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, and then you repeat this 8 times. Seems simple but it is really tough.

Izumi TabataTabatas are named after the a Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata whom conducted a study which examined the effect of this protocol vs. traditional 60 minutes aerobic workout. The 4 minute exercise group had to bike at 90 RPMs at 170% of VO2max (that’s not a typo). As you can see this is really hard and intense exercise. At the end of the 6 week study the 4 minute exercise group had improved both their aerobic and anaerobic markers of fitness – just exercising 4 minutes a day. The 60 minute aeorbic group improved their aerobic fitness (not as much as the 4 minute group) and saw no change in their anaerobic fitness.

This 4 minute training protocol seems magical, huh? It is but where a lot of people go wrong is that they get caught up in the magic of the 4 minutes and forget about how hard the people in the study were training (remember 170% of VO2max). You can’t do sit-ups using the Tabata protocol and expect big results.

As you can probably tell, in order complete a full Tabata, really complete it like in the study, you need to be in decent shape. Fortunately, you can work your way up to the full 20 seconds on/10 seconds off protocol by using different time variations.

  • 10 seconds on, 20 seconds off x 8
  • 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off x 8
  • 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off x 8

Once you have picked what time variation suits you best, then it is time to pick an exercise.

Alywn Cosgrove once told me that one mistake he sees lots of people and trainers make is selecting skill based movements or movement that take a lot of time. An example of a bad exercise to do would be a Turkish Get Up. See the video below.

As you can see this is exercise takes skill and each rep takes time. How many of these could you possibly get in 20 seconds? Instead pick an exercise that using a lot of muscles and that you can really ‘bang out reps’ with.

Some examples are:

  • Bodyweight Squats
  • Thrusters
  • Front Squats
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Alternating Lunges
  • Jump Squats
  • Burpees

6 Pack AbsUsing a stationary bike works well but treadmills do not as it takes too much time to get ramped up (unless you were going to just jump on and off the treadmill – which I’ve done before but for liability reasons don’t recommend).

Coach Robert Dos Remedios a.k.a. The Tabata Master also emphasizes the importance of intensity when completing a Tabata session. He jokes that if you can do 2 Tabatas after your workout then your training session isn’t tough enough or you aren’t hitting your first Tabata hard enough. He recommends adding a Tabata to the end of your workout as a great way of ‘finishing your body off.’

I highly recommend that you add Tabatas to your training. They are great when you are in a time crunch and perfect for elevating your metabolism so that you can take advantage of post workout calorie burning.

Let’s close out this article with some final tips from Dan John:

And remember this: you really shouldn’t consider doing much after the Tabata workout. Your lungs will be going like a locomotive engine. Go ahead and plan anything you like, but don’t be surprised if it just doesn’t happen. I keep the family dog nearby to chase the carrion birds away while I rest on the sidewalk.

The hardest thing about this workout is staying focused for four minutes. Don’t let your hands leave the bar or dumbbells, if you can help it. After you put the bar in the rack during the front squat, stay right there, an inch or two back from the bar, and stare at the second hand of the clock.

If you do thrusters, put the dumbbells on a bench and watch the clock with your hands ready. This little trick of staying with the weight seems to help make those ten seconds seem like, well, not much, really! But at least you don’t have to move much to get the weights again.

I do either Tabata front squats or Tabata thrusters about twice a month. I’m sure someone will comment, “If it’s so good, why don’t you do it every day?” Go ahead, try it and report back after the second day. The Tabata Method – [T-Nation]


Tabata Protocol Resources

Ultimate Tabatas

One problem that people often encounter with the Tabata protocol is keeping a strict 20 seconds on/10 seconds off time schedule. A colleague of mine, BJ Gaddour, produces fitness music tracks that tell you when to start and stop throughout the Tabata protocol. It is extremely useful and allows you to just focus on training as hard as possible. BJ’s program is called Ultimate Tabatas. Please check out the whole program here.

I’ve recently received a pre-release copy of some audio tracks called “Ultimate Tabatas“. They are music tracks with verbal cues (eg. ‘start, stop, etc’) which take you through a Tabata workout. With these audios you don’t need to keep your eye on the clock you and just focus on training as hard as possible. I’m hooked on them and highly recommend that you pick them up if you do or plan on doing Tabata workout. You can get Ultimate Tabatas here.

