Tabatas rebooted

Tabatas are named for Professor Izumi Tabata who looked at the effects of high intensity bursts of exercise in speed skaters with short intervals. The original protocol was done on exercise bikes at an intensity of around 170% of the athletes VO2 max, with 20s of effort followed by 10s of rest for 8 total rounds totalling 4 mins. The study compared their results with a control group who trained at around 70% of their VO2 max for 1 hour.

The results were pretty astonishing, the Tabata group had higher increase in VO2 max and had improved anaerobic fitness markers, while the steady state group had a higher final VO2 max but also had a higher starting point than the Tabata group (so their increase was less).

The implication is that at appropriate intensity levels, Tabatas are a superior choice for improved fitness (and as calorie burn is linked to oxygen consumption, better for fat loss) than steady state effort despite lasting only 7% of the time!

The name Tabata has now become synonymous with any high intensity conditioning using the 20s of effort / 10s of rest method.


      The Princess Bride for the win!

Here are a few of my favourite combos for this style of training and an adaptation if your fitness isn’t quite at the point yet of allowing you to get through all 8 rounds.


You can run, cycle or row your sprints, the choice is yours. Just make sure your effort level stays high. Pick a minimum pace or power output to try to maintain throughout the 20 second bursts, but start a little conservatively, the Curve treadmill or watt bikes are great for these. Even better, do them outside if you can!

Front squats

A Dan John favourite, and not for the beginner… I have done these twice, and every time I consider doing them again, my brain talks me right out of it! Set up in the squat rack (make sure the safety bars are at an appropriate height), load the bar and do 20 seconds of front squats. Re-rack the bar and go again after 10s rest. That means you do the first squat then, not un-rack the bar step back compose yourself and then go. Have a partner time and give you a 5 sec mark so you can un-rack and set yourself to go right on time.

Go lighter than you think, and make sure you get at least 8 reps per set. You’re welcome…

Upper/ lower

Alternating between upper body and lower body is a great way to pushup yourself without completely fatiguing one body part. A couple of options I like are:

Pushup/ Goblet squat – this can be done with incline pushups if necessary

TRX row/ KB swing 

When selecting exercises here, make sure you pick ones where there is minimal set up times.

Power/ control

Breathing under pressure can be a useful skill to learn, being able to brace your core is vital to most exercises to keep your spine stable but many people struggle to breathe efficiently in this braced condition. The plank (either on your elbows or in the pushup position) can be great for improving your ability to brace and breathe whilst fatigued from your partner exercise in this combo.

The plank is always the second exercise in the pairing, the first can be picked from the following list:


Goblet squats

Frog squats

Med ball slams

Farmers carries

This list could go on but your get the point, a simple exercise (the swings count only if you have a good basic technique but are a fantastic conditioning option) followed by a plank. Incidentally, the plank must be good quality, neutral spine or slight tuck (pelvis to ribs), tight glutes, quadz, abs and lats. If you struggle to get your lats “on” try to pull your hands or elbows toward your feet and you’ll quickly learn what engaging your lats feels like!

What to do if you can’t get all 8 rounds at 20 secs of work?

Just because the original protocol was 8 rounds of 20 sec work/ 10 secs of rest, doesn’t mean that beginners have to stay at that, sometimes with unconditioned clients I’ll use 15/15 or even 10/20 work/ rest ratios to allow them to complete the required number of rounds. gradually building up to 8x 20/10.

The progression might look like this:

Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4
2x 20s work/10s rest3x 20s work/10s rest4x 20s work/10s rest6x 20s work/10s rest
2x 15s work/15s rest3x 15s work/15s rest4x 15s work/15s rest2x 10s work/20s rest
4x 10s work/20s rest2x 10s work/20s rest
- -

By week 5 you should be able to complete 8 rounds of 20/10 as your fitness and recovery will have recovered enough to allow it.

Next time you’re in the gym and want a high intensity finisher in only 4 minutes, give this a try and let me know how you get on!

Stay strong,


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