Getting fit in four minutes sounds like the stuff of late-night infomercials, but it’s the promise of Tabata interval training workouts — a newly popular version of high intensity interval training. These short but intense workouts are the brainchild of Dr. Izumi Tabata, who according to the American Council on Exercise developed his namesake program in 1996 while working as a training coach for the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating Team. Here are things to know before you give Tabata training a try.

Intensity Has Its Benefits

Working with these highly disciplined athletes in his study, Tabata tested a protocol of 20 seconds of work at 170 percent of VO2max (a measure of aerobic endurance) and 10 seconds of rest for eight rounds. This equates to an extremely tough and somewhat painful workout that lasted just four minutes. The Japanese Olympic speed skaters followed this regimen five days a week, for six weeks. Not only did their aerobic endurance improve but their anaerobic capacity—their ability to produce power without oxygen—increased by 28 percent.

Even if you’re not training for the Olympics, you may find similar benefits. Increasing anaerobic capacity is useful for everything from improving your ability to keep climbing on a strenuous hike, to being able to sprint through the airport to catch a flight. Studies have also shown that high intensity interval training can improve muscle growth in men and the female body’s ability to burn fat.

Tabata Today

Since it might be hard to justify driving to the gym for a class that only lasts four minutes, and because your local fitness instructor probably doesn’t want you to work out so hard you can’t walk to your car, most Tabata classes today present a modified version of the original Olympic team experiment. There may be longer rest periods between circuits or lower intensity activity in between circuits, however you still need to push yourself to the point that your anaerobic system has to take over when the aerobic system is tapped out. In other words, if you have the breath to complain about the intensity of the experience, you’re probably not working hard enough.

If time is short, you can do a Tabata-style workout on your own, following the original structure. Simply pick one challenging exercise, like kettlebell swings or jumping rope, and follow the original formula — eight rounds of 20 seconds of work, and 10 seconds of rest. Be sure to warm up first and allow a little time to stretch at the end.

Tabata on the Road

If you have more time, try this Tabata core fusion workout from Michelle Carlson, NASM-certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. It’s a great workout for the park or hotel gym that will shake up your regular routine.

Warm up with light calisthenics like jumping jacks, arm circles or jogging in place for three to five minutes. Then complete all Tabata circuits for eight rounds of 20 seconds of work, and 10 seconds of rest.

  • Opposite arm/leg reaches (aka “Bird Dogs”): one set, 20 repetitions
  • Tabata Circuit No. 1: “Skater Jumps” (jump laterally on one foot, repeating the jump from side to side)
  • Reverse crunches and bicycle crunches: three sets, 20 reps each
  • Tabata Circuit No. 2: “Burpees” (squat down and touch your hands to the ground, kick both legs back into a plank, then quickly tuck the legs back in under your chest. Jump up and land back down in the squat position)
  • Plank dips with toe taps: three sets, 20 reps
  • Tabata Circuit No. 3: “Jump Sumo Dorothy” (jump from a sumo squat and click your heels together before landing)
  • Side plank pulses and butterfly crunches: three sets, 20 reps each
  • Tabata Circuit No. 4: “Pop Squats” (start in standard squat position and jump up, landing with soft knees and in a wide stance. Repeat the jump and land back in the original squat position)

A note to consider: While Tabata has been shown to be a highly effective workout, training at this intensity level for every workout may not be very enjoyable. Also if you are looking to do your first half marathon or (100-mile) century ride, it cannot replace time on the road. That said, Tabata can offer the perfect compliment to your normal workout routine and a quick fix when you’re short on time.