We Tried This: Fast and Furious Tabata

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Tabata class at Equinox Gym in New York City

Want to get in shape, but just don’t have the time? We found a workout that can scorch calories in as few as four minutes.

Logging an hourlong run on the treadmill may be great exercise, but it can be mind-numbingly dull. And while there are lots of other unique workouts and quirky classes to be had at the gym nowadays, they’re not for everyone. Plus, they all require at least 45 minutes or an hour of your time.

So with my fellow time-strapped workout warriors in mind, I sampled the Tabata class at Equinox in New York City and discovered that its condensed “Get-R-Done” workout style is a potential solution for the “I don’t have time” excuse.

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Tabata Protocol is a scientifically proven method to boost endurance in only about 25 minutes or so. It’s based on studies of high-intensity intermittent training by Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata. In his original 1996 study, Tabata monitored athletes as they cycled at their absolute highest intensity — 170% of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) — for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This was done for four minutes at a time, for a total of up to eight cycles.

Gyms and studios have adopted the technique and made it their own by adding music, equipment and various exercises to their classes, but the timed intervals typically remain the same. If followed correctly, Tabata should fatigue even the most fit gym bunnies.

In my Equinox class, instructor Amanda Young led us in rounds of high-intensity step-ups, lunges and push-ups. Twenty seconds never felt longer. “In this format, you have an increase in your two energy systems: both the aerobic and the anaerobic,” says Young. “This is almost like a sprint, so a lot of athletes use this method. In a football game for example, it’s very start-stop-start-stop. Using your anaerobic systems helps you build your endurance to do this.”

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The key to Tabata is pushing yourself to the wall of your peak performance at every interval — you know, that point at which you feel as if you will pass out or pass up your lunch. Each exercise has modifications for optimal performance. During the push-up sequence, for example, I opted for run-of-the-mill push-ups while the body-builder next to me clapped between each one.

Even though regular aerobic-style workouts like long-distance running and sculpting classes may burn more calories than Tabata for the duration of the exercise, Young argues that her class participants see the difference in the hours following the workout. “During the 24 to 36 hours after your workout, there is an increase in your resting metabolic rate,” she explains. “Basically, you are going to burn more fat over the next 24 to 36 hours than you normally would — as opposed to if you were doing a steady state workout like running on a treadmill.”

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You can easily adapt the workout to fit your own gym routines. If you’re training for a run or a bike race, for example, you can apply the 20 seconds on/10 seconds rest model to your exercise of choice to best meet your training needs. But don’t go overboard, Young warns. She recommends doing Tabata two to three times a week at most. “Your body will be too taxed to do it every day. You don’t really want to do any workout every day. The more you vary your workouts, the more benefits you will see,” she says.

As long you’re cognizant of your personal fitness level, anyone can participate in Tabata. Just don’t forget to stretch afterward. It’s an understatement to say my quads were sore the following morning.

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