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As with many things, fitness results have to be earned. The fact is, nothing works if you don’t, and there may be no better proof of this principle than the Tabata Protocol. This unique workout has been shown to produce astonishing fitness gains, despite taking just 14 minutes to complete — and that’s if you include a five-minute warm-up and a five-minute cool-down. In other words, the workout itself takes a mere four minutes. But be forewarned: It is one tremendously tough workout.

Just ask Ed Reis, 33, a management consultant in Mission Viejo, Calif. He’s very familiar with the Tabata Protocol, which consists of six to eight 20-second intervals performed at absolute maximum intensity on a stationary bike (or any appropriate exercise), separated by 10-second periods of rest. He was introduced to the workout by his personal trainer, Brian MacKenzie, CFT, CCS, owner of Genetic Potential and CrossFit Newport Beach, training facilities in Newport Beach, Calif.

“The first time I did Tabata,” Reis recalls, “I looked at my heart-rate monitor about a third of the way into the session. I saw a bigger number than I had ever seen before, and I thought, I have how many more of these?!”

Reis was able to complete the workout, but admits he still gets butterflies every time MacKenzie prescribes another set of Tabata intervals. “Some days I would definitely rather do a longer workout than go that hard!” he says. “But the results are worth it. Within a couple weeks, my legs got stronger, I had more energy, and I could play soccer and basketball for much longer before I got tired.”

MacKenzie concurs. “Doing Tabata intervals will enhance the overall benefits you get from training, from fat loss to strength development.” In other words, if you want to crank up your fitness and you’re willing to work hard to get there, Tabata might just be the ticket.

A World-Class Pedigree

The Tabata Protocol is named after Izumi Tabata, PhD, a former researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, who studied the workout after learning of it from the coach of the Japanese national speed-skating team.

Tabata was intrigued by the unusual work-rest ratio. In a typical interval workout, the rest period that follows each high-intensity interval is longer than the intervals themselves — for example, 20-second sprints might be followed by 60-second recoveries.

By contrast, in the workout that eventually became known as the Tabata Protocol, the rest periods (10 seconds) are half the length of the high-intensity intervals (20 seconds). “This format makes the workout very challenging — and beneficial — for both the aerobic system and the anaerobic system,” says Alex Koch, PhD, a professor of exercise physiology at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo.

The aerobic system uses oxygen to perform work at low to moderately high intensities, while the anaerobic system performs high-intensity work for short periods of time without oxygen.

In Tabata’s classic study of the protocol, athletes demonstrated an impressive 14 percent increase in aerobic capacity and a whopping 28 percent increase in anaerobic capacity after doing the workout on stationary bikes five times a week for eight weeks. Over the same eight-week period, a control group rode stationary bikes for one hour ˙ at a moderate intensity five times a week and experienced a smaller 9.5 percent improvement in aerobic capacity and no improvement in anaerobic capacity.

Trying Tabata

The Tabata Protocol is not for everyone. If you’re fairly new to exercise, spend time building a fitness foundation with less intense workouts before you try Tabata.

“It’s not something you should mess with if you’re 40 and haven’t exercised since college,” says Koch. If, on the other hand, you’ve been working out four or five times a week for the past six months, with one or two of those days at medium to high intensity, you’re probably ready to roll.

Even if you’re in top shape, avoid Tabata if you have any type of injury likely to be affected by the workout, even if it’s fairly mild. “Tabata puts a tremendous strain on the working muscles and joints,” says MacKenzie.

Treat your first few Tabata workouts as practice sessions, no matter what you think you can handle. “It takes a little practice to find the ideal tension level for all-out sprints on the stationary bike, and to master the timing and so forth,” says MacKenzie. As long as you are going all-out (at your all-out pace, that is), the number of sets you complete doesn’t really matter. And take heart — almost everyone struggles with this workout, so just do your best.

While the stationary bike is the most popular way to apply the Tabata Protocol, it also has been successfully applied to running (steep hill sprints are best, so you can stop quickly for rest periods), rowing, swimming and other cardio activities.

