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More Training Info > No Time to Exercise? Try the Tabata Protocol for Intervals!

No Time to Exercise? Try the Tabata Protocol for Intervals!
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS

Any time you are faced with intense home, work, family and holiday pressure you may be inclined to forget about exercise and wait until the crunch time is passed – whether that is at the end of some big project, your child’s graduation to middle school, or New Year’s Day. Why not give yourself a few short workouts per week that will actually increase your aerobic capacity while simultaneously lifting your anaerobic capacity and boosting your metabolic rate all at the same time? For merely 20 minutes several times a week you can participate in what is known as the Tabata protocol for cardiovascular and strength training and start the new training block ready for any challenge!


An intense and specific form of interval training that maximizes oxygen consumption with very short periods of focused exercise is known as Tabata Intervals. The Tabata protocol works both for strength training and cardiovascular training using as much muscle mass as possible. Dr. Izumi Tabata at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan, compared the results from two cycle ergometer studies. The one consisting of moderate-intensity (70% of VO2Max) cycle ergometer work resulted in little anaerobic capacity increase but a VO2max increase of 5 ml/kg/min. In the ergometer test using his high-intensity protocol (working up to 170% VO2Max), VO2max increased by 7 ml/kg/min, while anaerobic capacity increased by an astounding 28%. He has concluded that:

“Moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves the maximal aerobic power does not change anaerobic capacity and that adequate high-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supplying systems significantly, probably through imposing intensive stimuli on both systems” (Tabata, et al. 1996).

The Protocol for Cardiovascular Training:

Such protocol involves 8 working sets of 20 seconds of 100%, all-out effort (as many repetitions or as fast a speed as you can complete) with 10 seconds of recovery time between work bouts. On a Versaclimber, for example, the short recovery time may mean you stand still with feet even on the pedals for 10 seconds, gasping for much-needed air, before repeating the effort. On an ergometer it may mean 10 seconds (1-2 no-effort, slow strokes) of slow motion before pulling on the handle with all your might. On an elliptical cross-trainer or spin bike, you can either race at high stride/pedal rate for 20 seconds and then “coast” for 10, or hit resistance up 3-5 notches higher than typical levels and try to maintain the same stride rate you had before, then return to the same resistance level as before. This method does not work well on something like a treadmill, many of which take far too long to adjust pace or ramp height to be able to do quick transitions between 20 and 10 seconds of work/rest.

The Protocol Incorporating Strength Movements

You can also select multiple-muscle group movements (such as burpees, front squats, hanging cleans to presses) and try to get as many repetitions as you can (maintaining strict form) in the 20 seconds before resting 10 seconds and repeating. If choosing a barbell exercise go with a weight you could easily do 30 or more and even that might be too heavy. While the protocol is very challenging, the work time from start to finish is merely 4 minutes. Before dismissing it as “not enough training time,” try including such a workout several times a week and you will find your aerobic power and anaerobic capacity increasing. You might also experiment with doing a cardiovascular Tabata session, rest until your breathing rate recovers to about 60% MHR, then a strength movement following it. Keep in mind, however, that the strength movement you select will be training you more aerobically than for pure strength. Be sure to include a low-intensity warm-up before beginning any of the above intervals sessions, and stretches at the end. Enjoy and train safely!


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