What Even Is Tabata & Is It Worth The Hype?

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
If someone told you that you only need four minutes to get in an effective workout, you'd probably cancel your gym membership, never spend £25 on a workout class again, and vow to only do quickie workouts for the rest of your life. You might also tell the person that they're a liar spreading fake news, because a four-minute workout sounds too good to be true.
Believe it or not, four-minute workouts are a real thing, and there's research to back up their benefits. In the late 90s, a study on speed skaters suggested that short, intense exercise intervals are as effective as long, sustained cardio workouts. The intervals that they used in this study consisted of 20 seconds of hard training, then 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times — thus, the four-minute workout was born. At the end of the six-week study, the study participants had increased VO2 max, a measurement that's used to gauge a person's aerobic fitness, based on the amount of oxygen used during exercise.
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This style of workout was dubbed, "Tabata training," after the study author, Izumi Tabata, and it took off like crazy. Nowadays, you can take Tabata classes, do Tabata YouTube workout videos, and download app timers that help you apply intervals to your own workout routines. But as you might have suspected, there is a catch.
See, what made Tabata's study so effective was that during the "work" intervals, the speed skaters were exercising at a level considered 170% of their VO2 max. Some experts say that this is an "impossible level of intensity" for most casual exercisers to achieve — and it could be dangerous to even try to reach it. Not to mention, the only way to get a truly accurate read on your VO2 max is to go to a lab and get hooked up to a machine that measures how much oxygen you take in while you exercise. Most trainers base VO2 approximations on mathematical equations, but those tend to be slightly inaccurate. So, this is all to say that most of us mortals can't replicate a true Tabata workout, but that's okay.
If you're just trying to improve your physical fitness, then doing a Tabata-inspired workout will still be good for you. Keep in mind, the exercisers in the study were elite athletes who were motivated to improve their VO2 max for speed skating specifically. And there are certainly more ways to measure a person's physical fitness besides VO2 max (for example, VO2 max doesn't tell you anything about how strong a person is). And so far, the Tabata method hasn't been studied in resistance training, so it's tough to say how this method could be beneficial in other areas.
Most Tabata-style workouts or classes that you'll come across technically fall under the umbrella of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a type of workout that uses short bursts of intense exercise, followed by rest. Based on studies, we know that HIIT improves cardiovascular fitness, and increases lean muscle mass, meaning they're still really good for you, even if you don't reach Tabata levels of intensity.
The next time you feel like exercising, just know that you can do it in a short amount of time using Tabata intervals. You can hop on a bike (or grab a skipping rope, or get on the treadmill), and cycle at a hard effort for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeat it 8 times, and you'll feel good having taken the time to do something. And while that quick workout might not improve your speed skating performance, it will make you a fitter, more efficient person.
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