Tabata workouts promise fat loss in just 4 minutes of exercise, but it’s not that simple. Read on to learn why.
“4 minute fat-burning workouts.”
That’s the big promise of tabata training but is it actually possible? Can you really drop pounds doing just a few minutes of exercise per day?
The short answer is no, you can’t.
In fact, in the absence of a proper diet, no amount of exercise is going to help you achieve your weight loss goals (and this is why research shows that regular exercise guarantees little in the way of fat loss).
That said, if you know what you’re doing with your diet, tabata training can help you lose fat faster than many traditional types of exercise…if you know how to do it properly. And in this article, you’re going to learn exactly that.
As you’ll soon see, there are two major mistakes people make in their tabata workouts that prevent them from getting the results they’re after. And you’re going to learn how to avoid these pitfalls and create tabata workouts that actually work.
In 1996, Dr. Izumi Tabata published a research paper on high-intensity interval training changed the way hundreds of thousands of people exercise.
The study compared the effects of 60 minutes of moderate-intensity steady-state cardio to 4 minutes of ultra-intense cardio intervals consisting of 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest.
Dr. Tabata and his team found that the shorter workouts were equally effective in improving aerobic capacity and more effective in increasing anaerobic capacity.
This sparked a wildfire of publicity and gyms and trainers everywhere started incorporating 4-minute workouts into their classes and with their clients. That was twenty years ago and tabata training is still extremely popular today.
There’s a problem though.
The majority of people doing tabata training aren’t doing it for performance benefits–they’re doing it to help them lose weight.
And while high-intensity interval training itself is extremely effective for burning fat, traditional tabata workouts aren’t for one simple reason: they’re too short.
The reality is you can only burn so much energy in 4 minutes, regardless of how hard you push yourself. Research has quantified that number, too.
A study conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that tabata-style training burns about 14 calories per minute.
So 4 minutes of tabata would burn around 70 calories, which just isn’t going to move the needle much in terms of energy balance. (And sure, there’s the post-exercise calorie burn as well but it too won’t be anything substantial.)
Most people haven’t gotten that memo, though, and instead have been sold on dropping pounds quickly with just 4 minutes of exercise every day.
Another problem with the “tabata” workouts many people do is they aren’t intense enough to be true “tabata training.”
The 20 seconds of all-out intensity in what scientists call tabata training is meant to be just that–all out.
Specifically, subjects push themselves to 160 to 170% of VO2 max, which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise.
To put this in perspective, when you train at 100% of VO2 max, your breathing becomes labored and you struggle to suck in enough air. Maintaining this level of intensity is tough–elite athletes can only do it for several minutes.
As you can imagine, pushing yourself to 160 to 170% of your VO2 max requires everything you’ve got plus a high tolerance of downright exhausting effort (you couldn’t maintain this level of exertion for more than a minute or two). And many people just don’t get there in their tabata workouts.
So, where does this leave us then?
Many people think they’re doing tabata training but aren’t and even when done properly, it can’t deliver on the promise of “4-minute fat loss.”
That said, I think the tabata research and protocol itself has practical value for losing fat. Let’s take a look at how to make it effective.
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As you now know, tabata training burns a lot of calories per minute. This is great for aiding in weight loss…if you do enough.
And that begs the question: how much is enough? Not just tabata but cardio in general, too–how much should you do when you want to lose weight?
Well, here’s my rule of thumb:
You should do as much cardio as it takes to achieve your goals and no more.
And when your goal is weight loss, you don’t have to do nearly as much as many people think.
That’s good news too because while you might think of endurance athletes as paragons of health, research shows otherwise.
- Endurance athletes are at a higher risk of heart dysfunction than the general, non-running public. And this problem gets worse with age.
- Marathoners are at a higher risk of stroke and dementia than sedentary non-runners due to the accumulation of arterial plaque.
- Endurance training places the body under larger amounts of stress than many people realize. If you push your body too far in these types of workouts, you can wind up struggling with overtraining and even chronic fatigue.
- Talk with enough endurance athletes and you’ll quickly notice how many have joint problems–agggravated knees, achy hips, torqued backs, and inflamed tendons abound.
The bottom line is moderate amounts of exercise are healthful but too much is harmful.
Fortunately, however, when your goal is getting and staying lean and healthy, you don’t need to do all that much exercise.
3 to 6 hours of total exercise per week is plenty, and you never need to do more than 2 hours of cardio per week regardless of how much fat you’d like to lose.
For example, here’s a picture of me at about 8% body fat:
I got there practicing what I preach: about 5 hours of weightlifting and 1.5 hours of cardio per week. And I use the same routine to maintain a lean physique of year round.
Now, that brings us back around to tabata training because the key to getting lean while keeping cardio to a minimum is doing the right type of cardio.
And the right type is high-intensity interval training like tabata (which is really just a “supercharged” form of HIIT). Only HIIT allows you to do relatively short workouts and burn enough energy (and fat) to make a difference on the scale.
That said, you have to make one crucial change to the types of tabata workouts you see people doing: you have to make yours longer.
For example, the tabata study I cited earlier found that just 20 minutes of tabata training can burn between 240 and 360 calories.
As you can imagine, 3 to 5 of those workouts per week can really make a difference, especially as you get leaner and rely more and more on exercise to drive your fat loss.
That said, there’s a bit of a catch here: 20-minute tabata workouts are really, really hard.
So much so that unless you can “comfortably” get through at least 20 to 25 minutes of “regular” high-intensity interval cardio, you probably won’t be able to make it through the tabata variety.
And you don’t want to shorten the workouts too much either because, as you know, it reduces their overall effectiveness for fat loss. I wouldn’t recommend anything shorter than 15 minutes.
So, this is why I generally recommend people start with “regular” HIIT and work their way up to being able to do 20 to 25 minutes without issue before starting tabata training.
With that in mind, let’s now look at how to best program your tabata workouts.
- The defining characteristic of tabata training is 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. Ideally, the rest periods are passive rest consisting of motion, not a standstill.
- In terms of exercise choice, your best choices are going to be those that mimic strength movements like biking, rowing, and sprinting, or bodyweight movements like air squats, burpees, high knees, and mountain climbers.
The reason for this is research shows that cardio exercises that involve movements similar to strength exercises like the squat or row have less of a negative impact on strength as those that don’t.
If you can’t bike, row, or sprint, or don’t want to, you can do whatever method of cardio you enjoy most for your tabata workouts–swimming, stairmaster, jump roping, and so forth.
If you’d like to try circuits of bodyweight exercises, choose 6 to 8 exercises and do each according to the tabata protocol (20 seconds of all-out intensity on exercise 1, 10 seconds of rest, 20 seconds on exercise 2, and so forth).
- If you’re going to use a machine that has resistance settings, like a biking, rowing, or elliptical machine, you’ll want to adjust the resistance settings up during your 20-second high-intensity intervals and down during your 10-second rest periods.
That said, don’t raise the resistance so much that you’re expending too much energy going hard instead of fast.
Tabata training is a powerful tool for burning fat but it’s no “easy way to shed pounds.” You have to work your ass off to reap its rewards.
If you already have good cardiovascular conditioning and want to push your fat burning to the max, give tabata training a go.
If you’re relatively new to exercise, however, I recommend you start with something a little “easier” like traditional high-intensity interval cardio and work your way up to being able to handle tabata training.