Tabata: the key to fitness in 4 minutes, not 40

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Last month we spoke about the "why" of changing your lifestyle for the better, after a WA Department of Health report revealed that FIFO workers have a high incidence of lifestyle-related illnesses. (See last month's column: Working away on site is no excuse to be unfit.)

I encouraged you to reflect on all the good reasons to take up exercise, watch your beer intake as well as soft drinks and fatty foods, and start living a healthier lifestyle. We looked at getting your mind in the game, how and why it's important to set goals, and I urged you to start immediately by making healthier choices on how you spend your time and what you put in your mouth.

Today, I'm going to be a little more specific about the "how" ... by explaining exactly what you can do to maximise the time you spend in the gym or exercising outside, to get the best possible results in the shortest amount of time. It's with a form of high-intensity interval training called the Tabata Protocol.

Tabata is a form of cardiovascular exercise, and doing cardio (or aerobic exercise) is necessary if you want to improve cardiovascular health and lose body fat. Traditional forms of cardio - where you spend 45-60 minutes jogging, cycling or on the cross-trainer while maintaining a moderate and steady heart rate - are good and certainly have a place in a well-balanced training program. But a far more effective and time-efficient approach to cardio is to do high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where you repeatedly alternate periods of high-intensity effort with periods of low-intensity effort. An example would be to sprint as fast as you possibly can for 30 seconds, "recover" by walking for 90 seconds, then repeat for a given amount of time or cycles. Just as performing traditional HIIT is an excellent form of exercise and superior to regular steady-state cardio, Tabata is superior to traditional HIIT in terms of health, performance and losing the love handles.

The Tabata Protocol was founded in Japan by an exercise scientist named Izumi Tabata, who conducted tests on two groups of athletes comparing moderate/high-intensity training with high-intensity interval training. He found that the athletes training in high-intensity interval training improved their aerobic systems as well as their anaerobic system, whereas the athletes who did the moderate/high-intensity training only improved their aerobic system and had little to no increase in their anaerobic system.

What does this mean for you? With Tabata, not only will you increase endurance and stamina, you will also develop speed, power and strength: more bang for you buck! To achieve optimum physical fitness, you must train to improve performance in both aerobic and anaerobic abilities.

So what exactly is Tabata?

Here's how it works:

  • 20 seconds of intense training
  • 10 seconds of rest
  • 8 cycles
  • 4 minutes total

You can apply Tabata to almost any type of exercise, including weights. Skipping, sprinting, push-ups, hang cleans, cycling, jump lunges, dumbell thrusters, squats, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination and ability!

If you are new to Tabata, I suggest choosing one exercise, like the stationary bike, cross-trainer, rower, or stepper. This is how your program will look:

  • Moderate pace to warm-up: 5 minutes
  • One Tabata cycle: 4 minutes
  • Moderate pace to cool-down: 6 minutes
  • Total time:15 minutes

If you exercise regularly, you can try a little more advanced Tabata workout, incorporating body-weight strength exercises:

  • Warm-up with some cardiovascular activity like running or rowing: 5 minutes
  • Mobility and stretches focusing on going through the full range of movement of the exercises you are about to perform: 3 minutes
  • Commence Tabata. Perform one pushup for your first 20 second interval, rest for 10 seconds, then squat for 20 seconds, rest for 10, then sit-ups for 20 seconds, rest for 10. That's one cycle. Repeat for 8 cycles total: 12 minutes (3 x 4 minutes).
  • Total time 20 minutes
  • Recover!!!

So the same benefits you receive from participating in 30, 40 or even 60 minutes of exercise can now be achieved in only 4 minutes! I know it sounds like one of those late-night ads on telly where you can get the body of your dreams in only one week, but it's true!

There is a catch though; you must be prepared to commit yourself to the session ... and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it hurts. During your 20-second intervals you are going at absolute maximum capacity, holding nothing back. It's only 20 seconds, YOU CAN DO IT!

To experience dramatic changes in your fitness and body composition, give it a go. I dare you.


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Mareike Bout is a qualified and registered personal trainer who specialises in holistic fitness and lifestyle coaching. She is a recognised leader in the industry, receiving the peer-voted South Australia Personal Trainer of the Year award in 2008. She is also a regular guest on Adelaide’s top-rating radio station FIVEaa. Mareike runs her personal training business, One Life Live Well, both online and from a private studio in Adelaide. Services include one-on-one training, outdoor group fitness, lifestyle coaching and weight-loss programs. Individually tailored programs encompass aspects of exercise, nutrition, relaxation, positive thinking, life balance, and goal setting. Her approach is to guide, support and educate her clients so that they posses the tools required to live a life of health, strength and vitality!