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How to Create Effective Tabata Workouts

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How to Create Effective Tabata Workouts

Tabata workouts promise fat loss in just 4 minutes of exercise, but it’s not that simple. Read on to learn why.

 

“4 minute fat-burning workouts.”

That’s the big promise of tabata training but is it actually possible? Can you really drop pounds doing just a few minutes of exercise per day?

The short answer is no, you can’t.

In fact, in the absence of a proper diet, no amount of exercise is going to help you achieve your weight loss goals (and this is why research shows that regular exercise guarantees little in the way of fat loss).

That said, if you know what you’re doing with your diet, tabata training can help you lose fat faster than many traditional types of exercise…if you know how to do it properly. And in this article, you’re going to learn exactly that.

As you’ll soon see, there are two major mistakes people make in their tabata workouts that prevent them from getting the results they’re after. And you’re going to learn how to avoid these pitfalls and create tabata workouts that actually work.

What Is Tabata Training?

tabata-workout-routine

In 1996, Dr. Izumi Tabata published a research paper on high-intensity interval training changed the way hundreds of thousands of people exercise.

The study compared the effects of 60 minutes of moderate-intensity steady-state cardio to 4 minutes of ultra-intense cardio intervals consisting of 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest.

Dr. Tabata and his team found that the shorter workouts were equally effective in improving aerobic capacity and more effective in increasing anaerobic capacity.

This sparked a wildfire of publicity and gyms and trainers everywhere started incorporating 4-minute workouts into their classes and with their clients. That was twenty years ago and tabata training is still extremely popular today.

There’s a problem though.

The majority of people doing tabata training aren’t doing it for performance benefits–they’re doing it to help them lose weight.

And while high-intensity interval training itself is extremely effective for burning fat, traditional tabata workouts aren’t for one simple reason: they’re too short.

The reality is you can only burn so much energy in 4 minutes, regardless of how hard you push yourself. Research has quantified that number, too.

A study conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that tabata-style training burns about 14 calories per minute.

So 4 minutes of tabata would burn around 70 calories, which just isn’t going to move the needle much in terms of energy balance. (And sure, there’s the post-exercise calorie burn as well but it too won’t be anything substantial.)

Most people haven’t gotten that memo, though, and instead have been sold on dropping pounds quickly with just 4 minutes of exercise every day.

Another problem with the “tabata” workouts many people do is they aren’t intense enough to be true “tabata training.”

The 20 seconds of all-out intensity in what scientists call tabata training is meant to be just that–all out.

Specifically, subjects push themselves to 160 to 170% of VO2 max, which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise.

To put this in perspective, when you train at 100% of VO2 max, your breathing becomes labored and you struggle to suck in enough air. Maintaining this level of intensity is tough–elite athletes can only do it for several minutes.

As you can imagine, pushing yourself to 160 to 170% of your VO2 max requires everything you’ve got plus a high tolerance of downright exhausting effort (you couldn’t maintain this level of exertion for more than a minute or two). And many people just don’t get there in their tabata workouts.

So, where does this leave us then?

Many people think they’re doing tabata training but aren’t and even when done properly, it can’t deliver on the promise of “4-minute fat loss.”

That said, I think the tabata research and protocol itself has practical value for losing fat. Let’s take a look at how to make it effective.

Want a workout program and flexible diet plan that will help you build muscle and lose fat? Download my free no-BS “crash course” now and learn exactly how to build the body of your dreams.

How to Create an Effective Tabata Workout

tabata-workouts

As you now know, tabata training burns a lot of calories per minute. This is great for aiding in weight loss…if you do enough.

And that begs the question: how much is enough? Not just tabata but cardio in general, too–how much should you do when you want to lose weight?

Well, here’s my rule of thumb:

You should do as much cardio as it takes to achieve your goals and no more.

And when your goal is weight loss, you don’t have to do nearly as much as many people think.

