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Tabata: The Toughest Four Minute Workout Ever

Riding a Bike for More Muscle

It has been called one of the most intense full-body workout programs you could ever attempt. A four-minute exercise routine so difficult, seasoned athletes try it once and then abandon it. It's a precisely timed training regimen that can leave even the fittest person doused in sweat and gasping for air. I'm talking about the Tabata sequence.

On its face, it's remarkably simple. When you start the exercise, you do as many reps as possible for the first 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds and then repeat that cycle 7 more times.

That's 8 sets, 20 seconds each, separated by 10-second rest periods.

It seems easy until you do it the first time. At the end of your first set, you wonder if the weight is too light. As you finish the second set, you may notice a slight perspiration beginning to form on your upper lip. By the third set, your muscles are starting to burn. When you finish your fourth set, the reality begins to sink in...you're starting to struggle and you still have four more sets to go!

The Tabata sequence was released on the world in October of 1996. Dr. Izumi Tabata and a group of researchers at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan, published their groundbreaking experiment. It was called "Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max."

What Dr. Tabata did was test a program being used by the Japanese national speed skating team. The part that caught Dr. Tabata's attention was the unusual work-rest ratio. In a typical exercise program, the rest period that follows a workout set is longer than the workout set itself. For example, 30 seconds of lifting might be followed by a 60-second rest. But the speed skating team turned things around by exercising longer than they were resting.

Dr. Tabata and his team used this unusual work-rest combination and trained participants on a mechanically braked cycle ergometer (a fancy exercise bike). Before, during and after they measured their subjects aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (muscle) capacity. After only six weeks, they had stunning results.

The test subjects, all of whom were already physically fit athletes, displayed a 14% increase in aerobic capacity and an astonishing 28% increase in anaerobic capacity. Meanwhile, a control group rode the same stationary bikes for an entire hour, five times a week. The control group had a smaller 9.5% improvement in aerobic capacity and no change at all in anaerobic capacity.

It was a revolutionary breakthrough with just one little problem. If you're not already in good shape, there's a significant potential for injury. If you're a couch potato, you're not going to start working out with a Tabata sequence. But if you've been exercising four or five times a week for at least six months, you might be ready to give it a try. Here's how.

  1. Start by making sure you can either see a clock with a second hand or a timer you can set for 4 minutes. You must be able to see the seconds counting off without moving your body out of proper alignment.

  2. For sequences that use weights, choose one that's only about 15-25% of the weight you normally use. It helps to have someone who will count the reps for you because you should be able to do at least 8 reps, but no more than 15 during each 20-second set.

  3. Form is critical. You need to be comfortable performing the exercise while maintaining perfect form. Practice anything new. Because a Tabata sequence is so grueling, it's almost inevitable your form will deteriorate somewhat during the latter sets. If you start out with poor form, you can easily twist, strain or pull something and injure yourself.

  4. The Tabata sequence is best when applied to full-body exercises using stationary bikes, rowing machines or with running and swimming programs. But it's also been shown to work with strength training exercises that use large numbers of muscles like thrusters and front squats.

  5. Avoid exercises like the clean and jerk (your form can deteriorate too quickly) or the military press (not enough muscles to help you make it to the last set). Deadlifts are a poor choice because of the potential for back injury. In general, avoid anything that takes a lot of effort to start and stop or puts too much stress on smaller supporting muscles.

If you decide to attempt a Tabata sequence, remember these final things. Never engage in a Tabata if you're injured; it will only aggravate the injury. Give yourself a full day to recover and only use Tabata sequences for short periods so you don't overtrain. Are you ready for the toughest 4-minute workout of your life?

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Updated 12/21/2012