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Tabata: A 4-Minute Fat-Burning Miracle?

Izumi Tabata originally developed his approach to high intensity interval training (or HIIT) while studying Olympic speed skaters. He hypothesized that shorter amounts of all-out effort would produce better gains than traditional endurance training, done at moderate effort for longer periods of time. And he was right. Not only did the skaters doing Tabata’s HIIT protocol have better aerobic capacity than the “steady-state” group at the end of his study, they were also the only group to gain anaerobic capacity as well.

Virtua fitness specialist and personal trainer Nicole Briggs has helped many of her clients at the Virtua Center for HealthFitness – Moorestown adopt the Tabata method into their workout regimen. According to Briggs, “As a trainer, I’m always looking for new ideas, trying to be as creative as possible to make sure my clients don’t get bored with their workouts. Adding Tabata is a great way to take a break from the same old routine.”

Intro to Tabata

A single unit of Tabata training goes for a total of 4 minutes, and is broken up into 8 - 30-second intervals: 20 seconds of a certain exercise, followed by 10 seconds of rest. “With ‘true’ Tabata, you’re looking to put forth maximum effort during those 20 seconds,” says Briggs.

“For a complete Tabata workout, I like to choose four different exercises over the course of four Tabata units, with a minute’s rest between each unit,” she continues. “I might do squats first, then pushups, then lunges, then rows. Sometimes I even mix and match exercises within a four minute unit: For example, squats for the first interval, then pushups for the second, then repeat four times.”

Over the course of those 20 minutes (with a 5-10 minute period at the beginning and end reserved for warm-up and cool-down), “you’re going to get a significantly better workout than you would by spending an hour or more on a treadmill or elliptical, going along at a moderate pace.”

Tabata Tweaks

Even though there’s a precise, ‘correct’ way to do Tabata, Briggs will often suggest a modified version for people who are just getting started on their fitness journey or who can’t (for various reasons) manage so many grueling intervals of all-out intensity.  “For people in this group, I won’t recommend maximum effort – I’ll simply encourage the person to push hard enough so that it’s a challenge for them. In these instances, you don’t want to work so hard that you do, say, 20 reps at the beginning of the four minutes, but by the end you can only do 2. You want to try to push yourself and pace yourself at the same time.”

Sometimes, Briggs will simply use the 20/10 timed intervals as an alternative to the well-worn reps/set approach to an individual exercise. “Going by time instead of reps might help someone to break out of a plateau and push just a little bit harder and faster. And when you push yourself harder and faster, you get the combined benefits of cardiovascular training and strength training.”

When you build muscle and get your heart rate up, you’re in effect turning your body into a fat blasting machine. Hence the droves of Tabata enthusiasts in the fitness world!

Timing and Other Tips

Getting the intervals just right for Tabata can be a little tricky. If you’re working out with a trainer or partner, you can leave the time tracking to him or her. But if you’re on your own, however, you still have several options. “One is pretty straightforward – make sure you do your workout in front of a large clock with a secondhand,” offers Briggs. For the more tech-savvy, “there are digital sports watches that have built-in timers for interval training. And if you have a smartphone, you can take advantage of the many Apple and Android apps that are specifically designed for Tabata workouts.”

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