Traditional cardio can definitely be a drag — and a time-consuming one. So it’s no surprise that high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves alternating between periods of intense exercise and active rest and cuts your cardio time by half (or more), is incredibly popular. Who wants to spend hours jogging when you can pump out a workout that’s just as effective in under an hour?
But we can actually take it a step further with the best Tabata workouts. There are many different types of HIIT workouts, but Tabata is probably the most efficient — it’s so efficient, it can be done in as little as 4 minutes. Yes, you heard that right.
What is Tabata?
Tabata was developed in the mid-90s following a 1996 study from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. The study was headed by the method’s namesake Izumi Tabata, and found that 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times for a total of 4 minutes — was as effective at improving athletes’ aerobic fitness as was 60 minutes of steady state (non-interval) training. The Tabata group (and only the Tabata group) also saw improvement in their anaerobic fitness.
A 4-minute workout that’s as good as 60 minutes of jogging and has added anaerobic benefits probably sounds too good to be true. But there’s a catch: The 20 seconds of exercise are supposed to be ultra-intense. In the study, ultra-intense was defined as 170 percent of your VO2 max.
VO2 max is the maximum rate at which you utilize oxygen during intense exercise. There are a few methods and formulas by which you can estimate yours, but the best way to find out is to do a VO2 max test, where you’ll exercise while wearing a mask to track your oxygen consumption. Some of the best fitness trackers, such as the Garmin Forerunner 245 and the Apple Watch Series 6, can measure VO2 max, too.
Knowing your VO2 max won’t necessarily help you with Tabata, since you probably aren’t planning on doing Tabata workouts while hooked up to a bunch of equipment. But what you do need to know is that the 20 seconds of exercise in Tabata are supposed to be at 170 percent of your VO2 max — not 100 percent, 170 percent.
A true Tabata workout expects you to dial up the intensity to 100 percent and then way, way past it — those 20 seconds should feel like death. Needless to say, this isn’t a terribly realistic expectation for anyone, let alone those of us who aren’t Olympic athletes. That’s why, while Tabata workouts can only take 4 minutes, they usually…don’t. For the regular person, a 4-minute Tabata workout is usually repeated up to 5 times, for a full workout that’s 20 minutes long — which is still pretty short, just not 4-minutes-short.
With that in mind, I took a look at far too many Tabata workouts on YouTube to find the best ones for most people. These workouts are well laid out, easy to follow, and they leave you plenty of room to take your intensity level through the roof. A couple require equipment — dumbbells or other weights — but otherwise these are workouts most people should have the space (and time) to do. Just one note before you jump in — Tabata isn’t typically recommended for beginners, so be sure to check out our guide to the best HIIT workouts if you want a little more experience.
The best Tabata workouts
4-minute fat burning workout
There’s a reason this beginner workout has almost 14 million views: It’s easy to follow along with, fun to watch, and the music is pretty catchy (it’s just the Tabata song — get ready to hear it often). The exercises are simple — if you don’t already know how to do them, they’re easy to learn — so you can focus entirely on maximizing the intensity of your workout. This isn’t a particularly tough Tabata workout, but it’s a good workout to start with — you do want to be able to walk tomorrow, right?
Advanced 4-minute full body Tabata workout
Once you’re relatively sure you can do a Tabata workout without passing out or injuring yourself, you can move onto this more advanced Tabata workout. The nice thing about this workout is that all of the moves are cardio-esque, which makes it easier to be ultra-intense — strength moves have their place in interval training, but it can be difficult to max out your intensity without some form of resistance. This workout does involve quite a bit of leaping and jumping, though, so it won’t work for everyone.
4-minute Tabata ab workout
Cardio is a key component to revealing that six-pack, and so Tabata is kind of perfect for a quick-yet-insane ab workout. This 4-minute ab-focused Tabata workout is intense and not for beginners — some of the exercises may not even be possible without some work (so don’t feel too discouraged). If this proves to be too much for you, check out the best 10-minute ab workout to get that six-pack you want.
Intense no repeat 12-minute Tabata mix
A 4-minute Tabata set usually consists of eight different exercises and is repeated several times. This is a 12-minute set with 24 different exercises that’s designed to give you a quick full-body workout. It’s a nice mix of basic and advanced moves — you won’t spend too much time figuring out what to do, but you also won’t feel like it’s just another mash-up of push-ups and burpees.
12-minute kettlebell Tabata workout
One of the best things about Tabata, and interval training in general, is that you can turn strength exercises into cardio — perfect for those of us who really do not enjoy cardio. This 12-minute Tabata set uses a kettlebell, though you could easily substitute one of the best adjustable dumbbells or homemade weights. It’s structured slightly differently with back-to-back sets of the same exercise to keep your training balanced (don’t worry, you’re not expected to swap sides in the middle of a set).
30-minute brutal Tabata beatdown with Relentless Jake
This 30-minute Tabata workout is definitely pretty brutal — it’s a mix of explosive and isometric movements, so there’s a lot of jumping and movement as well as holds (planks). This workout doesn’t require any equipment, but it does involve more movement than most of the other workouts, so you’ll need to make sure you have some clearance before you start air boxing.
30-minute full body HIIT workout, Tabata style, no jumping & no equipment
It’s not always feasible to do explosive workouts, especially if you’re working out at home. I happen to live on the fifth floor of a renovated textile factory with concrete floors; neither my joints nor my downstairs neighbor appreciates indoor Tabata at 3 am, unless it’s this 30-minute no-jumping workout. The great thing about this workout is that it’s still super intense — no jumping doesn’t mean no movement, just nothing that will destroy your knees.
Upper body Tabata workout: Intense 60-minute back, shoulders & arms
Okay, so this is more of a Tabata-adjacent workout — it keeps to the 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off time cycle, but the focus is definitely on the strength training more than it is the VO2 max intensity level. That said, this is a well laid-out workout and the Tabata-style timing is an interesting way to mix things up. The instructors use power blocks for this workout; if you don’t switch weight you’ll need a minimum of two dumbbells of the same weight.
30-minute hip-hop Tabata to torch calories
If you’re sick of that Tabata song, this workout uses different music. It’s also pretty fun — it’s hip-hop dance cardio, Tabata-style, which just means that it uses the 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off time cycle. The key to making dance cardio work is enthusiasm — you don’t need to get the moves right, but you do need to move. This is a good workout to try if you’re not as experienced with traditional exercise; you won’t have to spend a lot of time trying to get your form perfect.
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