If you haven’t yet heard of the Tabata Protocol, you’re probably still working out for hours on end at the gym. Am I right? The Tabata Protocol cuts through all that noise. In as little as 4 minutes, you can burn fat and sculpt muscle to give you the athletic body you desire. And this isn’t just a sweet dream. The Tabata Protocol has the science to back it up.

What exactly is the Tabata Protocol?

Tabata Protocol

Izumi Tabata in the lab with an athlete.

In 1996, researcher and professor Izumi Tabata created the Tabata Protocol at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan. Seeking to increase the body’s aerobic and anaerobic capacity, Tabata and his research team began a series of tests with the Japanese speed skating team. Head coach Mr. Irisawa Koichi wanted Tabata to test the effectiveness of his training, which included short bursts of maximum energy followed by a short rest.

With his researchers, Tabata tested subjects with a simple protocol: 10 minutes of warm-up followed by 8 rounds of 20 seconds maximum effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. The entire workout is 4 minutes. Maximum effort is at 170% of VO2 max, which is the highest amount of oxygen the body can consume and use for energy. This level of intensity is crucial to the effectiveness of this method of training.

The results, perhaps surprisingly, are huge. After a 4 minute session, the calories burned were that of a 60 minute moderate jog. Not to mention that after several weeks of this training, the speed skaters also reported increased aerobic and anaerobic endurance. And though not officially a part of the study, Tabata also found that this method increased the calorie burn and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) for up to 12 hours after working out.

Interestingly, in 1997 Tabata concluded that a similar method was not nearly as effective, reinforcing the specifics of the 20-10 protocol. (He tried 30 second bursts of work at 200 VO2 max with 2 minutes of rest.)

Tabata Intensity

This form of training, even at a mere 4 minutes, is not for the faint of heart. Get prepared to sweat and to barely catch your breath in the 10 second rest, which doesn’t begin to suffice as rest. You must sustain over the 4 minutes your absolute maximum effort despite your entire body screaming at you to stop. By the end your legs will feel like wet noodles and you’ll likely collapse for a solid few minutes. But then you’re done, and you have 1,336 minutes left in your day to do all the other important things in life. Imagine all that time you’d save not driving to the gym and wasting away hours.

Tabata Protocol Circuit

Perform each exercise with maximum effort during the 20-second bursts, and recover during the 10-second rest periods. Repeat each of the following exercises one time for a total of 4 minutes. You can also pick one exercise to complete for the 8 rounds. 

EXERCISE 1: Cockroach


Starting on all fours, crawl as fast as possible forward for four paces. Stop, get up, and jump in the air. Turn around, get back on all fours, and repeat.

EXERCISE 2: Rotating Jump Lunge


Start in a lunge position with your arms in a circle. Swing your arms around to one side, then jump the lunge on to the other leg, swinging the arms in the opposite direction. Use the arm swing to provide momentum.

EXERCISE 3: Sprawl and Jump


Sprawl out to the side, putting both hands and one foot on the ground. Bring your top leg toward your chest. Push off with the hands and get up into a standing position, then jump. Repeat on other side.

EXERCISE 4: Weighted Wood Chop


Lunge to one side, holding a light weight (2.5-5 lbs.) with both hands. Swing the weight up from the floor to above your opposite shoulder. Repeat, alternating sides.

EXERCISE 5: Frog Jump


Drop into a squat, then jump in the air with the knees tucked up. Repeat quickly.

EXERCISE 6: Single Leg Burpee


Start in the push-up position. Jump in with one leg, and then jump up, bringing the opposite knee toward the chest. Repeat on the other side. If this is too difficult, perform the burpees with both legs.

EXERCISE 7: Single Arm Kick Through


Start in a push-up position. Shift your body weight toward the right arm, and then kick to the left with the right leg. Alternate the movement on your left and right sides quickly.

For a less-advanced version, keep both hands on the ground and alternate knees to the chest rapidly, similar to a mountain climber.

EXERCISE 8: Crab Lunge


Start in a deep squat and lean back into a crab-walk position. Take a small weight (2.5-5 lbs.) in one hand, using the other to balance on the floor. Swing the weight back over your head, adopting the crab position. Alternate sides and repeat quickly.


Additional Resources:
Izumi Tabata at Ritsumeikan University
Body Building’s The Real Tabata
Men’s Health’s The Unbelievable 4 Minute Workout