Cardio In a Hurry: Metabolic Workout Ideas - The Tabata Method

Steady-state cardio is not my favorite, but I think we’ve established that by now. I strongly prefer metabolic workouts for a multitude of reasons, most notably because they’re time-efficient, they’re more effective toward fat loss goals, and they don’t make me go cross-eyed with boredom.

This will be the first of a series on alternatives to steady-state cardio. Feel free to sprinkle them into your week for a change of pace.

You’re welcome in advance. Or… I’m sorry. Maybe both?

What is it?

Invented by Dr. Izumi Tabata in Japan, the Tabata workout is the ultimate time saver and lung hacker. The basic premise is this: you go through hell for 4 straight minutes, and then you collapse in a heap in a pool of your own sweat, wondering how in the world something so innocent-looking on paper could feel so awful.

Do you dare?
Do you dare?

Yes, you read that right. Four minutes and you’re done.

It works like this:

  1. Work hard – I mean hard– for 20 seconds straight. You’ll either be banging out nice, clean reps at a quick yet controlled pace, or you’ll be sprinting like you’re chasing a buffet.
  2. Rest for 10 seconds. During this time, you’ll start asking yourself why you thought this was such a great idea.
  3. Repeat for a total of 8 rounds.

If you’re a chick and choose front squats as your modality, I recommend starting with 10 or 15lb dumbbells in each hand and held at your shoulders. For dudes, use just the Olympic bar. Don’t underestimate these. When I first read about this over a year ago, I scoffed because I thought it would be far too easy. You won’t be able to think straight while doing these, though.

Instead of front squats, you can substitute outdoor sprints, burpees, kettlebell swings, or mountain climbers. Get creative here, but make sure you’re using large muscle groups. Don’t let me catch you doing something silly like triceps kickbacks for these. You’ll make me cry – from laughter.

How does it work?

This ingenious researcher discovered a one-two punch means of improving both aerobic and anaerobic systems simultaneously. The VO2 max is the limit at which your body can consume oxygen. Most of the “fairly hard” effort exercise that you perform will be at around 70-80% of this. When you push yourself beyond the VO2 max, your body shifts over to utilizing anaerobic energy. This is the point at which you can feel the lactic acid building up in your body – yes, that burning sensation. If you train enough at this level, you’ll increase what’s called your lactate threshold. This is what the Tabata method does.

In the original study, high-performance athletes were decided into either the aerobic group, in which they exercised at 70% of VO2 max for 60 minutes straight, 5 days a week, or the anaerobic group, in which the 4 minute Tabata method (see above) was implemented. This protocol was continued for a total of 6 weeks.

The findings were pretty kickass. For the aerobic group, VO2 max increased by 10% and improvements in aerobic capacity were insignificant, while the Tabata method followers experienced a 28% improvement. Talk about a landslide win! So you tell me… which is a better use of your time?

The Tabata method is also popular as an effective fat loss tool. Plus, elevated human growth hormone (HGH) production, increased EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)… what’s not to love? Except for that feeling, of course. Unless you’re a masochist.

When should I do this?

Not every day, that’s for damn sure. If you’re doing a lower body movement for your Tabata-style workout, it’s probably better you do it when you’re training legs. Either in the same session (immediately after the lift) or 6-8 hours apart. Pounding your legs every day probably isn’t the best idea. Otherwise, on a lifting day or an off day – either one would be fine. I wouldn’t do these more than 2-3 times a week.

Not recommended for beginners to exercise, individuals at risk for health complications (eg. morbidly obese), or those suffering from hardworkaphobia or cardiobunnitis.

Have fun (though I promise you won't be smiling) and let me know how it goes!

For more reading on the Tabata method, click here and here. There's also this piece by Mark Young that clarifies some misconceptions about the Tabata protocol (and you'll understand why I referred to it as the Tabata-style workout a few times above).