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23 Comments

  1. Michael Navin July 31, 2009 at 1:12 pm #

    Yup, Tabata’s are great. I use them in my group classes and the clients love them (well, love the results they get from them but want to kill me every time I say at the two minute mark “okay, you’re halfway there.”

  2. Jim Romagna July 31, 2009 at 1:23 pm #

    Great articel. I have been doing Tabada for quite some time now and love it. I love Tabada treadmill work. I just hop off the rails as suggested, but yes it could get harry when one is fatigued.

    Let me share an email with you from Dan dated February 08 regarding the Thruster. he changed his philosophy on it a bit. Although I still implement it for Tabada.

    “It’s just too complex for the twenty seconds. Fatigue
    kicks in and many ahtletes start losing the groove.
    Why waste time and energy, when the Front Squat does
    the job exactly as we need it?”

  3. P. J. Striet July 31, 2009 at 1:46 pm #

    I remember doing tabatas on a schwinn airdyne back in the late 90’s before everyone jumped on the tabata bandwagon. Yes, they are brutal, and, you have to be fairly fit to even attempt the protocol.

    Lyle McDonald wrote about tabatas recently over at his blog, and he pointed out (as Mike hinted at above as well) that most people who claim they are doing tabatas are really not at all. Yes, they may be doing the 20 on 10 off x 8 protocol, but they are not working at even 100% of their VO2, much less 270% of VO2. I often see people posting their tabata workouts at websites. I have to laugh when they claim they do 3 or 4 rounds of tabatas. If you’ve actually done a true tabata workout, you’ll be seeing the grim reaper at the end of the 4 minutes and you won’t even be able to walk to your car, much less do it again and again and again.

    Also, KB swings, bodyweight exercises, etc. probably are not going to be intense enough (it might be a good cardio workout but it’s not tabata). Now, something like thrusters or burpees might do it (maybe). Try a burpee holding 30 lb. dumbbells and instead of jumping at the top, do an overhead press. You can also add in a renegade style row after the push-up at the bottom of a burpee. This type of thing will probably make the workout “truly tabata”.

  4. Mike Guardiola July 31, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    i have my Iron Dogs do Tabata finishers with Battling Ropes. Results. Try it, but don’t come after me when your done. I have a love/hate relationship with my Iron Dogs. They hate to love me. haha.

  5. Greg Pranzo August 2, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

    Mike, TThis article was cut off on the left side. I could not read everything. Can you re send it please?

  6. TheWealthSquad September 1, 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    I remember those ads. They still show up in airline magazine I believe.

    Now i just have to get into good enough shape to do one :)

    Can you lower intensity workouts based on 4 minutes to build a good foundation? It would be a great time saver if you could. I think I will try them for a couple of weeks to see where it goes.

    This kind of intense focus is also very applicable to other parts of life such as work as well. Having bursts of extreme focus can allow us to get more done in a very short period of time.

  7. CI October 5, 2009 at 4:12 pm #

    Great articel. I have been doing Tabada for quite some time now and love it. I love Tabada treadmill work. I just hop off the rails as suggested, but yes it could get harry when one is fatigued.

    Let me share an email with you from Dan dated February 08 regarding the Thruster. he changed his philosophy on it a bit. Although I still implement it for Tabada.

    “It’s just too complex for the twenty seconds. Fatigue
    kicks in and many ahtletes start losing the groove.
    Why waste time and energy, when the Front Squat does
    the job exactly as we need it?”

  8. Rick S December 24, 2009 at 5:02 am #

    I use a stationary bike where I can see all the data, change resistence, and monitor heart rate. After the 3rd round I'm already at max heart rate and just wanna cry for mommy. When I'm done I just wanna die. I've been doing these at least 3 times a week for about 3-4 months now. I'm a 40 year old firefighter and in pretty good shape as it is(5'11" 205), but these Tabatas are truly amazing. Everything that they say about this protocol is true…from the fat loss to aerobic/anaeroebic claims. I won't even do 30-60 minutes anymore…it's not a waste of time…but it's a waste of time lol. Tabatas are the bomb for people who are serious about being fit and who are able to put "mind over matter". My job and recreational hobbies are pretty much anaerobic activities…I'll do Tabatas as long as I can. So far so good!

