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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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January 15, 2009

What Are Tabata Sprints?

By Mark Sisson
249 Comments

As you probably already know, we’re big on sprinting around here for a number of reasons. First of all, sprints most closely emulate the type of activity Grok would have performed. You know – slowly stalking and hunting an animal for hours at a time (the constant, steady movement I prescribe) only to erupt with an intense burst of speed for the final kill (the sprint). Then he’d have to lug the thing back to camp (deadlifts, squats, and other high-intensity weight bearing training). Sprints are great because they are exactly the type of movement that man has been making for hundreds of thousands of years. Why mess with a good thing?

Second, modern science has confirmed that Grok’s mode of exercise is actually the most efficient and effective. The chronic cardio crowd still has plenty of sway (as evidenced by the post-New-Year’s-eve legions of overweight joggers shambling down the streets with pained looks on their faces), but it’s getting difficult to ignore facts. We now know that high-intensity interval sprinting (think Grok stalking and then pouncing, stalking then pouncing) is far more effective at burning fat and maintaining – or even building – lean muscle mass than the moderate jog-ten-miles-a-day training espoused by so many “experts.” And for that, we have one Dr. Izumi Tabata to thank. Actually, I’d like to thank Grok, first and foremost, but Dr. Tabata helped legitimize this particular brand of exercise to a population otherwise skeptical and addicted to chronic cardio.

Tabata’s findings from a 1996 study on moderate and high-intensity interval training helped legitimize a movement – away from chronic cardio and toward high-intensity workouts. He showed that high-intensity intermittent training actually improves both anaerobic (intensity and muscle building) and aerobic (slower, oxygen consuming) body systems, while aerobic exercise only improves aerobic systems. Of course, these findings would come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever done burpees to exhaustion, or followed a CrossFit WOD, or run beach sprints (wink). Many fitness buffs undoubtedly suspected that killing yourself in short bursts of speed was doing something right, but until Tabata’s research, there wasn’t much vocal opposition in the fitness community to the idea that low and slow was the way to go (apologies for that rhyme).

Tabata’s study even spawned a specific training method: the Tabata. Quite simple and effective, a Tabata session consists of twenty seconds of maximum output, followed by ten seconds of rest, repeated eight times without pause for a total of four minutes. Any exercise will work (running, cycling, burpees, jump rope, squats, etc.) Doing Tabata sprints is perhaps the most rewarding – and physically taxing – way to spend those four minutes.

Run as far and as fast as you can for those twenty seconds. Some like running in straight lines to see how far down or how many times around the track they can make it in four minutes. I like to run back and forth, because it gives me the opportunity to map my progress as I go. On the return trip, I try to make it back to the previous starting position. Keep this up, and you’ll be eternally motivated to defeat your best sprints. When I find myself making it back to the starting position each time, I know I’m not going as hard as I can, so I push myself. Be sure to keep track of your time and go hard.

You can technically perform Tabata sprints anywhere: up a hill (for extra kick), on a track, wearing a weight vest (for Primal pros), in the snow (but wear shoes, please), on a trail (watch out for roots and rocks), even on a treadmill (and since you’re timing yourself, this might actually work fairly well – keep in mind, though, that you’ll be flailing and sweating like a madman, so don’t do this in a crowded early-evening gym), but I prefer doing it on the beach. That way, you have the option of running in dry sand (with the bonus – or punishment, some would say – of more give and harder work) or the slightly forgiving wet sand. Whichever you choose, your joints will thank you for not pounding them on hard concrete, and, well, you’re on the beach (isn’t that enough? Sorry, inlanders). There’s also the added bonus (again, some might say punishment) of getting an extra workout from traversing the uneven and varied surfaces on the beach (dunes, dips, inclines, sand castles… kidding).

The best thing about Tabata sprints, in my honest opinion? They only take four minutes to complete. Four minutes. There’s simply no excuse (save injury) not to try them, so drop what you’re doing and get out there and sprint!

I’ll close this post with a video so you know what’s in store for you:

Further Reading:

Did Grok Really Eat that Much Meat?

Would Grok Chow the Cheese Plate?

Didn’t Grok Eat Raw Meat?

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249 Comments on "What Are Tabata Sprints?"

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Burt Wojciechowski
Burt Wojciechowski
7 years 8 months ago

Tabata sprints. I like it. Lets also be grateful that the man’s name is Tabata. Who would want to do a Wojciechoski Sprint?

