Man sprinting
Man sprinting

Photo created by katemangostar –

Being active and fit is very important for your health. Some people spend more than one our several times per week at the gym, others spend the same amount working out at home or outside. Most of the people doing this actually enjoy their time working out. In fact, if you hate it and you only do it because you know you have to, you will most likely give up eventually. I enjoy a nice swim session, a yoga practice, a bike ride, or even a spinning session, but with two young kids, priorities change, and time becomes a scarce commodity. There are days when finding 40-60 minutes for exercising sounds impossible.

That’s why I went on a quest to biohack my workouts in order to get maximum results from the minimum time spent, and that’s how I found Tabata. It turns out to be a great solution for those very busy days.

What is Tabata?

The name comes from the author who published a paper documenting this training method, professor Izumi Tabata. Back in the early 1990s, Tabata worked together with the Japanese speed skating team coach Irisawa Koichi, who had developed a new training protocol. The training consisted of short bursts of high-intensity sprints followed by short periods of rest. The skating team athletes showed performance improvements after this protocol, so Tabata wanted to learn more about it and test it with athletes at different levels.

Tabata published a paper in 1996, after conducting an experiment with two groups of amateur male athletes1)Tabata, Izumi; Nishimura, Kouji; Kouzaki, Motoki; Hirai, Yuusuke; Ogita, Futoshi; Miyachi, Motohiko; Yamamoto, Kaoru – Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and ˙VO2max.  The subjects were male students majoring in physical education and volunteered for this 6 weeks study. The exercises were conducted on a mechanically braked cycle ergometer, and subjects have been split into two groups:

  1. One group trained daily for 60 minutes at about 70% their VO2 max
  2. The second group followed the new protocol, pedaling for 20 seconds at 170% VO2 max, followed by a 10 seconds break. They were encouraged to complete 7 to 8 sets, and if they managed to complete 9 sets, the difficulty was increased by 11 W. Once per week they exercised for 30 minutes at 70% VO2 max followed by 4 sets of 170% VO2 max.

If you don’t know what VO2 max is or how to calculate it, you can check out this article.

So to sum it up, both groups trained for 6 weeks, 5 days a week, but the first group ended up spending 30 hours training, while the second group spent less than 4 hours in total.

The results were surprising:

Anaerobic Capacity

Anaerobic capacity

The graph above shows the evolution of the subject’s anaerobic capacity. The dotted line represents the results of the group training for 60 minutes sessions. Since these exercises are aerobic, it is normal to see no increase in anaerobic capacity. The Tabata group, on the other hand, was expected to show an increase, because the sprints are anaerobic activities.

VO2 max

VO2 max

The surprising part of the results comes from the second graph, the VO2 max, also called maximal oxygen uptake, maximal oxygen consumption, or maximal aerobic capacity. This value reflects cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance capacity in exercise performance.  The first group showed an expected increase of the VO2 max values, but a very close increase was shown also by the second group too.

This means one can get almost the same aerobic capacity increase from 4-minute Tabata training sessions as from normal 60-minute training sessions and more than that, also an increase in anaerobic capacity!

Tabata Variations

There were many tests and experiments conducted based on this training protocol, with all sorts of conclusions. Some thought to increase the duration of the training sessions, others to vary the exercises.

As a result, if you search online for Tabata training sessions you will find a wide variety of exercises. Many of these are simply HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) sessions. As described above, the Tabata protocol implies a maximal effort during those 20 seconds, so that implies cycling/spinning, sprinting, jumping rope, etc. Spending 20 seconds in plank (or doing calf raises, wall sitting, etc) is certainly not going to push you at 170% VO2 max. There are some that decided to “tweak” the duration of the sessions too, so you will find training programs with 30 or even 40 seconds intervals.

I am not trying to say those are bad training programs, I’m only saying those are NOT Tabata, and they should not be called Tabata training.

Is Tabata Training Good for Everyone?

A Tabata training focuses on high intensity, not that much on time. These are not meant to be done by unfit individuals either. You are supposed to be quite fit and trained in order to be able to push your body to that intensity. Athletes of all levels are the main potential beneficiary for such workouts. Sedentary people can try this out, but they should take it really slow, gradually getting close to the required intensity and number of sets.

That being said, if you exercise regularly and are in good shape, you can use Tabata to biohack your workouts and get the most out of your training in the shortest time possible.  I find cycling the best way to do this type of workouts, but sprinting is also good and does not require a bike or other equipment. Other exercises I love and are great for Tabata are swimming (make sure you can stop safely whenever you feel the need to), stair sprints, or jumping rope.

Woman Sprinting

Photo by Coen van den Broek on Unsplash

Make sure you include regular workout sessions in your schedule. Tabata is great for improving your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and endurance in general, but you also need to build strength and muscle mass. These are better done with dedicated training sessions.

A medical check if really indicated before starting, as this will put a lot of pressure on your cardiovascular system.

Biohack Your Workouts

When you don’t have time to train, or when you are traveling, this comes as a handy hack. Just warm-up for 4-5 minutes and start your timer. There are plenty of apps you can use for timing the intervals – try to stick to simple ones, focusing on the timer and not exercises. Here are two simple and useful apps: Android and IOS.  Four minutes later you will fell as after a long training session, and most importantly your body will feel that too. You can hit the shower and get on with your day 🙂

If you are able to complete more than 8 sessions, it means they are too easy and you need to increase the difficulty. It is very important to focus on the intensity of these intervals and put in all the power you can.


We should all have an active life and train on a regular basis. Sometimes it is difficult to find one hour or more for a proper training session and that’s when Tabata comes in. You can biohack your training session with Tabata and get great results in just 10-15 minutes (that’s including warm-up, cool-down, and a quick cold shower).


1Tabata, Izumi; Nishimura, Kouji; Kouzaki, Motoki; Hirai, Yuusuke; Ogita, Futoshi; Miyachi, Motohiko; Yamamoto, Kaoru – Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and ˙VO2max