Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Tabata Method – Improved Fitness in 5 minutes!

An unbelievable claim?

If someone told you that a there was a training method that could dramatically improve your aerobic fitness, your anaerobic fitness and help you drop body fat while performing workouts less than 5 minutes you’d probably think they were a scam artist, telling you a blatant lie or just plain crazy!

Incredibly such a method does exist and it’s called the Tabata Method.

Dr Who?

The Tabata Method is named after Dr. Izumi Tabata – a sports scientist from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan and is a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocol which has been successfully used by the Japanese Olympic speed skating team amongst others to improve aerobic and anaerobic conditioning using very brief workouts.

During his 1997 study Dr Tabata compared the effects of longer, lower intensity exercise with bouts of short very high intensity exercise. Using a unique interval training method the athletes participating in the study increased their aerobic fitness by 14% and anaerobic fitness by 28% in just 8 weeks! It’s worth noting that the subjects Dr Tabata used for testing were already accomplished sportsmen and not just beginners which make this study even more astounding. Even more incredible is the fact that the total actual training time per week was an unbelievable 30 minutes.

What is the Tabata Method?

The Tabata method involves performing 8 – 10 sets of 20 seconds very high intensity exercise separated with 10 second recovery periods giving a total training time = 4 – 5 minutes. The caveat of the Tabata Method is that all the intervals have to be done at 100% intensity – an absolute flat out effort. You have to strive to perform as much work in each 20 second interval as possible and try to maintain that work rate for the 8 – 10 sets. The old adage that you can train long and easy, or short and hard has never been truer than when describing the Tabata Method! As with any type of exercise, Tabata Method should be preceded by an appropriate warm up of 5 – 10 minutes and followed by a cool down of similar duration. All in all the session could take as little as 15 minutes…perfect for anyone who is short on time but still wants great results from their training.

All this and fat loss too?

Traditionalists may scoff at the idea of workouts which promise “fat loss in 5 minutes” but Tabata Method can deliver where many slow steady workouts fail. This is due to a phenomenon called Excessive Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC which is sometimes called Oxygen Debt…When performing Tabata Method or any other HIIT, a large amount of lactic acid is produced. This build up has to be cleared on cessation of the exercise and in very simple terms the aerobic system is responsible for the removal of lactic acid from the blood. The aerobic system goes into over drive for an extended period after exercise has stopped in an effort to “flush out” the lactic acid. This means that the metabolism (the rate at which we burn energy) remains elevated for a number of hours after we have packed up our exercise kit and gone home. It’s not uncommon to feel warmer than usual, have an elevated resting heart rate and increased breathing rate for a number of hours after a tough Tabata Method Workout – all indicators of elevated metabolism and therefore increased calorie expenditure while at rest. The primary fuel of the aerobic system is fat so we end up burning elevated amounts of fat after exercise essentially getting two workouts for the price of one! As you can see – Tabata Method is not only time efficient while you are doing it but keeps on delivering in the hours after exercise too.

Exercises of choice…

In his study, Dr Tabata used a mechanically braked cycle ergometer however many exercise modalities The most important thing to consider when choosing exercises to use with the Tabata Method is that there is minimal set up (you only have 10 seconds between sets remember) and that technically, you can perform the exercise under stress when severely fatigued. Multi joint exercises are best as they stress multiple muscle groups simultaneously and put the greatest demand on the cardio-respiratory system – thus giving the most “bang for your buck”. In many cases all you need is a clock with a second had and you are all set for a Tabata Method workout. If you become a real Tabata aficionado it may be worth buying an interval timer which can be programmed specifically for your workouts thus leaving your mind free to concentrate on your workout - check out http://www.gymboss.com/ for an excellent timer which is ideal for Tabata training.

My TOP SIX Tabata Method exercises

1) Prisoner Squats – A classic exercise - prisoner squats are a great “entry level” Tabata exercise due to their ease of performance, lack of any required equipment and the fact that you can easily keep an eye on the clock whist pumping out the reps. Keep your hands clasped behind your head (no pulling on the neck) and keep the chest elevated. Make sure your heels stay down and feel free to walk on the spot between sets to try and keep the lactic acid at bay. To increase the demands of this exercise consider wearing a weighted vest.

