Mix Up Your Gym Routine By Implementing Tabata Interval Training

In just about any fitness survey where the question is posed, “Why are you unable to exercise regularly?” somewhere in the top 3 excuses is: “Not enough time,” preceded or followed by “boredom.” My response to both of these reasons is extremely simple: “Implement Tabata style training.” By using Tabata circuits, an individual will be able to crush an entire workout in a fraction of the amount of time that a usual workout would take- moving at an entirely different speed than a regular gym workout. If programmed properly, in 4 minutes you can get your heart rate pumping out of your chest, your lungs on fire and sweat pouring off your body- giving the appearance that you’ve been working out for hours..in just 4 minutes!

Over the course of the last 10 years, certain buzz words have developed in the fitness industry that have become abundantly overused and subsequently misunderstood. Tabatas and HIIT have become the poster children for fitness misconception. A Tabata is under the umbrella of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) because of the protocols of the work:rest and the maximum intensity involved in performing the set. Unfortunately though, it seems that anytime a stop watch is used, the workout gets labeled as a Tabata- regardless of how long the work and rest times are or how many exercises are involved in the set. Contrary to popular labeling by some trainers, there is a specific protocol to follow that will make a timed circuit workout a Tabata. These parameters will ultimately be the determining factor in your metabolic output (ability to burn fat).

The History of the Tabata

In 1996, Dr. Izumi Tabata developed a new workout protocol in a sports training facility in Tokyo. Two control groups were studied over the course of a 6-week span. The first group of athletes became known as the “moderate intensity group” and worked out 5 days per week for 1 hour per day. The second group, or the “high intensity group,” worked out 4 days per week- for only 4 minutes. After 6 weeks it was found that  the moderate intensity group increased their aerobic energy systems (cardiovascular, slow twitch muscle fibers), but showed little no increase in their anaerobic systems (fast twitch muscle fibers- think power!). Conversely, the high intensity group increased both their aerobic and anaerobic energy systems over the course of the 6 week study, by as much as 28%!! The bottom line is that Mr. Tabata figured out a method that will allow for an extremely effective workout in a very short amount of time.

Tabata Protocol

A true Tabata workout is only 4 minutes in duration. It is a timed circuit that has 8 mini-sets in 1 round; each mini-set is performed for 20 seconds with 10 seconds of rest in between each. The whole idea behind a Tabata is performing the exercises to maximum intensity for 20 seconds…From my experience, 20 seconds is truly the perfect length of time for clients to maintain good form as well as peak intensity. Once you start dabbling in the 40, 45 or 60 second long sets, your form starts to seriously break down and you’re losing the entire concept of a Tabata; mainly because by the 50th second of the 6th exercise, the individual is nowhere near maximum intensity. This is a perfect example of more is not always better. You’ll get infinitely better results by performing your exercises with solid form at maximum intensity for 20 seconds versus half assing reps starting at 10 seconds just to complete a 45 or 60 second set.

Shed the Fat!

Tabatas are game changers metabolically. A 2013 study by the University of Auburn found that Tabata style training is 5x more effective than traditional cardio. For the most part, when you step off your treadmill or elliptical, you are done burning calories from that workout. When training with the Tabata method, you will burn calories long after your workout is over; thus making the metabolic effect infinitely greater than “regular” cardio…The only caveat is that you must be at maximum intensity in order to reap these metabolic benefits. As always, by just throwing a few Tabatas in does not mean you’re immediately going to magically drop 10 lbs or become shredded to less than 10% Body Fat. Tabatas are a great supplemental workout to a normal gym routine and will over time greatly benefit your ability to burn fat and increase your cardiac output.

Different Ways to Create Your Own Tabata

As previously mentioned, Tabatas have 8 different mini-sets in one round. These 8 sets can be broken up a few different ways:

  • 1 exercise repeated 8 times
  • 2 different exercises repeated 4 times
  • 4 different exercises repeated 2 times
  • 8 different exercises repeated 1 time

There is no right or wrong way to organize your Tabata, only what best aligns with your goals and your own individual fitness level. Generally speaking, the less exercises used in the Tabata, the more advanced the trainee will be- this is based on the muscle fatigue that will take place and the subsequent ability of the individual to finish the set. When using the Tabata method as your main workout, make sure you choose strength exercises that recruit large muscle groups.

Such as:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Push-Ups (and their infinite variations)
  • Chin-Ups
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Bear Crawls
  • Lateral Bear Crawls
  • KB Swings
  • Battle Ropes
  • TRX Rows
  • Medicine Ball Slams/Chest Passes/Scoops

Once you choose your exercises, I generally like to alternate between Lower Body and Upper Body/Core. To do isolation moves as a part of a Tabata (i.e. bicep curls, tricep extensions) would be mainly beneficial as a part of a specific body part(s) finisher, rather than the workout (there will be future blogs on how to implement the Tabata method into direct ab training, warm-ups and finishers). If you’re looking to maximize your metabolic output, stick with the exercises that target the most muscles.

