Few things in life live up to their hype (wrinkle-free pants and for instance). But the Tabata Protocol
--which sounds like it could be a tantric sex act or a secret martial art--deserves its reputation. It's a simple cardiovascular-training routine that's been proven to improve performance and fitness in a very short time--14 minutes to be exact, including a five-minute warm-up and a five-minute cool-down. Sound too good to be true? It's not, and if you give it a go, you'll quickly find out why.
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The Tabata Protocol
--named after Izumi Tabata, Ph.D., a former researcher at Japan's National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya--is an interval routine developed by the head coach of the Japanese speed-skating team. (It's called a protocol
because Tabata and his team took the speed-skating coach's workout and studied it to quantify just how effective it really was.) The workout consists of six to seven 20-second full-speed sprints interspersed with rest periods of 10 seconds.
In Tabata's study, the researchers found that guys who used the routine five days a week for six weeks improved their maximum aerobic capacity (a measure of your body's ability to consume oxygen--the more oxygen you can take in, the longer and harder you'll be able to run) by 14%. What's more, it also improved anaerobic capacity (which measures your speed endurance
, or the duration you're able to sprint at full effort) by 28%. So the Tabata Protocol
is the rare workout that benefits both endurance
athletes and sprinters--hard to accomplish. Consider: A study of traditional aerobic training--running at 70% of aerobic capacity for 60 minutes--for the same number of weeks showed an improvement in aerobic capacity of 9.5% and no effect on anaerobic capacity.
The key to the Tabata Protocol's effectiveness appears to be the short rest intervals between sprints. Conventional interval-training guidelines suggest keeping a 1:3 work-rest ratio. That is, your rest periods should last three times as long as the duration of your sprints. But the Tabata Protocol's work-rest ratio is 2:1, which means your rest periods are only half as long as the time you're working. And according to another Tabata study, that formula isn't just more effective than traditional aerobic training, it's also more effective than typical interval training. In that other study, Tabata and his colleagues compared their original protocol to a second configuration of intervals that consisted of 30-second sprints interspersed with two-minute rest periods. Despite the fact that this required subjects to sprint for more time at a higher intensity, the original Tabata Protocol still proved more effective at boosting both aerobic and anaerobic capacity.
On paper, the Tabata Protocol offers a quick way to get fit in just four minutes of high-intensity work per session. But don't be misled: This regimen is grueling. It was originally developed for Olympic-caliber athletes, and Dr. Tabata reported that they were wiped out by the routine. It's worth mentioning that when testing the protocol--described as 6-7 sets--most of the subjects were exhausted after the sixth set of sprints and couldn't complete the seventh. So this style of training isn't for a beginner and should only be considered by someone who has a solid fitness base. That includes most Men's Fitness readers, but if you're just starting to work out or you're out of shape, start easy, rest three to four times as long as your sprint duration, and see "Assess Your Risk" on page 143.
TAKE THE TABATA TEST
If you think you've got what it takes, here's the drill. First, do a five-minute warm-up by running, cycling, or jumping rope for five minutes at about 40% of your full effort. For the intervals, work on a track, treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical trainer, or a heavy gym bag, and alternate 20 seconds of activity at full effort with 10-second rest periods. Each sprint-rest combo counts as one interval. After the intense
section, do a five-minute cool-down in the same way you warmed up. Try to do four intervals at first, then gradually work your way up to six. Repeat the workout three to four days a week.
Assess Your Risk
Get a physical exam before trying this workout if you re over 40 or have two or more of the following risk factors: a family history of heart disease, you re a smoker, you re sedentary, you re overweight, or you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
Alex Koch, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of exercise science at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.