2) Burpeesyou can’t beat the burpee exercise for total body conditioning! Modify them to meet your individual fitness needs by performing the version that suits you best! To perform a burpee a)squat down so your hands are touching the floor, b) jump your legs to the rear, c) jump them back in and then d) stand up. To increase the intensity of this exercise a press up can be performed when the legs have been jumped to the rear and a leap off of the ground can be added instead of just standing up. Keep the abs tight to protect the back making sure your spine never sags.

3) Skipping – if you are a proficient skipper, this low tech exercise offers a new twist to traditional rope work. The best skipping styles for Tabata Method are knee-up sprints and double unders (two turns of the rope per jump). Ensure you wear good shock-absorbing shoes and use a sprung surface to minimize the risk of lower limb injuries.

4) Sprinting – this could be performed on a running track, a grassy playing field, a beach or even on a stretch of deserted road. Sprint for 20 seconds, walk for 10 seconds, repeat for 8 – 10 sets. Simple but highly effective! Avoid pacing your self and expect to find that the last few sets are really tough...your sprints may be reduced to a shambling run by the end!

5) Thrusters – a total body
exercise which rivals even the mighty burpee! Thrusters can be performed with a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, a medicine ball or even a sand bag. From a deep “front squat” (deeper than in the picture aiming for 90 degrees at the knees) stand up and, using the momentum from your legs, simultaneously press the load overhead before reversing the movement and returning to the starting position. Try to set a rhythm and stick to it!

6) Rowing ergometer – a rowing machine with a programmable timer is an excellent choice for Tabata Method training. Aim to maintain the distance covered from one set to the next or take an average from the 8 – 10 sets completed and try to beat it whenever the workout is repeated. Make sure your rowing technique is sound to avoid any potential lower back injuries.

When One Tabata isn’t enough…

In isolation, the Tabata Method offers an efficient and effective workout but the fun really begins when exercises are combined into pairs or groups. The options are literally endless for designing your own Tabata hybrid workouts which will keep your fitness improving for years to come…

Tabata Super Sets – Select two suitable exercises and alternate between them for a 10 minute workout which will really get the job done. My personal favourite is skipping paired with burpees. Perform skipping (knee up sprints) for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, followed by burpees for 20 seconds and so on. Repeat the pairing for 10 sets for a short and effective workout.

Tabata clusters – choose 3, 4, 5 or even 6 exercises and perform each one using the Tabata method. Rest 1 minute between exercises and work your way down the list. Try to select exercises which overlap as little as possible to avoid overloading your muscles to such a degree that you are unable to continue. When performing a big cluster of 4 – 6 exercises it is quite acceptable to include a couple of “easier” exercises in the sequence to reduce the intensity slightly e.g. Tabata sit-ups, press ups or step ups offer a brief respite from burpees or thrusters.

Example of a Tabata Cluster
Perform 8 – 10 sets of each exercise before moving onto the next. Allow 1 minute recovery between each exercise. Total time = 24 minutes.

1 Burpees
2 Skipping
3 Prisoner Squats
4 Sit-ups
5 Thrusters

Tabata Circuits - Tabata Circuits are very similar to the Tabata Cluster method except exercises are performed vertically instead of horizontally. Work down the list performing each exercise in turn for 20 seconds using the 10 second rest interval to move to the next station…

Example of a Tabata circuit
Perform 1 set of 20 seconds of each exercise in the sequence, using the 10 second rest interval to move to the next station. Complete 8 – 10 laps of the circuit non-stop to total 24 – 30 minutes of work.

1 Skipping
2 Press ups
3 Squat thrusts
4 Sit-ups
5 Burpees
6 Lunges

The wrap up

Tabata Method offers any fitness enthusiast an extremely versatile and effective addition to their exercise armoury which, whilst challenging to perform, offers a wide range of benefits when used on a regular basis. Don’t let the short work out length deceive you – training the Tabata way will get the job done in record breaking time.

Patrick Dale


Effects of moderate –intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2 Max

Clarence Bass – Sprints build endurance

Peak Performance/Raphael Brandon - Aerobic interval training


  1. Very interesting - thanks for the article

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