Be very careful with implementing “High Impact” exercises as well. Anything that is high impact would be in reference to the stress placed upon your joints- i.e. Box Jumps, Squat Jumps, Burpees, Ice Skaters- basically anything with a plyometric (jumping) component. These exercises may be great for some but also EXTREMELY detrimental to others. If it’s your first time performing any of these moves, make sure to practice them outside a Tabata first to see how the reps feel. If they feel good, insert them into a timed workout but make sure to not go to maximum intensity first, then pick up speed as your comfort level grows.

Sample- Beginner Tabata: 20 s. ON/ 10 s. OFF

  • BW Squats
  • Push-Up Position Plank
  • BW Alternating Front Lunge
  • TRX Row
  • BW Alternating Reverse Lunge
  • Reverse Crunch
  • BW Alternating Lateral Lunge
  • Low Bear Crawl

Sample- Intermediate Tabata: 20 s. ON/ 10 s. OFF

  • Squat Jumps
  • Push-Up + Opposite Shoulder Tap
  • TRX Row
  • Medicine Ball Slam
  • Squat Jumps
  • Push-Up + Opposite Shoulder Tap
  • TRX Row
  • Medicine Ball Slam

Sample- Advanced Tabata: 20 s. ON/ 10 s. OFF

  • KB Swing
  • Box Jump
  • KB Swing
  • Box Jump
  • KB Swing
  • Box Jump
  • KB Swing
  • Box Jump

Remember these are just samples; there are numerous full body moves that can be plugged into these templates very effectively. Regardless of the exercises chosen, make sure to perform them at maximum intensity- while still keeping your form in mind. It’s admittedly a very fine line to walk; just because you’re going hard doesn’t mean your form should go out the window. A good way to break it down would be to look at the difference in tempo. If you’d normally be using a 3-0-2 or 3-1-1 tempo (3 seconds down, 1 second transition, 1 second positive part of the rep), a Tabata tempo would be more like 2-0-1 or 1-0-1 tempo…in other words, the tempo is faster, but that doesn’t mean the form becomes half ass- aim for full reps with explosive intensity.

Bottom Line

Like any type of workout, Tabatas are extremely effective if implemented properly. I wouldn’t recommend anyone performing this type of high intensity timed workout 4 or 5 times per week- that would be a recipe for overtraining. When you train at a maximum intensity, you need ample time to recover. Therefore, 2-3 x per week max would be ideal for Tabata training…Tabatas are fantastic for days you’re short on time, or to use as an active rest day (see Blog #3 for more about that!) to supplement your normal gym routine. You also don’t have to dedicate entire days to timed workouts. You can sprinkle them into your normal workouts as warm ups or finishers and still reap some of the benefits of a High Intensity Workout (more to come on that in the future).

Arguably the biggest benefit to a Tabata is that in 4 minutes you can get your heart rate higher than most people do in an hour at the gym. If you do 3 or 4 different Tabatas within the same workout, you’re looking at a 20-25 minute workout– with rest included. That is less than half an hour of gym time- which claps back at the most common excuse for gym absence- lack of time.

Best Way to Time Your Tabatas…

My personal preference is the “Gym Boss” (https://www.gymboss.com/features/?gclid=CjwKCAjwmZbpBRAGEiwADrmVXnwPK8m104s3MwKuWVmqfe_rRVxclBHSowqZ0DmbHklEUgCxiLzf9BoCnqQQAvD_BwE)

I’ve been using a gym boss for years now and it’s my absolute favorite way to keep consistenly timed workouts. It’s a small belt clipped interval timer that is super easy to set for timed workouts. Since it’s not bulky it can stay clipped right to you throughout the workout. I also like that the phone is not involved in the timing process so there’s absolutely no distractions during the 4 minutes I’m getting after my set….if you’re more of a tech person, you can definitely download the free “Tabata” App, which works perfectly fine as well.

Give It a Shot!

Try mixing in one Tabata in your workouts this week- it could be apart of the warm up, act as a finisher or be the workout itself. No matter your training style, fitness level or exercise experience, there is certainly a type of Tabata that is right for you. Carefully choose your exercises based on your own individual needs and the space you have to workout in. Always be sure to drink lots of water before and after any high intensity bout like a Tabata, and enjoy spicing up your training routine with this method!

Yours in Fitness & Health,


Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass

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