I admit it: Knocking out this particular article was tougher than I expected! With my deadline fast approaching, I was furiously trying to unpack from a recent move and keep up with an endless business to-do list, and I wasn't having much luck making time to sit down and write. Even so, I knew I had to get the piece done, and I wasn't about to let my other priorities—or my workouts!—drop off the radar.
The thing is, I know all of you can relate. Unless you're a trust-fund baby leading a life of leisure, you know how life manages to get in the way of your best-laid plans. There's always something that needs to get done, demanding more precious moments of your day. Suddenly, the sun has set, it's 9 p.m., and you haven't even squeezed in your daily training session yet.
I've been there several times, and like you, I hate missing a workout. So, I've developed an elegant solution, one that ensures I stay on track toward my fitness goals and don't skip my training. How? Well, I got creative: I combined the tenets of Tabata cardio with weights to deliver fast, challenging, effective workouts that get the job done in a fraction of the time of a traditional session!
Got Four Minutes to Spare?
If you've read my previous articles, like "The 4 Most Effective Ways to Burn Fat," you've heard me talk about Tabata before. Tabata, which is a specific exercise framework, was born out of a 1996 study performed by Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata on a group of highly trained Olympic speed skaters.1
The research subjects performed 7-8 rounds of 20-second cycling at 170 percent of VO2 max, followed by 10 seconds of rest after each round. This short-duration workout—about four minutes, all told—was shown to be more effective for improving aerobic and anaerobic capacity compared to lengthier, moderate-intensity cardio performed the same number of times in a week.
Another study published in 2013 took Tabata to the next level. This research repeated the basic Tabata protocol, but strung together four full four-minute rounds with a one-minute rest between rounds.2 During this 20-minute workout, the subjects burned 240-360 calories, and experienced a massive boost in energy expenditure for days after.
While each workout below is only four minutes, you can string them together—with a minute of rest between each workout—for a similarly intense and effective session.
Your Tabata Lifting Plan
While it's primarily used with cardiovascular equipment, Tabata's benefits aren't just limited to cardio or burning fat. The 20-second bursts of work are well-suited for lifting, engaging your muscles to near-maximal levels when you choose an appropriate weight. And that's exactly what you're going to do with this efficient workout plan.
In the following workouts, I suggest you start with 50 percent of what you'd normally use to elicit momentary muscular failure in a regular 10-rep set. As you get more experience with these Tabata workouts, you can increase your loads from there. In other words, don't let your ego drive you to go too heavy!
As for your rep cadence, shoot for an explosive—yet controlled—positive contraction, followed by a controlled negative, with no extended pauses. Your goal is as many clean, high-quality reps as possible within those 20-second segments.
6 Sample Tabata Workouts
To get the most out of your Tabata workouts, make sure you warm up well and mix in some exercises that will engage more than one muscle group at a time.
Each of these workouts is only four minutes long and contains only four exercises. You'll do 20 seconds of one exercise, followed by 10 seconds of rest as you transition between exercises, and repeat for a total of eight rounds.
In other words, do 20 seconds of work on the first exercise, rest for 10 seconds as you switch exercises, do 20 seconds of work, take 10 seconds to transition, and repeat for a total of four minutes. You'll perform each exercise twice.
4 min. total
4 min. total
4 min. total
4 min. total
Stationary lunge (left leg)20 sec, 10 sec rest/transition
Stationary lunge (right leg)20 sec, 10 sec rest/transition
4 min. total
4 min. total
The Fast Lane to Gains
The exercises above aren't set in stone, of course. Feel free to switch out like-for-like movements to freshen up each session if you've used the movements a few times.
For instance, the barbell bench press could be replaced with an incline press, a dumbbell press, or a Smith-machine or Hammer-Strength press; the free-weight flyes could be traded for the pec-deck or cable cross-over stations; and the push-up could be replaced by a dip. The key in these workouts is the Tabata protocol rather than the specific exercise choices.
Here are some alternatives for each of the exercises:
- Chin-up: Pull-down to front, pull-down to rear, assisted pull-up
- Single-arm row: Bent-over barbell row, T-bar row, seated cable row, Hammer-strength iso row
- Seated barbell press: Standing barbell press, seated dumbbell press, Arnold press, upright row
- Bent-over dumbbell lateral raise: Single-arm cable bent-over raise, seated bent-over dumbbell raise, reverse pec-deck fly
- Dumbbell lateral raise: Cable lateral raise (one or both arms), machine lateral raise, kettlebell raise
- Barbell front raise: Dumbbell alternating front raise, cable front raise, lying cable front raise
- Jump squat: Step-up, jump up to box, dumbbell squat, barbell squat
- Stationary lunge: Walking lunge, side-to-side lunge, around-the-clock lunge
- Standing barbell curl: Standing EZ-bar curl, barbell or EZ-bar preacher curl, single-arm dumbbell preacher curl, preacher-machine curl
- Parallel-bar dip: Bench dip, lying French press, close-grip bench press
- Dumbbell hammer curl: Dumbbell preacher hammer curl, dumbbell spider curl, incline dumbbell hammer curl, palms-down EZ-bar curl
- Cable press-down: Rope press-down, V-bar press-down, overhead rope extension, seated two-hand dumbbell overhead extension, triceps machine extension
- Bicycle crunch: V-up, double crunch, cable crunch, machine crunch
- Side plank: Standard plank, oblique crunch, decline twisting crunch
- Hanging knee raise: Hanging leg raise, hanging knee raise (holding medicine ball between knees), lying leg raise (off bench or floor)
You can use these workouts whenever you find yourself short on time. You can do one for a fast blast, or combine a couple sessions if want to hit more body parts. And if you happen to have more than a few moments on your hands, you could get diabolical and do a full-body slam, running through each of these workouts in a row. In that case, I'd suggest doing legs and back on the front end, and then arms and core on the back end.
- Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28(10), 1327-1330.
- Emberts, T., Porcari, J., Dobers-tein, S., Steffen, J., & Foster, C. (2013). Exercise Intensity and Energy Expenditure of a Tabata Workout. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 12(3), 612.