  9. Robert January 22, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    I read an article today from Stronglifts.com and he claims Tabatas or HITT are really not any more effective at fat loss than doing steady state cardio. He compares calories burned doing 30 minutes of HITT to 45 minutes of steady state cardio. First, it would not be a tabata if it were that long and probably too long for HITT. He keeps making reference to using the bodybug as a measure of the results. I fail to see how a cheap instrument can give true results compared to the studies Mr Tabata did with his groups. For that matter, what about the countless other studies done showing the elevation of metabolism after HITT and other such protocols. Any thoughts on this?

  10. Rick February 6, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    Hi Robert. This is Rick from(the post above yours). I can't speak for the author from Stronglifts, but as you probably already know that numbers can be made to look how you want them. If you run for 60 min, you will burn more calories than the 15 min of Tabata….initially. But with Tabatas your metabolism shoots through the roof and you burn calories non-stop for about 24-36 hrs(or so). I'm hungry all the time! I call BS if this author thinks that ultimate fat burning is the same for both. All's I know is that I've tried many other cardio workouts(including running forever and a day), and NOTHING compares to Tabatas. HIIT doesn't even compare to Tabatas for anaerobic benefits and fat loss. As I mentioned in my preivious post, I don't even bother with long runs/rides anymore…unless I just feel like it. Tabatas are just in a class by themselves when done right. I'm now 209lbs and my body fat has gone from 14% down to 11% since that last post. +3 lbs mass and -3% body fat. My cardio health has never been better.

  11. PCC May 1, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    I would be reluctant to use weights when doing Tabata- the quick accelerating movement might result in injury more easily than by using your body as the weight or resistance. Better to stick to an exercise bike, burpees, pushups or pushup burpees- or the like.

  12. RMFMA June 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    I'm a Krav Maga Instructor and the TABATA is a work that i use in all my classes, and i can assure You that my class is evolving in terms of speed, cardio capabilities and strength much quicker, in comparison with similar classes were the TABATA protocol is not used.

  13. CactusHeart February 4, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

    I just started Tabata training and so far I feel like a million bucks! I don't get the tip from Dan John "don't expect to do much after working out". I kicked my own ass in the morning and I've been motoring all day as if I had coffee (but I didn't!)! It was intense, it hurt, but when it was over, I walked away feeling better than when I did HIIT. In fact, if I wasn't struck down by some monster cramps, I'd go for another round tonight! I can't wait to see what results I'm gonna get! (^_^) I wanna get cut the f*ck up! But it's too bad I realized too late that treadmills are not exactly ideal for Tabatas. By the time another interval starts, the treadmill hasn't even finished adjusting the speed *lol*. I used to have a treadmill with a dial that controls the speed. I think Ma kept it. She uses it as a clothes hanger now I think *lol*.

    • Bill January 9, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      Hey CactusHeart,

      You’ve got to be a bit careful, but I leave my treadmill running full steam and hop on the side rails during the rest interval. Just be prepared to jump back on in the middle of full speed or you’ll be co-mingling with whatever sits behind the treadmill.

  14. CactusHeart February 5, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    …But yeah, I tried to go for 10, but I could only hang for 8. I guess that means I did it right? *lol*.

    Robert: I wouldn't trust any corporate-funded study…think about it, do you really think they would publish any findings that would go AGAINST their theory? Or in this case, what they're trying to sell? Making multiple references to a fitness gizmo is very fishy and should arouse your suspicion. Muscle mags/sites aren't what they used to be anymore, they've literally become the advertiser's bitch (which can probably be said about most mags nowadays, but muscle/fitness mags are the most prolific in this abuse), so much so that any reader can tell the publishers bend over backwards in their writing and articles to support a particular supplement or fitness doo-dad because they're afraid that if thier client the advertiser (one of the primary sources of a mag's revenue 2nd to readership) doesn't like what they see, they can pull out. That's pretty much all that scene is about anymore: hyping a product and the belief that you can't get the results you want without it.

  15. Bob February 7, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    I have been doing the Tabata work out with Bike and Elliptical for a week. Two days, rest a day, two days…..
    I lost 4 pounds in that week and I feel noticable better. I wear a HR monitor and get to 155 during the 5 minutes (I do 10) and I'm back to 90 one minute after the 2 minute cooldown. I work ou in the morning and do my regular cardio exercises in the evening for 45-60 minutes daily. I'm 60 and struggle with my weight. This may just be the Silver Bullet I have been looking for.
    Am I hitting it hard enough? Idon't know but if I loose the weight I need to (15 more pounds) it will be hard to ge the smile off my face. I can't run any more due to a bad knee. I'm looking for other exercises to do besides those mentioned.
    Bob

  16. John Dickey February 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Here is a free timer for Android phones. You can save several timers to meet your needs.

    https://market.android.com/details?id=com.jpd0861.motivator&feature=search_result

    Enjoy.