That’s good news too because while you might think of endurance athletes as paragons of health, research shows otherwise.

For example…

The bottom line is moderate amounts of exercise are healthful but too much is harmful.

Fortunately, however, when your goal is getting and staying lean and healthy, you don’t need to do all that much exercise.

3 to 6 hours of total exercise per week is plenty, and you never need to do more than 2 hours of cardio per week regardless of how much fat you’d like to lose.

For example, here’s a picture of me at about 8% body fat:

what-is-tabata

 

I got there practicing what I preach: about 5 hours of weightlifting and 1.5 hours of cardio per week. And I use the same routine to maintain a lean physique of year round.

Now, that brings us back around to tabata training because the key to getting lean while keeping cardio to a minimum is doing the right type of cardio.

And the right type is high-intensity interval training like tabata (which is really just a “supercharged” form of HIIT). Only HIIT allows you to do relatively short workouts and burn enough energy (and fat) to make a difference on the scale.

That said, you have to make one crucial change to the types of tabata workouts you see people doing: you have to make yours longer.

For example, the tabata study I cited earlier found that just 20 minutes of tabata training can burn between 240 and 360 calories.

As you can imagine, 3 to 5 of those workouts per week can really make a difference, especially as you get leaner and rely more and more on exercise to drive your fat loss.

That said, there’s a bit of a catch here: 20-minute tabata workouts are really, really hard.

So much so that unless you can “comfortably” get through at least 20 to 25 minutes of “regular” high-intensity interval cardio, you probably won’t be able to make it through the tabata variety.

And you don’t want to shorten the workouts too much either because, as you know, it reduces their overall effectiveness for fat loss. I wouldn’t recommend anything shorter than 15 minutes.

So, this is why I generally recommend people start with “regular” HIIT and work their way up to being able to do 20 to 25 minutes without issue before starting tabata training.

With that in mind, let’s now look at how to best program your tabata workouts.

  • The defining characteristic of tabata training is 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. Ideally, the rest periods are passive rest consisting of motion, not a standstill.
  • In terms of exercise choice, your best choices are going to be those that mimic strength movements like biking, rowing, and sprinting, or bodyweight movements like air squats, burpees, high knees, and mountain climbers.

The reason for this is research shows that cardio exercises that involve movements similar to strength exercises like the squat or row have less of a negative impact on strength as those that don’t.

If you can’t bike, row, or sprint, or don’t want to, you can do whatever method of cardio you enjoy most for your tabata workouts–swimming, stairmaster, jump roping, and so forth.

If you’d like to try circuits of bodyweight exercises, choose 6 to 8 exercises and do each according to the tabata protocol (20 seconds of all-out intensity on exercise 1, 10 seconds of rest, 20 seconds on exercise 2, and so forth).

  • If you’re going to use a machine that has resistance settings, like a biking, rowing, or elliptical machine, you’ll want to adjust the resistance settings up during your 20-second high-intensity intervals and down during your 10-second rest periods.

That said, don’t raise the resistance so much that you’re expending too much energy going hard instead of fast.

The Bottom Line on Tabata Workouts

Tabata training is a powerful tool for burning fat but it’s no “easy way to shed pounds.” You have to work your ass off to reap its rewards.

If you already have good cardiovascular conditioning and want to push your fat burning to the max, give tabata training a go.

If you’re relatively new to exercise, however, I recommend you start with something a little “easier” like traditional high-intensity interval cardio and work your way up to being able to handle tabata training.

 

What’s your take on tabata workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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    • enrico

      Hi Mike
      I m doing this kind of cardio two Times a week (3 days of tabata and 2 full body with weights):
      5 set of 20 reps for each:
      Burpees
      Dumbell swing
      Barbell squat
      Toe to bar
      Mountain jump
      Box jump
      Jumping jacks
      Ab roller

      What do you think?
      Thanks to much!

