Use the Tabata Protocol to Build Work Capacity

My goal is to find the most efficient workout that can be done in minimal time that gets results. There have been some great workouts that have been developed over the last decade but many of them require 60-90 minutes to complete and usually need specific exercise equipment.

Over the past decade I have followed the work published by researcher’s like Izumi Tabata, PhD., and Martin Gibala, PhD. Dr. Tabata was a former researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports and has continued his work on high intensity interval training (HIIT) at Ritsumeikan University. He has worked with many high-level athletes including Olympic speed skating athletes and developed the Tabata Method that takes interval training to a whole new level. When starting with interval work, an individual will typically utilize a work to rest ratio of 1:3 – meaning every minute (or less) of challenging work is followed by three minutes of active recovery (or rest) and repeated for a specific number of intervals. With a Tabata protocol, a 2:1 work to rest ratio is used, meaning, every 20 seconds of work is followed by 10 seconds of recovery and repeated for four minutes. Each 20/10 piece is considered one interval and it may look easy on paper but believe me it’s not. A typical protocol would look like this: a 5-minute warm-up, 8 sets of 2:1 work (for a total of 4:00) followed by a cool-down. The original research by Tabata, back in the mid-1990’s, was completed on exercise cycles. Today, people are using it for all types of cardio exercise from sprint intervals to jumping rope to elliptical and rowing machines.


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Another option, for some people, is to use body weight and eventually other forms of resistance (medicine balls, dumbbells etc.) with the same goal of trying to improve work capacity. My first recommendation would be to start out easy no matter what you might read on this type training methodology. I have read some reports that talk about using 30-35 pound dumbbells – great, if you have been pushing the weights for a while but if not, be smart and start with just body weight before progressing to light weight and then progressing from there. The effort needed for this type of workout is very high with a goal of trying to burn maximal calories in minimal time. As Dr. Tabata and others have shown, there is a an opportunity to improve both aerobic and anaerobic capacity with this mode of training (1). In addition, it’s a great way to work many different muscle groups with just a few movements and you have the option of applying this to either cardio (think treadmill, elliptical or rower or even a jump rope), free-weights or even body weight as previously mentioned. Some of the exercises that are recommended are: squats, burpees and thrusters (which is basically a squat to a shoulder press using medicine ball, dumbbells, or an Olympic bar). One of the first times I tried this I used light dumbbells and did a squat to a press (a.k.a thruster) averaging about 15 repetitions for each 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of recovery and repeated this sequence 8 times (120 total reps). The initial goal is to find a weight that enables you to get about 10 reps/set and try to build from there.

One of the first studies completed by Dr. Tabata and his colleagues showed a 14% improvement in VO2 max and 28% improvement in anaerobic capacity. These numbers, however, were a result from training 5x/week for 6 weeks involving high intensity training involving a cycle ergometer. Anything is possible, just remember to begin slowly using body weight as your resistance prior to loading the body. Any type of interval training should be added to an exercise routine using a low dose initially and slowly building from there. Think of HIIT as just another tool in your training tool box, but one with proven results…if done correctly.


(1) Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Ogita F, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2 max. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28: 1327-1330, 1996.


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