Tabata Protocol – Complete Exercise Guide



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.

That’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

Using 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]

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