What if I promised you a better workout in half the time of your daily one-hour run or bike? How about a better workout in just four minutes? I should probably feign embarrassment for sounding like an infomercial, but I won’t. Because now I have your attention, and you need this workout. Allow me to introduce you to Dr. Izumi Tabata from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan and one of my favorite workouts, Tabata Sprints.
What are Tabata Sprints?
Tabata sprints are what’s called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The general idea behind a HIIT workout is they use high intensity efforts to get results in less time than traditional steady state training. Done correctly—they are extremely hard and extremely effective.
The Tabata version comes from the research done by Dr. Tabata. His salient study (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8897392?dopt=Abstract) compared the effects of moderate intensity aerobic endurance training (70% of VO2 max) and high intensity intermittent training (anaerobic sprints) on VO2 max and anaerobic capacity.
Both groups used stationary bikes and trained once a day, five days a week for a period of six weeks (four to six weeks is the generally accepted time frame to see fitness adaptations)
Group A: One hour at 70% VO2 max. 5 hours of work per week.
Group B: Eight rounds of 20 second all out sprints followed by 10 second recoveries. 20 minutes of work per week.
What they found was the moderate intensity aerobic Group A had an increase in VO2 max of about 10%, but had no effect on anaerobic capacity. The anaerobic intensity Group B improved their VO2 max by about 14% while anaerobic capacity improved by 28%.
You read that correctly—this workout can benefit both aerobic endurance athletes and anaerobic sprinters. Almost any protocol can produce marked improvement in beginners. So it’s important to note that the researchers used individuals who were already considered “fit”. The nature of our lives today is that most of us are trying to cram as much as we can into each day. This makes a four-minute training commitment sound a whole lot better than one hour.
I always add a 10-minute warm-up to the workout, making it 14 minutes, or 24 minutes with an equal cool-down. This is still just two hours at most per week, less than half the time it would take to train as Group A did, for inferior fitness results.
Tabatas also scale very well, since an “all out” or “hard” effort is relative to each individual. A beginner’s hard pace could be three minutes per mile slower than a pro runner, but that’s unimportant here. What is important is the effort of your intervals, your perceived exertion. However, because of the requisite visit to the pain cave, if you’re new to training you might want to temper the workout. After warming up, try two intervals of 20 second all out sprints followed by 10 seconds of very easy recovery effort. In subsequent workouts add more intervals until you are at the study standard of eight.
The Tabata sprints protocol is one of the most versatile tools in an athlete’s toolbox. Dr. Tabata’s research used stationary bikes, but it can be easily applied to almost any exercise modality. The most obvious uses are running, cycling, and swimming, but it can also be applied to bodyweight strength exercises; squats, pushups, burpees, jumping jacks, etc. Keep in mind that these exercises will change the focus of the workout to muscular endurance. What’s great about these type of Tabata workouts is they can be done anywhere: park, gym, beach, hotel room. No more excuses.
To recruit more muscle and increase the metabolic demand of the workout, try doing two bodyweight exercises. Mixing up the exercises allows you to also avoid the slow fatigue degradation of intensity caused by doing one exercise over and over again. This will make the workout less monotonous and more fun.
Bodyweight Tabata Examples:
Two Exercises Split
One round is 20 seconds hard, then 10 seconds recovery. Repeat 8 times. You can alternate exercises between two or do four rounds of one, followed by the other.
Squats – 4 rounds
Burpees – 4 rounds
Lunges – 4 rounds
Crunches – 4 rounds
Multiple Exercise Circuit
Do one round, each exercise for 20 seconds hard, then 10 seconds recovery.
Jump lunges, pushups, crunches, burpees, side plank dips, reverse crunch, supermans, mountain climbers.