Pete McCall by Pete McCall
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When time is tight, it can be difficult to do your usual 30- to 60-minute workout. For those days, a Tabata-style workout may be the answer. Tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that requires just four minutes to complete. In fact, research suggests this form of HIIT could actually be more effective than three, 30-minute sessions running on a treadmill for improving aerobic capacity.

Researchers organized 55 healthy, young male participants into three separate training groups for a 16-week workout program:

  • HIIT-T (High-intensity interval training on a treadmill): Seventeen participants performed a Tabata protocol on a treadmill. They ran at a velocity associated with 130% of VO2max for 20 seconds, followed by a 10-second rest, and repeated this pattern for eight cycles for a total of four minutes.

  • HIIT-WB (High-intensity interval training with whole-body exercises): Nineteen participants conducted Tabata intervals using body-weight movements including burpees, mountain climbers, jumping jacks and squat thrusts with 3-kg kettlebells.

  • MICT (Moderate-intensity continuous training): Nineteen participants ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes at an intensity associated with 90% of the heart rate at the second ventilatory threshold (VT2), a training intensity associated with an increase in breathing rate and an inability to talk comfortably while exercising.

For the warm-up to each workout, the HITT-T group did a four-minute warm-up on the treadmill, the HIIT-WB group used the same body-weight exercises but moved at a much slower tempo for four minutes, and the MICT group gradually increased running tempo. 

At the end of the 16-week training protocols, each group had improved their fitness levels, which was measured by time to reach VT2 and the time to reach exhaustion. The HIIT-T group demonstrated better results than the HIIT-WB or MICT groups, supporting the idea that HIIT is a time-efficient workout solution. This is great news for those days when time can be a factor and a gym workout just isn’t feasible. In other words, when time gets tight, a four-minute Tabata workout may be sufficient for maintaining your current level of fitness.

Here are two options for applying this research to your own Tabata-style protocols:

  • At a health club, use a rowing machine to complete a four­-minute Tabata consisting of 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds of resting while standing on the side rails. Repeat this pattern eight times. (A rowing machine is recommended because it involves both the arms and legs working together and does not place additional stress on the knee or back joints.)

  • Use body-weight exercises for a Tabata, which can be perfect on those days when your schedule doesn’t allow time for a trip to a gym or when you’re traveling and are stuck in a hotel. The following circuit (patterned after the one used in the study) is ideal. If you don’t have weights available, replace the squat thrusts with ice skaters (hopping laterally from one foot to the other).

    1. Burpees

    2. Mountain climbers

    3. Squat thrusts or ice skaters

    4. Jumping jacks 

The entire workout should take about 12 minutes because you should allow some time for a warm-up and cool-down with stretching for the involved muscles. For the warm-ups, follow the workout protocols from the research study outlined above. Here are some general guidelines when performing the body-weight exercises:

  • Keep your spine long. When your spine is extended, you use more of your hips. 

  • Move from your hips. Whether you are hinging forward or rotating, make sure that the movement comes from your hips, not your spine. 

  • To increase activation of your core muscles, press your feet and hands firmly into the floor when they make contact. Imagine you are trying to push the floor away from you, which can help improve activation of your deep core muscles.  

While it’s always nice to have a long, stress-reducing workout session, there will be days when time really is a factor. For this reason, it’s nice to know that time-efficient Tabata-style workouts really do work and produce results.

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