Four Minutes of Suffering: Tabata Training

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has long been many people’s favorite – short bursts of activity allow to burn fat without wasting time. But one type of HIIT – tabata training – takes the concept to the limit.

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Extreme idea from Japan

Tabata was created in Japan by Dr. Izumi Tabata (who works at the University of Sports in Tokyo) circa 20 years ago with the goal to train professional athletes. After observing Olympic skaters train, he concluded that short periods of very intense exercise bring better results than steady exercise of normal intensity. Tabata developed a hardcore regimen: 20 seconds of exercise at limit of one’s capacity, then 10 seconds of rest, then repeat – all in all 8 cycles of the total length of 4 minutes. A study of two groups of athletes revealed striking differences in the results. The athletes who practiced tabata training obtained a dramatic increase in their anaerobic capacity (that is, how much energy you can obtain from all sources in your body without oxygen – more info here), aerobic capacity, and even Basal Metabolic Rate (the amount of energy the body uses at rest to keep all its functions running).

Benefits of tabata

Doing tabata training is hard, very hard – in fact, it is probably the most difficult workout out there. However, the benefits are worth it:

  • Lose weight: a 4-minute tabata workout can burn as many calories as an hour or an treadmill, but the burning doesn’t end there: since tabata increases the basal metabolic rate, you go on using more calories the whole day after the workout – about 150 calories more in total (see this study, for example).
  • Get stronger. Tabata works your whole body, including heart and lungs, thanks to its effect on the anaerobic capacity, meaning that with time, your endurance and strength will grow.
  • Choose cardio or weights. Almost any kind of simple exercise can be used in a tabata workout. You can jump, run on a treadmill, lift kettlebells, do push-ups… This way, the workout will not get too tedious.
  • Save time. While a tabata session should still be preceded by a 10-minute warmup, your total session time is reduced to 15 minutes, and according to Izumi Tabata, this is enough – you just have to do it several times a week.

How to do tabata

The first rule of tabata is: if you’ve never done it before, you need a trainer. It’s impossible to do it correctly on your own if there is nobody pushing you beyond your limits. Tabata, when done well, is so incredibly intense that you will feel completely destroyed, even nauseous (according to Dr. Tabata, you should “see God”). It seems like 20 seconds are not much, and the first repetition may come easy, but since 10 seconds of rest are not enough to recover, each new repetition will get harder, until you can hardly move.

The original method presupposes doing just one exercise for 4 minutes, but most tabata workouts on offer now include various exercises: for example, 20 seconds of squats, 20 seconds of push-ups, and so on. Once you learn to do tabata with a trainer, you can go on on your own and change exercises as you wish. Be careful with weights, however: you may discover that for tabata you need a much smaller weight than usual due to the intensity of the exercise.

Is tabata enough?

According to its creator, tabata training can replace all else. However, many people find that they still need more variety – such as swimming, yoga, and dance, that bring pleasure that tabata, obviously, doesn’t give. Of course, if you have very little time during the week, tabata is perfect. But on weekends it is wise to spend some more time doing sports that you truly enjoy. After all, tabata is very beneficial for burning fat, but it’s definitely not pleasant.

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