      Enrico

  • Jacob Emerson

    Great stuff as always Mike!, let me say that if you want to build muscles than you have to start off by watching your diet, you can’t just expect to lift a bunch of weights and build muscle if your diet sucks, lifting weights is easy, but cutting out junk food can be tough, when you have finally gotten your diet in check than focus on lifting heavy and hard, but the most important thing is being consistent and keeping a log and a good routine going, you won’t get very far if your inconsistent in this game, start off by doing big compound movements, such as squats, pull ups, dead lifts and such, I know it’s tough for a lot of folks to find a good routine to keep them going but it’s vital that you do this, I’ve made some amazing gains in just a few months thanks to the advice I got over at aestheticreview.com this guy really helped me get a great program going that allows me to keep track of my weight and gains using a really neat tool, as well as an awesome routine, anyways good luck and never give up on your journey to making big gains!

  • Sean Haber

    how many times a week would you reccomend a tabata routine for conditioning and fat loss? and should i sub it for my running or do it in addition
    My current tabata routine is
    burpee
    ab V
    spiderman push up
    squat lunge lunge
    clap push ups
    pull ups
    ab biciycle
    squat jump
    8 sets of 4 minutes tabata

    • I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 5 20 minute sessions a week. And you’d do that instead of the regular cardio or HIIT.

      Cool on your routine!

      • Sean Haber

        Thanks , my main problem im actually trying to improve my speed and distance in running while still being consistent with the wheights , if i just do tabata body wheight i wont improve my running. perhapd you can write an article how to fit running into your bigger leaner syronger program and improve in running without it affecting my lifting much?
        thanks

  • Bryce Cicero

    Hi mike love all your website lots of helpful information. I think I remember hearing you talking about a cold fat burner vest on one of your videos was this what you were refering to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cool-fat-burner-burn-500-calories-with-no-diet#/story ? It seems interesting but so does every other gimmick out there at first. Just curious if your familiar with this new “theory”.

  • Tony

    Is there a cutoff point for endurance training that you would say it begins to cause muscle loss or limit muscle growth? For example, I like to do one “endurance” run per week, which in my case is just a 10K. I doubt that this alone is enough to cause problems. But what about a 20K? Would doing more than a 10K fasted be enough to cause muscle loss, and would it help to drink BCAA’s/HMB during the run?

  • Dane

    Nice read, Mike.
    I used to 3-4 x tabata (4 min) with skipping rope, but quickly became too easy even doing doublet under.
    So change it to:
    skipping rope
    Box Jump
    Skipping rope
    Box Jump

    So just a tip; try out box jumps in a tabata really get the puls up and your be sweating like hell after 20 s. However, start with something like skipping so your body is ready to preform, its easy to get an injure doing box jump if not proper warmed up.

    Thanks for the good books and articles mike 🙂

    Hope see your supplements on European marked soon, a little to costly on shipping to buy them here.

    • Nice! Thanks for the tips.

      Yes I am working on that! Should have a solution in place next year.

    • biker joe

      Be careful with the box Jumps. A lot of Achilles ruptures lately. Unless your in Cross fit competitions it’s best to do them, jump up-step down. Not jump up-jump down.

  • James

    Hey man! What’s your opinion on this routine ?

    http://www.healthylivingheavylifting.com/the-every-mans-guide-to-dup/

    I like to split up lifts over the week and dup seems to work well! Cheers!

  • Jeff Valente

    In the past 2 days i have read both of your books from cover to cover well technically it was on my ipad so…

    Anyway, i have decided i am going to start with the BBLS protocol.

    However, the lagging points I’ve always noticed and have now pinpointed are my Biceps, Triceps, and Calves. Oddly, even though i’m only weighing in at 136lbs my other measurements are very close to their ideal values. I was trying to setup a regime for bringing up the lagging points in my Arms, but have no clue as to how i should go about doing it.

