The Tabata Protocol is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that has been shown to improve fitness, aid weight loss and provide a whole host of health benefits within the space of 4 minutes. Credit for this method of training often goes to Dr Izumi Tabata, a Japanese physician and researcher who was looking at a method of interval training performed by the Japanese speed skating team which involved short periods of intense exercise followed by even shorter periods of rest. The idea for this method of training was originally conceived by the head coach of the Japanese Olympic speed skating team, Irisawa Koichi.

What Is The Tabata Protocol?

The Tabata protocol is essentially a four-minute workout that consists of 20 seconds of intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is repeated 8 times so that the workout takes 4 minutes. To execute the Tabata protocol properly, each 20-second burst of exercise is to be performed at maximal effort. For this reason, it is very intense and will leave you gasping for air due to the oxygen deficit created.

Yes, it may only take 4 minutes. But if you haven’t done it before you don’t know how long those 4 minutes are. Loool.

The Tabata Protocol For Runners

Tabata workouts can be used for runners as a means of improving both aerobic and anaerobic fitness as well as muscular endurance in the muscles you are using during the exercise. It can be used for in the form of sprints, various bodyweight exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, squats, weight training and more. For example, you could do it in the form of barefoot beach sprints where you sprint 20 seconds, stop for 10 seconds, turn around and sprint back the other way for 20 seconds until you’ve done that 8 times. And that’s a killer workout done in 4 minutes if you’re pressed for time!

The first 2 – 3 sets shouldn’t feel too hard, but they will feel intense. However, the last two sets should feel brutal since lactic acid has been accumulating in your muscles from the intense work periods and is now at its peak during the workout.

Tabata Protocol Study (Fitness Benefits)

The original study on the Tabata protocol showed that this method of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

This method of training was further tested when Dr Tabata took two groups and put them on an exercise program for 6 weeks. One group did one hour of moderate intensity activity 5 times a week whilst the other group did a four-minute Tabata protocol workout. Over the 6 weeks, this adds up to 1,800 minutes of moderate intensity exercise compared to 120 minutes of high-intensity exercise.

It was found that the group executing the Tabata protocol improved their aerobic and anaerobic fitness to a greater extent than the group doing one hour of moderate intensity each week. The Tabata group improved their VO₂ max by 15% (the moderate intensity grouped improved theirs by 10%) and increased their anaerobic capacity by 28% (the moderate intensity group saw little to no improvement).

Preparing For A Tabata Workout

Tabata workouts can be quite taxing both physically and mentally so to prepare, I recommend either setting aside a short amount of time in the day to do the workout (definitely not after a meal). Tell yourself that the pain only lasts a short amount of time and you can get through it whilst ignoring the burning sensation of lactic acid accumulating in your muscles. To help reduce the risk of injury which may come with such intense exercise, consider doing a light to moderate intensity warm up to get your heart pumping and muscles working.

Risks Of The Tabata Protocol

Completing a Tabata workout is not easy and demands a high level of fitness to begin with. If you’re concerned about working at maximal intensity with such short recovery, I’d recommend trying to build up your base level of fitness, to begin with through moderate intensity activity.

Furthermore, since the Tabata protocol demands high-intensity movements then it is best to ensure you are properly warmed up before starting your workout. For this reason, you could probably argue that a Tabata workout takes longer than four-minutes although, for some exercises like crunches, I’ve been able to get away with going straight into the workout.

You’ll probably find it hard to breathe for quite a while after the workout, but take that as a positive – you’ve executed the workout just as it’s meant to be – at maximal intensity.

Tabata Workout Adaptations

You can adapt the Tabata workout by switching up the exercises between work periods, for instance doing squats for the first 20 seconds, then sit-ups for the next 20 seconds until you’ve completed the workout. If for whatever reason you really enjoy the burn of the Tabata protocol or simply want to push yourself further, then you can add even more cycles of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest.

You can execute a Tabata workout doing solely one exercise e.g. sprints on the beach or do it as a circuit so that different muscle groups are worked. If you’re finding it easy, you can always modify the exercise you’re doing to make it harder e.g. sprinting with a weighted vest or using heavier weights during a circuit.

Why Is It So Popular?

The Tabata protocol is popular because it only takes 4 minutes to complete. This makes it ideal for anyone who has a hectic schedule at work to get a little exercise in which has a big impact. The tremendous benefits this 4-minute workout can provide for such a short amount of time appeal to lots of people which is why it has attracted so much attention.

If you don’t have much time in the day then I’d consider doing a Tabata workout to try and maintain or improve fitness. You could even do it whilst injured if you’re able to avoid pain and that way it will help you to maintain your aerobic fitness so you when you start training again, you can pick up where you left off quicker.

What To Consider

Whilst this four-minute workout sounds absolutely great, if you’re serious about your training I wouldn’t use it as a means of replacing traditional training too often. It’s also quite stressful on the body, although fortunately the stress isn’t prolonged like a 40-minute tempo run, so in that sense, you may be doing your body a favour.

I see the Tabata protocol as a great way to improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness, but I wouldn’t use it as a way of improving strength although some strength gains may come from the workout. This method of training simply does not allow for sufficient recovery to lift heavier loads.

If you have any medical concerns of a history of heart problems, it is best to consult a doctor before taking up any form of high-intensity interval training including the Tabata protocol.


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