Greg
Greg
2 years 8 months ago

Ja obstawiam za Wojciechowski sprint

joe jackson
2 months 8 days ago

Hey Mark-
Thanks for this.
I’m 57, in fair shape, active. Have suffered with chronic depression, off and on, my whole life. Tried a lot of things, some help some, no cures.
Did some sprints this morning, and I feel better than I have in years. Its un-effing-believable. I’m a convert.

Thank you so much for this and all the good info you are putting out there.

Joe

Holly
Holly
7 years 8 months ago

I loved in the first section of the video when the gal just laid down in the middle of the field. I totally know what she feels like!

Troy
Troy
7 years 8 months ago

Ahhh Tabata sprints. There’s nothing like that rewarding feeling of yearning to vomit out your ears when you’re done.

Pablo
Pablo
7 years 8 months ago

Tabata sprints are probably the best bang for your buck. Period. I like finding the steepest trail and doing them on that or putting the treadmill at 12% grade. These pop up on the CFE site all the time along with other devilishly difficult interval schemes. Check ’em out at http://www.crossfitendurance.com

Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

Sprinting has revolutionized my health and training regimine. I have always absolutely hated jogging (this coming for a competititve 1600, 3000 and 5k runner as a kid). I love sprinting though… it is quick, fun, and SO effective! Thank you Mark.. oh and Mr. Tabata and Grok.

The SoG

Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

I mean Dr. Tabata. Doctor…. doctor… doctor?… doctor.

The SoG

Pete
7 years 8 months ago

Awesome. Tabata’s are my favorite way to get in a quick workout. Try using the same timing (:20 work, :10 rest) for bodyweight stuff too. Increases your max reps, testosterone boost, qucik strength session… If it’s too hard to make it through a push-up or squat cycle, combine them going back to back for 8 minutes instead of 4. You’ll be amazed at how hard this is!

JE Gonzalez
7 years 8 months ago

I don’t like the miniscule length of Tabatas. While I don’t like my workouts o last too long, anything less than 10 minutes does not feel like a good workout. Don’t worry, I always keep my workouts under an hour.

John
John
4 years 7 months ago

With all do respect, JE, it doesn’t sound like you’ve ever done Tabata’s lol. The is no workout in the world which leaves you feeling more exhausted and physically fulfilled than a Tabata workout.

Markus
Markus
3 years 11 months ago

Spoken like someone who has never ever done a Tabata. If you do it right, you want to puke your guts out come the 7th interval. They are anything but easy. Try them, you’ll see.

duardi
duardi
1 year 9 months ago

Actually have vomited to tabatas twice. Once from sprinting (up to 1050 m in the 4 mins) and once, much to my surprise, in pushups tabatas (but after an hour cross fit type class)

Clint
7 years 8 months ago

I LOVE the Tabata protocol! I use it for a lot of work outs. My favorite is hitting a tire with a sledge hammer to the Tabata.

The best piece of equipment I could recommend for Tabata workouts is the GymBoss timer. Just google it. It’s cheap and multifunctional!

primalman
primalman
7 years 8 months ago

I have been doing these for years..even before MDA. It is a great work-out. I often do them on the concept 2 indoor rower.

Yeah, it is only a 4 minute work-out, but when you do it at full intensity you will be cooked. I have tried to do some exercise after the Tabata and it just is not worth it due to the fatigue.

Also, be careful of blood pressure drops in the hours that follow the tabata. I have to be careful when going from sitting to standing after the Tabata.

onelasttime
onelasttime
7 years 8 months ago

Wow, this is something I would like to try. It’s an interesting concept.

I was wondering how feasible/healthy is primal consuming only fish (varied types) and shrimp for meat with eggs, dairy and whey powder for main protein sources?

Maria
Maria
7 years 8 months ago
I typically do Sprint 8 on the elliptical, which is 30 seconds all out sprint followed by 1.5 minutes active rest, repeat 8 times, plus warm-up, cool-down makes for an intense 20min cardio workout. I’m not lucky enough to live near a beach, and the nearby park is creepy after nightfall, so I’m forced to do these at the university gym (I’ve actually seen one other person doing something similar, yay!). Since I switched to this from the mundane 45min steady-state cardio, I’ve noticed my body becoming less flabby all-around (Primal diet also helped). I’m looking forward to trying Tabata… Read more »
Erik
Erik
7 years 8 months ago

I recently picked up an app called “Interval Timer” for the iPhone. Works perfectly for tabata routines. I think it was cheap, too – about 99 cents or so.

CRO-MAGNON
CRO-MAGNON
4 years 11 months ago

I was just about to post the exact same thing!

