Four minutes to fitness

With this fast and furious workout, you'll never again be able to say, 'I don't have time to exercise!'

September 8, 2009 10:19
4 minute read.

fitness ; Illustration. (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)


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If the thought of spending another hour plodding drearily along on the treadmill is as appealing to you as a lobotomy, cheer up! All you need for a great workout is four minutes.

Photo: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg

No, that's not a typo. You absolutely can get a great workout in just four minutes, and here's how.

Pick an exercise - I'll suggest some of the most appropriate ones in a moment - and perform as many repetitions of it as you can in 20 seconds. Then stop and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat this for a total of eight sets, totaling four minutes.

Sound easy? Think again. This workout, if done properly, will leave you limp on the floor, your muscles burning and your lungs gasping for air.

The originator of this protocol is Dr. Izumi Tabata, a Japanese researcher at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports, who was looking to improve the capabilities of elite athletes. In the mid-1990s, Tabata's team discovered that intermittent bursts of high-intensity exercise could increase anaerobic power and aerobic power at levels never before seen. It was quite a revelation, especially since the standard against which these short bursts of work were compared, an hour-long session of relatively moderate-intensity exercise at a steady pace, was a common way for top athletes to train.

Tabata intervals work because of a "double whammy" of stresses: The bouts of effort are too intense to maintain, and the rest periods are too short to allow for complete recovery. This places high demands on multiple energy pathways, forcing your body to adapt more than it does to other kinds of training.

What this means in simple terms is that you can both get stronger and increase your stamina at the same time - and, even better, that you can accomplish this in just a few minutes a day. Tabata intervals produce superior results to the time-consuming training methods that have been prescribed for decades, and they do so with only the shortest of time commitments.

If that sounds too good to be true, let me add this caveat: You have to work really, really hard for those four minutes. For 20 seconds at a time, you have to put all the effort you can muster into your exercise. If you're used to slow and steady jogging, or even the "power aerobics" and "bodyshaping" classes that are so popular these days, that's a shocking change. But rest assured, it's well worth it.

Now, not just any exercise will do. To make the most of Tabata intervals you need a compound, functional exercise, one that makes you use a lot of muscle quickly. Squats, push-ups or pull-ups would be fine; thrusters (a combination of squats and shoulder presses) or burpees (a combination of push-ups and vertical jumps) would be even better. Punching or kicking a heavy bag would be great, too. But things like bicep curls, sit-ups or yoga poses just won't cut it.

To record your "score" - how many reps you do - it would help to have a friend keep count for you, and keep track of time as well. Even if you're all alone, though, you can manage to jot down your own reps during the 10-second rest periods, and if you have your computer handy, you can have a timer count down your intervals for you by searching on-line for one of the many free programs available. This is not one of those things you can just sort of "guesstimate," so do use a buddy or a clock.

If you do Tabata intervals correctly, you'll be struggling well before the eighth set begins. So if you're not wondering how in the world you're going to make it through the whole four minutes, then you're not working hard enough. Just know that, if you do push yourself, you'll be rewarded for those few minutes of discomfort by seeing results quickly.

In the Japanese experiments, Tabata's test subjects did his exhausting intervals five times a week. You could do the same, using this supershort workout as your exclusive routine - but it isn't necessary to do so. You can still get a lot out of Tabatas if you only do them once a week, or as little as once a month, as part of your regular exercise regimen. With practice, you may even find that you can do more than one Tabata interval per workout, using them for two or three different exercises.

Whether you're looking for a new way to bring intensity to your training, or just stuck in a rut, Tabata intervals belong in your exercise repertoire. And at just four minutes long, they'll wipe out that old "I don't have time to exercise" excuse!

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