Friday, January 3, 2014

Weight Loss & Strengthening in Just 5 Minutes a Day?

New data shows how the right kind of workout can do more for your body in five minutes than a traditional 60-minute workout would accomplish. The trick is to use the Tabata method

No, Tabata is not a product or brand name.  Tabata (pronounced tuh-BOTT-uh) is the name of Japanese researcher Professor Izumi Tabata whose original 1996 study on exercise captured some startling statistics from a high-intensity workout format being employed to train Japanese Olympic speed skaters. 

What has since been discovered is that the Tabata workout doesn’t only benefit speed skaters; just about anyone whose health allows them to engage in this intense, short-interval training style can achieve significant fat loss and other health benefits.  The Tabata-style workout has been featured in Shape, Men's Health, and Men's Fitness magazines, and has been hailed by many exercise coaches for its extraordinary effectiveness at fat burning and strengthening within a short workout routine.
Timer for Tabata workout

What is the Tabata exercise format?

A Tabata workout is a cardio workout in which you move through a circuit of high intensity exercises bursts—usually 20 seconds each—interspersed with low intensity rest/recovery breaks—usually 10 seconds each.  Because of this pattern, the exercise is also known as 20-10-Tabatas.

The start of the workout is usually a 5-minute warm-up session of less strenuous exercises, and the finish is a 5-minute cool-down period of less intense exercise and stretching.  During the warm-up/cool-down parts of the workout, you aim to push yourself to less than half of your full-out capabilities, saving your maximum output effort for the core portion of the workout.  The warm-up phase often uses jogging, jumping, or cycling to get the heart ready.

The ultra-high intensity core portion of the workout is called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The HIIT portion of the workout usually runs for a minimum of four minutes, which adds up to eight burst-rest cycles (20 seconds high intensity, 10 seconds low intensity). 

Even with the warm-up and cool-down phases, the total workout time commitment is just 14 minutes minimum, with only the four-minute middle portion encompassing any intense effort. Although 14 minutes is sufficient to achieve results, many choose to add more HIIT cycles as their ability develops in order to increase the results. 

How effective is the Tabata workout?

The famed Dr. Life, whose best-selling book The Life Plan focuses on achieving healthy longevity, calls high-intensity interval training "the best of the best" in terms of its ability to burn body fat and increase endurance with so little time investment. Life's one concern is that Prof. Tabata's proposed minimum HIIT workout duration (four minutes), though effective at dropping body fat and increasing muscular endurance, may not "result in the production of cardio-protective stress proteins" that you can get from longer workouts, or workouts that focus purely on aerobic training.

In Prof. Tabata's study, he employed the same pattern noted above – 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise interspersed with 10 seconds of rest, repeated for eight cycles (four minutes total). The participating athletes in the study followed this method four times weekly, adding one day of “steady-state” training (working at about 70 percent of their maximum capability with a sustained effort).

The results: The group using the HIIT training measurably increased their anaerobic capacity levels and slightly improved their VO2max output (the maximum level of their sustainable physical effort) compared to the control group of athletes who were using a more traditional steady-state training five times weekly.

Man running on treadmill

Tabata workout benefits

Where the Tabata-style workout excels:
  • Burning fat. As studies have shown, an HIIT-style workout generates metabolic adaptations that result in exceptional fat burning.
  • Burning calories. The high-intensity anaerobic nature of the Tabata workout not only burns plenty of calories during the training, but causes your body to continue burning calories for hours afterward.
  • Improves athleticism. The focused requirements of an HIIT workout with its interspersed high-intensity intervals and low intensity intervals develops both your aerobic and anaerobic systems, increasing your maximum output levels in other activities.
  • No equipment/gym membership required. If you look at online video examples of Tabata workouts, you will note that many of them use no equipment whatsoever, since the focus is more on the high-intensity/low-intensity rhythm rather than specifically which piece of equipment you use.
  • Works with your favorite exercises.  The Tabata workout is also popular because you can incorporate your favorite types of exercise, instead of following someone else's prescribed workout routine. As long as you follow the 20-10 pattern and use genuinely high intensity, it works, whether using rope skipping, calisthenics, weightlifting, swimming, jumping, or whatever. 
Unquestionably, one of the top benefits of the Tabata style workout is how effective it is with such a short daily time commitment.  In today's hectic world, one of the main excuses we use for not exercising regularly is lack of time. But when you can get exceptional fat-burning and muscular endurance-building results in less than 15 minutes per day, the Tabata workout may be worth considering.

Tabata risks/Tabata downsides

The most noteworthy concern of undertaking a Tabata-style workout is that, because it involves bursts of super-high-intensity effort in which you are intentionally pushing yourself beyond any sustainable maximum level of physical output, Tabata is not for everyone. Keep in mind it was originally designed for Olympic athletes—individuals who were already in excellent physical shape. If you are already exercising regularly, with some intensity, and if you have no cardiovascular, pulmonary, obesity, or diabetic conditions, then a Tabata workout may be right for you, and an excellent way to improve the results you are already working toward.

But because of the ultra-high-intensity nature of the workout, do not brush aside what may appear to be a typical health warning to see your physician before taking on a Tabata workout. The Tabata workout will likely be the most intense form of exercise you have ever undertaken, so do see your physician for a physical checkup and for guidance before getting started. Your doctor is likely to encourage you only if you already exercise regularly.

Also, be advised that the Tabata-style workout is not right for you if your goal is building muscle bulk. While it strengthens and firms muscles like nobody's business, the routine is entirely wrong for those who are trying to build muscle size.

Tabata workout success "cheats"

One of the hardest things about the Tabata workout is the simple mental math of keeping the 20-second workouts and 10-second breaks properly timed. Fortunately, there are several websites that offer a free online or downloadable Tabata timer. Two of my favorites: The Beach Fitness interval training timer and the one at

To get the scoop on the original Tabata study, check out the article at   And for general information on applying the Tabata style workout, visit the Tabata article at

Learn by watching

There are some excellent online videos by practitioners of the Tabata workout style designed to either show you how to do a specific kind of Tabata workout or to take you through one in real time:
Work hard, work fast, get results.
If the Tabata workout is working for you, or you have a link to your favorite online Tabata video routine, tell us about it using the comments below.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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