You can even perform strength-training versions of the Tabata Protocol. These workouts follow the same format: a single full body weightlifting exercise done six to eight times in 20-second bursts followed by 10-second rest periods. ˙

It’s very important that you practice your chosen weightlifting exercise before using it in a Tabata workout. “You won’t be able to prevent your technique from deteriorating somewhat toward the end of the workout, so it’s important that you start with perfect form,” says MacKenzie.

Two of the most popular strength options are front squats and the Tabata thruster (see below for details).

Completing a Tabata workout once a week is plenty for cardio, and twice a month is adequate for strength. Make sure your workout schedule allows for at least a day’s recovery time.

Whether or not Tabata proves right for you depends mostly on your appetite for exercise intensity — and your hunger for full-tilt fitness results.

Totally Intense

You can adapt the Tabata Protocol to virtually any activity you dare: Below, a sample cardio workout. For a Tabata-inspired strength workout, see below.

Tabata Cardio Workout

The original Tabata Protocol — the one used in Izumi Tabata’s groundbreaking study — involved stationary cycling, and for good reason: It’s the safest and most convenient way to do the workout. Here’s how Brian MacKenzie, CFT, CCS, owner of Genetic Potential and CrossFit Newport Beach, in Newport Beach, Calif., does it with his cycling clients:

  1. Get in a comfortable position on a stationary bike, adjusting the seat position and foot straps as necessary.
  2. To warm up, pedal at a high cadence (90-plus rpm) and a very low tension level for five to 10 minutes.
  3. Increase the tension and pedal moderately hard for 10 to 20 seconds, then reduce the tension and pedal easy for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat this process two to three more times, working a little harder each time. Your last warm-up interval should be a 90 percent effort at the tension level you feel is appropriate for your maximum-intensity Tabata intervals.
  4. Pause briefly and reset the workout time and distance to zero.
  5. Pedal as hard as you can for 20 seconds. You may remain seated or stand on the pedals — whichever position feels most comfortable.
  6. Stop pedaling and rest for exactly 10 seconds — not a tick longer!
  7. Complete a total of six to eight maximum-intensity intervals of 20 seconds, with a 10-second rest period after each. After completing your last interval, note the total distance you covered (if your bike has a monitor). Try to beat this number the next time you do Tabata. The more you do it, the more consistent your mileage will be during each 20-second bout.
  8. Cool down with five minutes of easy pedaling at a low tension level.

Tabata Strength Workout

The key to performing an effective strength workout using the Tabata Protocol is to choose a good exercise, because it’s a single-exercise workout. The best sorts of exercises challenge the whole body, are explosive (meaning you can do them at a rapid tempo) and may be done safely even when you are extremely fatigued. Many Tabata proponents prefer the front squat, explosive (or plyometric) pushups, and an exercise called the thruster.

To do a Tabata thruster:

  • Stand with your feet positioned a little farther than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. Begin with a light dumbbell in each hand, elbows sharply bent so the dumbbells are just above your shoulders.
  • Squat deeply, lowering your butt as close to the floor as you can while keeping your knees positioned as close to over your ankles as possible.
  • With a smooth, powerful motion, extend your hips and knees and stand fully upright. As you’re accelerating upward, use your core muscles and shoulders to transfer your body’s upward momentum to the dumbbells and press them overhead. Pause briefly, lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders and immediately squat again.

To incorporate the thruster into a Tabata strength workout:

  1. Warm up by doing 10 to 12 thrusters without dumbbells at a slow tempo.
  2. Assume the start position for the thruster exercise, making sure you’re in a position where you can see a wall clock to track elapsed time. Use a very light pair of dumbbells the first time you do this workout. If they’re too light, you can always increase the weight next time.
  3. Do thrusters for 20 seconds at an explosive but controlled tempo. At the ideal tempo, you will complete eight thrusters in this time period.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds by placing the dumbbells on a bench in front of you. Time your rest period so that you begin the next set of thrusters at the 10-second mark. Don’t time it so that you’re just moving to pick up the dumbbells again at the 10-second mark!
  5. Complete a total of six to eight high-intensity intervals of 20 seconds, with a 10-second rest period after each. Don’t worry too much at first about how many reps you’re able to do — just stick to the clock and good form.

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