The term ‘Tabata’ has become so pervasive in our exercise vocabulary that along with other phrases such as ‘HIIT’, ‘circuits’ and ‘cardio’ we rarely stop to think about what it actually means.

‘Tabata’ or the ‘Tabata protocol’ was initially developed by the head coach of the Japanese olympic speed skating team, but named after Dr Izumi Tabata — the sports scientist who studied the protocol. You’ve know doubt heard the ‘happy ever after’ part of the story wherein Tabata concluded that four minutes of intense exercise, divided into eight, twenty second maximum efforts, separated by just ten seconds of rest, was an absolute beast of a workout when it comes to building fitness and burning fat. Thus the ’20 on, 10 off’ Tabata protocol was born.

Dr. Tabata’s findings have since spawned countess derivatives of the 20/10 protocol, but not a single one has achieved anything near the results of the original.

You see the subjects in Tabata’s studies didn’t just train hard in those 20 seconds efforts, they trained beyond hard. 70% beyond hard, to be precise. In order to properly satisfy the conditions of Tabata’s protocol each twenty second bout had to be performed at 170% of an athletes ‘VO2 max’, which roughly equates to the pace you could maintain for an all-out, soul-searing, bike-breaking, I-might-die, sixty-second effort.

The idea is to stretch all of the effects you get from that impossibly hard, one-minute maximum effort, over four minutes; effectively quadrupling the returns on your investment. Those short ten-second breaks give you just enough reprieve to do this, but not an ounce more.

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The Workout

Grab an air bike and after a thorough, but not exhausting, warm-up (Tabata’s guinea pigs jogged for five minutes at a conversational pace) you’re going to perform an all-out, ball-breaking, one-minute max effort. Once your eyes have uncrossed themselves and you can peel yourself up from the floor, look at the average ‘watts’ you managed across the minute— that’s your target for the next part of the workout.

Rest for 3-4 minutes after your ‘testing round’, then follow the instructions below to crack open a fresh can of Tabata.

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Airbike: 20 seconds work/ 10 seconds rest x 4 minutes @ 100% of 1 minute pace

Set up on the bike: your back should be straight and the saddle adjusted so you have a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of your cycle, but your arms can almost fully straighten out at the end of each revolution of the handles. Lock your eyes onto the ‘wattage’ portion of the display and smash the bike hard until you see your target wattage. Try not to flail around, keep your head up and breathing in check, but whatever else you do hold that wattage. At the twenty-second mark stop sharply. You have ten seconds to mount somewhat of a recovery, so focus on your breathing and make every second count, attempting to bring yourself into a state of calm. Once the clock hits 30 seconds, hit that wattage again. And again. And again. If you manage to hit (and hold) your target watts for all eight rounds, congratulations. Now you can say you’ve done a Tabata workout.

Headshot of Andrew Tracey

With almost 18 years in the health and fitness space as a personal trainer, nutritionist, breath coach and writer, Andrew has spent nearly half of his life exploring how to help people improve their bodies and minds.    

As our fitness editor he prides himself on keeping Men’s Health at the forefront of reliable, relatable and credible fitness information, whether that’s through writing and testing thousands of workouts each year, taking deep dives into the science behind muscle building and fat loss or exploring the psychology of performance and recovery.   

Whilst constantly updating his knowledge base with seminars and courses, Andrew is a lover of the practical as much as the theory and regularly puts his training to the test tackling everything from Crossfit and strongman competitions, to ultra marathons, to multiple 24 hour workout stints and (extremely unofficial) world record attempts.   

 You can find Andrew on Instagram at @theandrew.tracey, or simply hold up a sign for ‘free pizza’ and wait for him to appear.


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