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The Tabata Protocol: 4 Minutes To Peak Fitness

Updated on April 4, 2019
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Get fit and lean with the Tabata Protocol
Get fit and lean with the Tabata Protocol | Source

The Tabata Protocol

Can you get fit and burn off excess fat with only 4 minutes of exercise? You can if you use the Tabata Protocol. In fact research has shown that this highly demanding 4 minute workout can improve your fitness more than an hour long moderate intensity cardio session. And the fat burning effects are exceptional too. So if you want to take your fitness to the next level, as well as get leaner than you’ve ever been before, read on.

What Is The Tabata Protocol?

The Tabata Protocol is an extremely demanding type of high intensity interval training (HIIT), developed by Olympic Japanese speed skating coach, Dr. Izumi Tabata, who studied the protocol at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan.

Dr. Tabata studied two groups of college athletes. One group performed an hour of moderate intensity cardio (70% VO2 Max) 5 days per week for 6 weeks. The other group did the Tabata Protocol, which consisted of 7 – 8 sets of 20 seconds of maximum effort on a stationary bike, with 10 seconds of active rest between sets. A total of just 4 minutes. This was preceded by a 10 minute warm-up.

After the 6 weeks the athletes on the Tabata Protocol had increased their anaerobic capacity by 28% and their aerobic fitness by 14%. Those doing the steady state cardio had an increase in aerobic fitness of about 10% and no increase in anaerobic capacity. So the high intensity 4 minute workout had produced better results than an hour of moderate exercise.

Although the original study was done using a stationary bike, you could use an elliptical trainer or rowing machine if you wish. A treadmill is also a possibility, but its drawback is that its speed cannot be adjusted fast enough, so you would have to step onto the sides and stop entirely for the 10 second rest periods, rather than reducing the speed to a comfortable jog.

Outdoor sprints work great too. And the protocol can also be done with bodyweight exercises such as squat jumps or mountain climbers, or even with weights, using such movements as hang cleans or push presses. The only requirement is that you are able to put in absolute maximum effort for the 20 second periods.

Building Up To Tabata

Although it sounds simple enough on paper, this is an extremely demanding regimen, and even many well-trained athletes cannot get through all 8 sets the first time they try. So you need to start off a bit more gently before embarking on the full Tabata Protocol.

There are a number of ways of building up to the Tabata Protocol, but the simplest one is to start off with just two sets of sub-maximal (about 80% effort) 20 second sprints (after a 5 minute warm-up), with 10 seconds between them. Then, as your fitness improves, increase the number very gradually until you can do all 8. And after that, gradually increase the intensity of your sprints until you are doing them all with maximum effort.

An alternative method is to start with shorter sprints and longer rest periods. So you could do 10 second sprints and have 20 second rest periods. Do 6 of these to begin with; then increase to 7 in your second week, and then 8 in your third week. After this you would increase the sprints to 15 seconds and decrease the rest periods to 15 seconds. Do 5 of these and build up weekly until you can do 8. Finally increase the sprints to 20 seconds and decrease the rest periods to 10 seconds. Start off with 4 and add one per week until you can do the full Tabata Protocol.

The above progression assumes you are doing the Protocol 2 or 3 times per week, which is enough, and only seasoned athletes should attempt to do it more often than that.

The Fat Burning Effects Of Tabata

Apart from its sensational effects on improving fitness levels, Tabata will burn off fat really effectively too. This is because this type of training really revs up the metabolism, creating an ‘afterburn’ effect, where you continue to burn calories for many hours after your workout has finished. High intensity training of this sort also increases output of growth hormone which helps burn additional fat (as well as having many other health benefits).

You can gain even more fat burning benefits however if you do a short session of lower intensity steady state cardio after your Tabata training. This is because high intensity interval training releases a lot of free fatty acids from your fat cells, which the steady state cardio will then burn off. And doing this will also increase the afterburn effect too. 15 minutes will suffice, but you can do up to 30 if you wish.

So the entire program would entail a 5 minute warm-up, the Tabata Protocol itself, and then 15 – 30 minutes of steady state cardio (optional, but recommended if you want the maximum fat burning effect). If you don't do the steady state cardio, do a 2 minute cool down after doing the Tabata Protocol.

Some people do 2 or 3 Tabata routines in a row, using a different exercise for each one. Or you can even alternate two different exercises during the same Tabata routine if you are doing bodyweight exercises or weights (e.g. hang cleans alternated with push presses). So the technique is very versatile and you can adapt it as you wish.

So, if you want to achieve maximum fitness in the minimum amount of time, and burn off all that excess body fat quickly too, give the Tabata Protocol a try. I'm sure you'll be impressed with the results.


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