    My first thought was to add a day for all three of them, but doing this doesn’t seem to promote optimal recover time. My next thought was to add biceps and triceps separately into other workouts. However, here is what I am thinking now:

    Legs/Calves

    Arms/Abs

    Off or Cardio

    Chest/Abs

    Back/Biceps(1 of each Set)/Calves

    Shoulders/Triceps(1 of each Set)/Abs

    Off

    Would love some feedback.

    Btw I have no problem training 6 days a week and have been lifting for 6 years and am in incredible shape, it just hurts a little to realize that my Arms account for most of the muscle(weight) I am missing. 🙁

    Thanks

    • Thanks for the support!

      Hmm I would probably do something like this:

      Chest + 3 sets of 8-10 rep tris
      Back + 3 sets of 8-10 rep bis
      Rest
      Shoulders
      Arms
      Legs/calves
      Rest
      Repeat

      Thoughts?

      • Jeff Valente

        Np Mike, loved the books, couldn’t put them down for a second. Things i knew became clearer, things i thought i knew, I frequently didn’t… and I spent 1/1000th of the time that i had previously spent trying out and researching the things myself.

        Sounds great to me!
        Because i started my week on a thursday this is what my week will look like Monday through Sunday
        Arms
        Legs/Calves
        Rest
        Chest+Triceps(1×4-6)(2×8-10)
        Back+Biceps(1×4-6)(2×8-10)
        Rest
        Shoulders

        The reason i had the split structured so oddly is because my shoulders and back are just about exactly where they need to be in comparison to my ideal physique. I thought maybe I could take advantage of that and train my doubles on those days? Is this possible without hindering recovery?
        I know i put way to much thought into this, but i’ve wasted enough time in the last six years to give up any chance at possible gains. lol 😛
        Thanks!

        • Thanks Jeff. 🙂

          Cool I think that should work. Let’s give it a go and see how you do? We can always adjust if you run into issues.

  • Mike, my preferred form of cardio is swimming. I generally swim for around 25 minutes and manage 30 lengths, doing sets of 12, 10 and 8 lengths.i.e. 750m. Not a great deal.

    But I can’t figure out how to apply the HIIT/Tabata method to swimming lengths. I could try swimming a length flat out and then take a break for a few seconds, but it doesn’t sound like HIIT to me.

    Any suggestions or pointers would be most welcome
    Donn

    • Alexey Paveliev

      Butterfly swimming for 20 seconds then slow down?

      • I wish! I can manage about 4 strokes before I drown 😉

        I’m managing a length in about 48 seconds so I guess I could go flat out for the first half and then coast for the rest of the length?

        • Alexey Paveliev

          How about all-out crawl strokes for 20 sec then 10 secs of slow breaststroke? Rinse and repeat

    • You want to follow the standard protocol for HIIT. An all out swim going as fast as you can for 30 seconds then a nice and slow paced swim for 60 seconds (may need 90-120 seconds to start).

      Any one swimming style and mixing up the swim styles is fine too. 🙂

  • Cool article. Seems like Tabata is the same as HIIT, just even more intense.

    • Yeah, similar protocol, but it is shorter and done with a number of exercises usually.

  • Krissi

    Were the forums removed from this site? When I log in I no longer see them as an option.

    • Yeah, there were getting difficult to manage and spammy so I shut them down.

      I’ll be opening a private group on FB for MFLers though! You’ll be able to post, ask questions, etc. there. 🙂

      Should be ready in a few weeks!

  • Bret Valle

    Hi Mike, I specifically asked you for your thoughts on Tabata and I must say as usual, you delivered fabulously! Thanks for another great article!

  • Alexey Paveliev

    I believe the point of tabata and any HIIT in general is to release ton of growth hormone which burns fat AFTER exercise. The amount of energy expedited DURING workout is irrelevant.

  • Oze

    Mike, from what I understand about intensive endurance exercise is that when done over a long period (talking some years of regular intense training), the heart can be seriously affected.

