It’s a good sign that you even clicked on this link.  It shows some gumption on your part, but all kidding aside I wouldn’t recommend this protocol for just anyone.  You’ll need a high pain tolerance and a fair bit of stubbornness.  This workout is backed by that rarest of attributes, peer reviewed science, and verified results. The design is called the Tabata protocol, named after Dr. Izumi Tabata, a celebrated exercise and fitness researcher and current dean of the Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Sport and Health Science. Simply said, it is 8 rounds of 20 sec of work, with 10 second of rest.

Originally, Dr. Tabata compared two groups of cyclists, one group cycling at moderate intensities (5 sessions per week for 6 weeks at 70% of their max aerobic effort); the other at extremely high intensities for 8 intervals of 20 sec on 10 off, 5 days per week. Both groups originally completed a standard time trial, to compare the results after the separate groups completed the experiment. Needless to say, the high intensity group showed dramatic improvement, much more so than the moderate intensity group. The important factor for us, the high intensity group only completed a 10 min warm up, and a 4 minute session, 5 days a week vs. 5 hours of steady cycling per week for the other group.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather suffer through 4 minutes of pain than 60 minutes of boredom.  The high intensity group also saw a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity.  To put that into perspective, that is roughly equivalent to running a 6:00 min mile at the start of the test and then running a 4:30 mile at the finish, which is amazing, but how does this work?

There are various complex biological mechanism that can explain this improvement.  In simple terms, the high intensity group trained their anaerobic system, which is responsible for high energy output.  The control group only trained their aerobic system, or sustained energy system. Why does this matter?

It’s a question of efficiency.  You only get aerobic effects when you train aerobically, such as: running, rowing, or cycling for longer than several minutes.  You get both aerobic and anaerobic effects when you train anaerobically.  Anaerobic training is above the level that your body can supply energy with oxygen (aerobic is defined as “with oxygen”).

We shouldn’t think of these systems as an either/or proposition.  Let me give you an example of how this works.  You start running at a comfortable pace for a while to warm up.  This pace is aerobic as it is using oxygen and other substrates in your body for energy, and easily maintained.  You gradually speed up, and eventually enter an area that you cannot maintain for more than a few minutes, your muscles burn and you struggle to get your breath.  This is the transition from aerobic to almost purely anaerobic.

So it’s clear that this works for cyclist and is able to improve both aerobic and anaerobic systems, but why should that matter to any of us?  We aren’t training to be cyclists.  This protocol works very well with any exercise that raises your heart rate significantly.  Sorry shake weight aficionados, Tabata won’t do you any good.

The good news is, if you do things that can get your heart rate up, Tabata works marvelously.  While in Afghanistan, I would do a Tabata treadmill run 4 – 5 a week, for cardio.  I set the treadmill at a 10% incline, then run at 8-8.7 mph, increasing speed as I got in better shape.  Before my deployment I could run 3 miles in about 22:30, after about 4 months of running this protocol I ran it in 20:30; that’s a lifetime PR for me.  However, you don’t have to do this just with running or cycling, this works well for weightlifting too.  Keep in mind these guideline to select an appropriate movement, for maximum effect, using Tabata protocol.

  1. It should be a whole body movement: Squat, Deadlift, Power Clean/Snatch, etc.
  2. The weight should be roughly 30%-40% of your 1 rep max.  If the weights are heavier, you will fatigue your muscles before your anaerobic system.
  3. You should warm up thoroughly before starting.  4 minutes is not enough time to warm up for this workout.

This is what a Tabata workout might look like using deadlift as an example movement:

Warm Up: 5 Minutes of walking, rowing, cycling or easy calisthenics, followed by light stretches.

Workout Prep: Load a bar with 95lbs and do three warm up sets of 5 reps, gradually working up to a planned weight of 185-225 (roughly 30%-40% of my 1 rep max). Generally lighter is better.

Workout: Start once you feel recovered from the warm up.  Normally, I would shoot for 8-10 reps per interval and try to maintain it.  Initially, it feels fairly easy, but once you get half way through, its pure murder if you’ve picked the load correctly.

Recover:  Try not to vomit!  Afterwards, I prefer to cool down with some easy walking or cycling.  I generally feel better the next day if I do.

Some of you might be saying, “but Jake, this workout won’t work, its too short,” or, “dude, I can totally do this, its only 40%.”  To you doubting Dans I say, “Try it!”  Only then can you comment on whether you felt it did or didn’t work.  Remember this is a workout designed to increase your anaerobic system first and foremost.  In effect, we are killing multiple birds with one stone.  Don’t worry about those birds though PETA, they’re probably just shit birds anyway.

Due to the high volume and repetitions, you build muscle .  You are training your anaerobic and aerobic systems by moving so quickly.  You can actually improve your running, cycling, rucking times, etc. via weightlifting.  It will cause a hormonal response to training that will push your body to burn fat.  Make no mistake, this is not a free lunch.  You are earning every one of these benefits. Consider this chart detailing the difference in work between a traditional 5 x 5 program and a Tabata in foot pounds of work. The weight is 225lbs, with 8 reps per tabata interval.

Tabata work comparison

Now that we have seen one workout, I will detail what a training plan might look like using this protocol, for someone in good health, that has good form on the movements.   As a side note, if you are new to working out, I recommend becoming proficient with the movements before trying this.  Do no try this if you are not healthy/fit enough for this type of workout.

Intermediate Plan (Hard): 3 Days per week, with one day off between minimum.  Each week, increase total number of reps completed in 4 minutes.  When you find that you can’t increase reps, take 3 days off, then add 5% to your weights and repeat.

Monday: Tabata Push Press

Wednesday: Tabata Deadlift 

Friday: Tabata Squat


Strength Bias (Harder): advanced plan for those looking to gain strength as well as conditioning.

Monday: Work to 5 rep max push press, then complete protocol with the same weights as above

Wednesday:  Work to 5 rep max deadlift, then tabata deadlift

Friday: Work to 5 rep max Squat, then tabata squat

On the second week you will work up to a 3 rep max, the third week a 2 rep max.  Rest a few days before restarting the cycle, adding 5% to both your tabata weight and your rep max weights. Start over with 5 rep max.


Hypertrophy Bias(I can’t even): advanced plan for those looking to gain size as well as conditioning.

Monday: 5 x 10 of different exercise for body part, such as bench press, weighted dip etc, then complete protocol for push press

Wednesday: 5 x 10 of different exercise for body part, such as: bent over rows, pull ups etc, then tabata deadlift

Friday:5 x 10 of different exercise for body part, such as lunges, leg press, etc. then tabata squat

Each week add one more set to your different set of exercises, 6×10, 7 x10 until you notice your tabata numbers start to drop off. Rest a few days and add 5% to restart the cycle.

These three variations should cover the majority of folks out there.  If you happen to like this protocol and are really focused on conditioning, you could complete a tabata of one movement, rest, then a tabata of a second movement in the same workout.  However, I will caution you, give the intermediate plan a try before doing either the strength bias or hypertrophy bias (especially this one).

This plan will likely work for you for several months, if not a year or more; as long as you are disciplined enough to sleep and eat correctly.  If you aren’t, don’t worry, I’ll be helping you out with those things in future articles. Once you stop seeing any increases in reps or weights, it’s time to look at switching to a different program.  Remember my baseline advice:  Do what you least want to do!   Now go forth and prove me wrong, show me you can actually get through this.