Tired of your workout routine? Try the Tabata workout!

I realize that for many people, merely getting started with physical activity is the biggest hurdle. However, many individuals who have been active throughout their life struggle to keep motivated when the same old workouts get repetitive and boring.

As our readers may have noticed by the various exercise experiments I have posted on Obesity Panacea over the years, I regularly like to try new things to keep myself active and motivated.

So I thought I’d once again share a workout with our readers that I’ve come to enjoy over the past year that can easily be done at home, at the park, or at the gym.

The whole thing started back in 1996 when Dr. Izumi Tabata and colleagues tested the effects of high-intensity interval training (short bursts of very intense activity) versus moderate cardio training (think a 60 min jog).

During the study, subjects had to perform numerous 20 second bouts of biking on a cycle ergometer at 100% capacity, interrupted by 10 second of rest. In total, 8 bouts of 20 seconds of this type of activity was all that subjects could handle (about 8 mins total, performed 5 times per week). This training was compared to cycling at 70% intensity for 60 mins, 5 days a week.

The results suggested that the high-intensity protocol, despite taking significantly less time (40 vs 300 minutes per week), improved aerobic capacity similarly to that accomplished by normal cardiovascular training. Additionally, anaerobic capacity also increased (think ability to sprint at full speed for a period of time), but only among those who performed the high-intensity protocol.

And thus sprouted the popular high-intensity interval training, or HIIT regimen. For most, including myself, doing a HIIT workout consisted of doing a bunch of sprints on a track (or bike sprints, or rowing, etc), interrupted by just enough time to catch your breath before you performed the next bout.

Subsequently, things became more interesting when people began applying the protocol of HIIT to different exercises, like squats, pushups, crunches, etc. Thus, was born what is now known among gym aficionados as the Tabata workout.

In its most basic form, here is what a typical Tabata workout would look like:

5 mins warm up

Exercise #1: 8 sets of -> 20 sec work for maximum repetitions followed by 10 sec break (4 minutes total)

1 minute break

Exercise #2: 8 sets of -> 20 sec work for maximum repetitions followed by 10 sec break (4 minutes total)

1 minute break

Exercise #3: 8 sets of -> 20 sec work for maximum repetitions followed by 10 sec break (4 minutes total)

1 minute break

Exercise #4: 8 sets of -> 20 sec work for maximum repetitions followed by 10 sec break (4 minutes total)

5 minute cool-down

So the work out takes about 20 minutes, plus 5 minutes of warm up and cool down.

Despite the short duration, the high intensity ensures this workout is very tiring. While at first impression, 20 seconds of body-weight squats or crunches doesn’t seem too daunting, just wait until the 7th or 8th round of 20 seconds and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Even though I have done this workout a number of times using a variety of exercises, it is not uncommon to be at the 8th set of 20 seconds of a given exercise and only being able to perform 3 or so repetitions.

As far as what exercises you should include, it is usually best to include one core, one lower body, one upper body, and one whole body exercise. For example, you include burpees, crunches, push-ups, and finally some squats.

The beauty of this workout is that you can do it anywhere. I often did my workouts at the local park, using parts of a jungle gym for some variety (e.g. pull-ups). You might scare some children, but you’ll save on gym membership fees;)

In terms of timing the workout, you can download free Tabata timers for your smart phone or iPod which will beep to initiate 20 seconds of work and subsequently beep when you get your 10 seconds of break.

To keep track of your progress, the easiest thing to note is the lowest number of repetitions you performed during any of the 8 20-second intervals of each exercise and then add the 4 numbers (one for each exercise) to get a score.

Don’t feel too bad if your first score is 4:)

Have fun,


WARNING: Please consult your physician before beginning a novel physical activity regimen. Since the described workout is of high intensity, it is best reserved for healthy individuals who are already active.

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5 Responses to Tired of your workout routine? Try the Tabata workout!

  1. I’ve read that beginners may benefit from starting with a 10-20 tabata routine (i.e., 10 seconds of work followed by 20 seconds of rest), move to a 15-15 routine, and then graduate to the 20-10 over a few weeks.. The article I read said this might help reduce injury risk for those not already in good shape.

  2. John says:

    My buddies do some tabata routines, and they vary between 20-10, 15-15 and 10-20. We also do what we call a “10-minute, no excuses” workout sometimes when we are short on time. 60 sec each Burpees, Squats, Pull-ups, Push-ups; followed by 45 sec each, then 30 sec each, then 15 sec each. Pretty exhausted in 10 min.

    • @John I love the concept of the “no excuses” workout! So often, work and other things pile up and you run out of time in the day to dedicate an hour at the gym. But you should be able to spare 10 measly minutes. I usually do the tabata workout on days when I don’t feel like doing much – the whole thing takes about 20 mins and I can do it outside. But on days when even that seems like too much, I might just have to try the “no excuses” workout.

  3. Carol says:

    Tabata workouts kick my butt! AND they take up less time so I have learned to look at them as a ‘short & intense’ workout day. I love the 10 minute-no excuses idea suggested above. I can always fit in 10 minutes no matter how busy my day.