    In Australia we have had several world champion tri athletes who suddenly lost form and who discovered that their right ventricle walls had seriously thickened from constantly pumping hard at high pressure. This results in the heart of an unfit 60-70yr old, ie an accelerated ageing of the heart.

    Reinforces your good advice to take it easy and not do more than a few hours a week of HIIT.

  • Ronald ter Veen

    Is there a way to calculate the after burn of calories?
    My understanding of Tabata always has been that the main burning of calories happens in the 24h following the training, because of the raised heart rate.

    • I’m not sure of an accurate way to do it. There are extra cals burned after Tabata. It just has been grossly over-estimated.

  • Joel McCain

    Personally I’ve found rounds of 4min intervals separated by 2-3mins rest to work much better than a 15min or 20min straight with the main difference being quality of output. If a larger degree of aerobic restoration of anaerobic capacity is restored between bouts the energy demands will be greater due to the increased contribution of the inefficient anaerobic fibers. I’ve yet to see someone maintain their speed/output into the 15+ mins using a straight Tabata interval work/rest ratio. Thoughts?

    • I like shorter, higher intensity bouts too. No, nobody could sustain 15+ mins at 150%+ of VO2max.

      • Kelvin Guzmán

        So once someone switches to legitimate tabata training, how long do you recommend the workout to last?

  • Lizzie

    Have you heard of Krista’s 12 minute athlete workouts at http://www.12minuteathlete.com/
    I do some of her workouts when I’m traveling or don’t have access to a gym, what are your thoughts?

  • Alvin Javier

    Hi Mike,
    I’ve been wanting to try tabata-style workouts as my cardio but am concerned that doing a tabata workout that involves body weight exercises such as squats, push ups, etc. will have an affect on my strength if I lift the following day and do back squats, barbell press, etc. How would you suggest I incorporate this into the BLS routine? Thanks!

  • Ioannis

    Hi Mike,
    I want to ask you how can i combine Tabata with Weight training on weekly basis.
    Thank you

    • Hey hey! I recommend lifting weights 3-5 times a week and then starting with 2-3 tabata workouts a week done separate from the weight lifting and see how it goes.

      Thoughts?

      Welcome!

  • Ajaxus

    Do you think Tabata can be safely combined with a Push-Pull split routine? Specifically body weight only exercises. I’m a fan of body weight and endurance work, and a little bit of a glutton for punishment.

    • Sure! Just make sure on any days you have both weightlifting and tabata training that the weightlifting is done first.

  • Sharon Hamlin

    Hi ppl…!!!
    Great one just simple and early timing.
    I also like exercise for a short time in a day like running on treadmill. It is easy and save the busy time whenever i want. No need to get ready for going out side. You guys can check out on of my recommended one to find out the latest and affordable treadmill http://treadmillreviewzblog.com/

  • Kelvin Guzmán

    Hey Mike, You breakdown HIIT in the best way i’ve seen, like most of your content. (Using Logic, scientific data, and personal experience). You are saying that, ideally, HIIT/Tabata workout would be 20 seconds of sprint/10 seconds of active rest for 20-25 minutes? For advanced trainees? Is this what you do more or less? Thanks again for the information, you’re the man ^__^

    • Hi Kelvin, you are correct!

      • Kelvin Guzmán

        Thanks for the response Roger! Do you guys recommend BCAA before fasted HIIT or just an empty stomach/yohimbine?

        • I recommend HMB prior to fasted training. Leucine is a second choice, followed by BCAA (it’s only the leucine in BCAA that is doing the job).

          Yohimbine is a bonus that burns stubborn fat while you’re fasted.

  • alejandro martinez

    Hi all, I found a very useful application for exercise TABATA. The app name is TABATA Timer HIIT. You can set the times for each interval and set the music you want to hear while doing the exercise. I recommend it. You can download it at:

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.amm.tabata

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