Tabata: The Four-Minute Fat-Burning Workout

It may not sound hard, but by the end of this routine you’re sure to work up a serious sweat.

A new study shows that the four-minute Tabata workout burns 13.5 calories in one minute, making it five times more effective than a traditional cardio workout. Photograph via Equinox.

The Tabata method is a high-intensity interval training program that increases fat-burning potential. Photograph courtesy of Equinox.

As I walked into Rachel Posell’s 12:30 PM Tabata class at Equinox Bethesda last Friday, I had just one question on my mind: How hard could this really be?

In this class, we would perform a total of seven four-minute sets. Equinox’s group-fitness schedule allotted 45 minutes for the Tabata class, which included a five-minute warmup description of the exercises. Hence my question: How hard could this be?

The short answer: Very.

Tabata workouts sounded simple enough. You perform one exercise at max intensity for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. You do the same exercise for seven more 20-second bursts, with 10-second rest intervals. After eight bursts (a total of four minutes), you switch exercises.

It’s a high-intensity interval training protocol developed by Izumi Tabata, a Japanese researcher who found that high-intensity training was more effective than steady-state workouts in increasing anaerobic capacity and fat-burning potential. The training protocol stems from workouts performed by the Japanese speed-skating team.

We started with air squats—regular squats with a dumbbell shoulder press added at the end of each rep. The first set was fine. The second set was pleasantly hard. By the third, I was out of breath and ready for the ten-second break. By the seventh, my shoulders were burning and my legs were starting to feel like Jell-O.

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Next came planks—with an evil twist. We started in plank position on our elbows, with slider plates under our toes. We then moved our legs in and out, as if we were making snow angels—nowhere nearly as fun, by the way. By the last 20-second burst, parts of my abs I didn’t know I had were already deeply, horribly sore.

And so it went, with bent-over rows, walking lunges, jumping rope, and other seemingly simple exercises made excruciatingly difficult by the all-out level of exertion. While 20 seconds of anything isn’t so tough, it turns out eight rounds of 20 seconds of anything is downright brutal. The hardest movement of the workout: pushup pikes. You start in pushup position, with a slider plate under each foot. You perform one pushup, then use your abs to pull your legs toward your hands, so your body ends up in a V-shape, then you slide your legs back to the starting position for one rep. By the fourth 20-second burst, most of us in the class were groaning audibly.

And the pain didn’t stop when the class did. The next day, I found myself whimpering while walking up the stairs or reaching for a water bottle. But the pleasant soreness in my quads and lats left me hungry for another class, and curious about the fitness gains I’d experience after a few weeks of Tabata.

Equinox isn’t the only Washington-area gym to offer classes or workouts that incorporate the Tabata method. For example, trainers at Vida Fitness on U Street advocate a 16-minute ab workout using the Tabata method. If the class I took at Equinox was any indication, I’m sure it’s a killer.

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Backpacker magazine, Runner’s World, and Women’s Running. She’s also a marathon runner, open-water swimmer, and ski patroller who blogs about her training adventures at