Cardio In a Hurry: Metabolic Workout Ideas – The Tabata Method

Steady-state cardio is not my favorite, but I think we’ve established that by now. I strongly prefer metabolic workouts for a multitude of reasons, most notably because they’re time-efficient, they’re more effective toward fat loss goals, and they don’t make me go cross-eyed with boredom.

This will be the first of a series on alternatives to steady-state cardio. Feel free to sprinkle them into your week for a change of pace.

You’re welcome in advance. Or… I’m sorry. Maybe both?

What is it?

Invented by Dr. Izumi Tabata in Japan, the Tabata workout is the ultimate time saver and lung hacker. The basic premise is this: you go through hell for 4 straight minutes, and then you collapse in a heap in a pool of your own sweat, wondering how in the world something so innocent-looking on paper could feel so awful.

Cardio In A Hurry-The Tabata Method

Do you dare?

Yes, you read that right. Four minutes and you’re done.

It works like this:

  1. Work hard – I mean hard – for 20 seconds straight. You’ll either be banging out nice, clean reps at a quick yet controlled pace, or you’ll be sprinting like you’re chasing a buffet.
  2. Rest for 10 seconds. During this time, you’ll start asking yourself why you thought this was such a great idea.
  3. Repeat for a total of 8 rounds.

If you’re a chick and choose front squats as your modality, I recommend starting with 10 or 15lb dumbbells in each hand and held at your shoulders. For dudes, use just the Olympic bar. Don’t underestimate these. When I first read about this over a year ago, I scoffed because I thought it would be far too easy. You won’t be able to think straight while doing these, though.

Instead of front squats, you can substitute outdoor sprints, burpees, kettlebell swings, or mountain climbers. Get creative here, but make sure you’re using large muscle groups. Don’t let me catch you doing something silly like triceps kickbacks for these. You’ll make me cry – from laughter.

How does it work?

This ingenious researcher discovered a one-two punch means of improving both aerobic and anaerobic systems simultaneously. The VO2 max is the limit at which your body can consume oxygen. Most of the “fairly hard” effort exercise that you perform will be at around 70-80% of this. When you push yourself beyond the VO2 max, your body shifts over to utilizing anaerobic energy. This is the point at which you can feel the lactic acid building up in your body – yes, that burning sensation. If you train enough at this level, you’ll increase what’s called your lactate threshold. This is what the Tabata method does.

In the original study, high-performance athletes were decided into either the aerobic group, in which they exercised at 70% of VO2 max for 60 minutes straight, 5 days a week, or the anaerobic group, in which the 4 minute Tabata method (see above) was implemented. This protocol was continued for a total of 6 weeks.

The findings were pretty kickass. For the aerobic group, VO2 max increased by 10% and improvements in aerobic capacity were insignificant, while the Tabata method followers experienced a 28% improvement. Talk about a landslide win! So you tell me… which is a better use of your time?

The Tabata method is also popular as an effective fat loss tool. Plus, elevated human growth hormone (HGH) production, increased EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)… what’s not to love? Except for that feeling, of course. Unless you’re a masochist.

When should I do this?

Not every day, that’s for damn sure. If you’re doing a lower body movement for your Tabata-style workout, it’s probably better you do it when you’re training legs. Either in the same session (immediately after the lift) or 6-8 hours apart. Pounding your legs every day probably isn’t the best idea. Otherwise, on a lifting day or an off day – either one would be fine. I wouldn’t do these more than 2-3 times a week.

Not recommended for beginners to exercise, individuals at risk for health complications (eg. morbidly obese), or those suffering from hardworkaphobia or cardiobunnitis.

Have fun (though I promise you won’t be smiling) and let me know how it goes!

 

 

For more reading on the Tabata method, click here and here. There’s also this piece by Mark Young that clarifies some misconceptions about the Tabata protocol (and you’ll understand why I referred to it as the Tabata-style workout a few times above).

About the author  ⁄ soheelee

I am a fitness buff with a Stanford B.A. in Human Biology – Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health. I’m also an NSCA-certified personal trainer and a nationally qualified NPC bikini competitor. I've written on Bodybuilding.com, Greatist, and other awesome publications sharing tips on fitness, psychology, and motivation.

  • http://billso.com/ billso

    Ah, Tabata is some good stuff! Nice post.

  • Sascha Richer

    Between doing tabata sprints and the Cosgrove complex I have been able to increase my running ability exponentially. The Spartan races will be brutal, so I figure using these torture methods will make those races more bearable! I might not he smiling after a tabata sprint, but you can bet your ass I will be smiling like a jackass after I finish The races.

    • Sohee Lee

      Exactly! If I were to ever want to improve my 1600m or 3200m time in the future, I’d stick mostly to these kinds of workouts.

  • Brian

    Tabata workouts are indeed brutally intense and by no means for the faint of heart. Beginners shouldn’t even think about attempting this type of anaerobic training until they’ve got some interval and/or HIIT training experience under their belt. Aiming for 80% or more of your VO2-max, even for only 20 seconds, is stepping into the realm of hardcore training. The LA burn can become almost unbearable but the heightened metabolic stimulus which can last for 24 hours or more is well worth the effort.

  • Clement

    Here’s an evil finisher, inspired by Craig Ballantyne and using the 20-10 scheme:

    Push-ups for 20s
    Rest for 10s, holding in top position
    Repeat 3 more times

    Prisoner squats 20s
    Rest 10s, holding in bottom position
    Repeat 3 more times

    Plank 20s
    Right side plank 10s
    Plank 20s
    Left side plank 10s
    Repeat once

    Puke and curse

    Looking forward to more cardio ideas!

    • Sohee Lee

      I’m a big fan of Craig Ballantyne!

  • Brian

    We did this stuff in varsity soccer in high school (I wasn’t aware until now that it was a ‘thing’), and I have done it in some martial arts. Absolutely brutal. :D Makes you feel awesome for getting through it, though!

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  • Kieren Geaney

    Nice article. I’m a big fan of Tabatas. Thrusters are good, as are running sprints and cycling sprints – the later 2 probably being the best as you are less likely to injure yourself as you tire and form gets sloppy – which is why KB swings, dead lifts etc should be avoided for this type of work (maybe even the thrusters).

    In terms of effort levels – the Taba group worked at 170% VO2MAX (100% is top speed 3km run in theory) on stationary bikes – that’s INSANE effort and the watt resistance they were running requires real effort just to turn the pedals! It should also be mentioned that they also did steady state cardio once a week.

    I used to be fit and could run a 5K in under 19 minutes off road. This was probably about 90 – 95% VO2MAX and had me ready to puke – even when fit, I don’t think I would have been able to complete a Tabata session.

    While searching for a vo2max link, I actually found a nice write up expanding on tabatas – happy reading :)
    http://robertsontrainingsystems.com/blog/the-tabata-myth/

    I stumbled on your blog following a detour form a leangains post on tumbler, like what I have seen so far and bookmarked it :)