Tabata, a type of high-intensity interval training that was originally developed for Japan’s Olympic speed-skating team, is widely recognized as a time-efficient workout for people who don’t have hours to spend at the gym. Named after Izumi Tabata, a former researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Tabata has a simple format:
=> do an exercise for 20 seconds at full intensity, take a 10-second break. Repeat seven times, for a total workout of four minutes.
My take on Tabata goes a little further, as follows:
=> have a 30 second rest, and then do it again, three more times, with different exercises.
If you choose your exercises carefully, you can manage a total body workout in under 20 minutes. Use the remaining time for a brief warm-up at the beginning, and some stretching at the end.
The four exercises you choose should fall into the following categories:
3) upper-body – target chest, biceps, triceps, shoulders or back
4) whole-body (or, if you have an area that needs extra work, use the fourth set to focus on that; for weight-loss, you may even consider a second lower-body set)
The exercises you choose should be exercises that can be safely done at top-speed (leave slow, controlled repetitions for non-tabata workouts).
=> For lower-body – squats and lunges are effective.
=> For core – crunches, butt-lifts, the bicycle, and diagonal-crunches are all acceptable.
=> For upper-body – if you have access to a bench (or a stability ball) and some weights, you can do chest-press, chest flys, lateral raise, front raise, tricep extensions and kickbacks, curls and hammer curls. Without weights, push-ups and bench dips will work.
=> for whole-body – mountain-climbers and burpees will leave you gasping.
Given that, plan 3 or 4 tabatas workouts per week, and vary the exercises you choose so that you never do the same one two workouts in a row (eg. if you do squats on Monday, plan lunges on Wednesday) – it’ll give you a better-rounded workout, and give your body more time to recover.
Does it work?
In a study published last year in the Journal of Physiology, Prof. Gibala and his research team found that participants who did high-intensity interval training enjoyed the same physical benefits as those who did endurance training on a stationary bike, in one-third of the time. Both groups had similar levels of muscle development and lipid oxidation (which improves endurance and reduces the risk of developing obesity and diabetes).
“You can get away with less time and see many of the same adaptations we associate with endurance training,” Prof. Gibala says.
He adds that Tabata can actually develop muscles in a way that isn’t always possible with endurance training. “We have these very large, powerful muscle fibres, but there are some that don’t get called upon in our daily lives even when we do moderate exercise. They respond and adapt during interval training,” he says.
WARNING: even though you may be in good enough shape to make it through all 32 (4*8) sets of exercises, unless you’re in the “no pain, no gain” camp, I recommend that you start out easy. Do one or two sets of each exercise the first day, and work up to 8 sets over a week or two. I say this because every single time I take a break from Tabata workouts and then get started again, I’m in pain, from neck to knees, so intense it’s hard to imagine. After doing it a while, it stops hurting (afterward, I mean).
Continue on to page two for a 20 minute Tabata workout that you might want to try out.
Note: consult with your medical practitioner before starting any new exercise program.