  17. Kristen March 3, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    How is it possible to work at 170% VO2max, which would be above the maximal amount of oxygen your body can uptake and utilize? Please explain.

    • kevin March 3, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

      you can go to 170% VO2max because you are working anaerobically. At 100% of V02max your anaerobic system kicks- the process by which your body creates energy without using oxygen (krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorilation?). Correct me if I’m wrong, but part of this is to very rapidly deplete your blood glucose and to start your body burning fat. From what I understand, tabatas cause fatty acids to enter the bloodstream to be burned for energy and then these fats continue to be burned for hours after the workout. Anyway, this is how I’ve come to understand what I have read. If it is incorrect, I hope someone else will comment and correct. Hope this helps.

      • Markus August 8, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

        Yes, your understanding of the fat-burning aspect of the Tabata protocol is incorrect.

        There is less than 3 minutes of work in a Tabata session, which is too brief a time for the body to access stored bodyfat as a fuel source. There is an extended postexercise rise in resting metabolism after a Tabata, and this can contribute to a greater caloric utilization, similar to how a weightlifting workout can increase RMR. This increase is not huge, but it adds up.

        The key to successfully using any supremely intense form of exercise is recovery. Trying a Tabata workout every day, for example, would lead to neural overload fairly soon, and would be counterproductive.

  18. Jeremy July 29, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    I do Tabata on my Concept 2 rower 3 times a week (every 2 days) first thing in the morning. In addition I am following a Concept 2 weightloss rowing programme (3 sessions a week) which I do when I get home from work and on the other evenings I do outdoor circuit training for an hour in a group class in a park. I never exercise on a Saturday and make sure that I completely rest that day. I love my rower for building endurance and stripping fat via cardio, I love circuits for general levels of fitness but OMG the Tabata is a complete love/ hate relationship. I agree with the comments above, you have to go flat out and ignore the crying, wanting your mum/ to vomit/ to give up and focus on the timer and nothing else. It absolutely canes me every single time (yes I know that is the objective!) and I am left in a pool of jelly and sweat pouring off me and heaving for breath. If you are able to even stand or have a conversation you are not working hard enough, you must go FLAT OUT and work through the pain. It is not because you are weak, it is because your body is on the absolute limit. I am 42 and so far in 15 weeks I have lost 23 pounds, dropped 3 trouser sizes (40 inch down to 34 inch waist) and never felt fitter in my entire life. I have 14 pounds left to lose to get down to 180 pounds and a healthy BMI of 23. I have only incorporated the Tabata in a disciplined manner over the past couple of weeks and the weight is dropping off at 3-4 pounds per week now yet I am eating (healthily) so much more.

    I agree with Kevein and as I understand it the intense workout means you have to work anaerobically which depletes the creatine and lactic
    systems in your muscles which then means fatty acids are released and burnt. It raises your resting metabolic rate (RMR) through Post exercise oxygen consumption and continues to burn fat for 24-36 hours afterwards.

    God bless you Professor Tabata. When Tabata is done properly it ROCKS! Who can’t fit 15 minutes into their life 3 times a week? (allowing for warmup and cooldown).

  19. j.r. thomas January 9, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    TABATA WORKS, I CAN ATTEST TO THAT. ORIGINALLY, I STARTED USING KETTLE BELL WORKOUTS. I SWITCHED TO TABATA KETTLEBELL WORKOUTS AND REALIZED ALMOST IMMEDIATE GAINS. I AM SIXTY-THREE YEARS OLD WITH ALL THE ACCOMPANYING ARTHRITIC PAINS THAT GO WITH THAT AGE.

    I DO TABATA AT HOME WITH KETTLE BELLS AND IN THE GYM WITH DUMBBELLS.

    j.r. thomas

    james 237@hotmail.com

  20. Vyshnav February 21, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Hi guys,
    I am pretty new to tabata.

    Can i do TABATA everyday.
    And also how many TABATA rounds of 4 mins each can be done every day.

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