Conny
Conny
7 years 8 months ago

O.U.C.H. – makes my heart hurt just watching the video clip. Thanks though, so that I know what to expect and don’t think I’m doing it wrong. We’re takin’ this one to the park this weekend, gotta put the hubby through his paces. I’ll bet his hockey game improves.

mcshow
mcshow
7 years 8 months ago

Mark,
in terms of fat burning, how does one reconcile Tabata with the rhetoric behind MAF, Phil Maffetone’s approach to getting faster by going slower? Does that ’96 study say you burn more fat by going anaerobic?

Best is probably a little aerobic and a little Tabata, no?

Thanks!

Stuart Buck
7 years 8 months ago

If anyone is interested, I discussed all of Tabata’s studies here, as well as several other sprint studies here and here.

Matt
Matt
7 years 8 months ago
I really worry about anyone who says they “love” Tabata sprints. Sure, the results are great but 4 minutes of Tabata just might be the worst 4 minutes of your life. Just seeing the word “Tabata” in print makes me uneasy. I can honestly say I would rather take a punch in the face than do a 4-minute Tabata sprint cycle. All that said, if I was going into battle and I had to choose my comrades… I would choose anyone who’s done Tabata sprints as my foot soldiers. People who willingly subject themselves to this sort of insanity would… Read more »
Mark
Mark
6 years 7 months ago
Actually, there’s a movement within Army and Marine circles to promote more “sustained low-intensity punctuated by extreme high-intensity” workouts, a la Primal, since that is exactly what soldiers actually experience in combat environments — Hours of foot patrol (or vehicle patrol), punctuated by the need to sprint from cover to cover or clear buildings, all while wearing 50-80 pounds of gear. I wish I had known about Primal and Crossfit when I was an active duty Infantry soldier a few years ago!! I wouldn’t have done the boring “do some situps and pushups and then run 6 miles” PT routine… Read more »
Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 8 months ago
Interesting. The endurance group started out 10 % better in terms of VO2 max than the interval group. They nearly closed the gap by the end of six weeks (Figure 2) but with only seven subjects in each group I wouldn’t make any conclusions from that. mcshow: protein synthesis requires a lot of food energy. Assembling one gram of muscle protein will burn one gram of fat (~9 kcal), so high-load activities can burn a lot more energy afterwards than you would calculate from the amount of work done. That said, lactic acid production has nothing to do with protein… Read more »
Zen Fritta
Zen Fritta
7 years 8 months ago

A mean set of 8 rounds of Tabata sprints followed by Tabata pull-ups. Hell on earth!

Elite sprinters take 10-20 minute breaks between all out sprints.

Robert – pigs have structural similarities to man, that doesn’t mean that people are a problem, nor are pigs. Everyone is different in what they can or can’t handle.

Sveninarxao
Sveninarxao
7 years 8 months ago

I like to do tabata sprints two times week. I do three complete sets of 8, with a 3 minute break in between sets. Lasts 20 minutes overall..

Such an intense workout. How does everyone else structure there interval training?

Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 8 months ago

Zen Fritta:
Robert – pigs have structural similarities to man, that doesn’t mean that people are a problem, nor are pigs. Everyone is different in what they can or can’t handle.

Huh? Where did I mention pigs?

Michele
7 years 8 months ago

This is similar to changing your walking pace. Sprinting up a hill is especially high-intensity!

Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 8 months ago
Zen Fritta: It occurs to you that you may be remarking on my point that gluten and casein protein are structurally similar. Fortunately, there is research on this subject. See: G. Kristjansson et al., “Mucosal reactivity to cow’s milk protein in coeliac disease.” Kristjansson gave coeliacs casein and lactalbumin enemas and measured their inflammation response. 10 of 20 coeliacs had a statistically significant reaction and only 3 of 20 had no reaction. If you have access to read the paper take a look at Figure 2 and you’ll see that only about half of the controls had no reaction to… Read more »
Rodney
Rodney
7 years 8 months ago

How would you structure a weekly sprint workout if you want to do both Tabata sprints and on other occasions regular sprints with full recovery between reps? Alternate weeks or do cycles of several weeks Tabata followed by several weeks of regular? Does it matter or should I just mix it up?

Also, I like the idea of Tabata Burpees for travel workouts. No equipment needed. Can do it just about anywhere including a hotel room.

Stuart Buck
7 years 8 months ago

Tabata burpees are killer, maybe even harder than an actual sprint. For me, the key to doing Tabata burpees is to leave out the pushup portion, which just slows down how fast you’re moving the much larger leg muscles. The key, instead, is to jump back and forth with your legs as quickly as possible — I aim for 12 burpees per 20-seconds, for a total of 96 burpees in 2:40 (the amount of time you spend “sprinting” in the Tabata workout).

Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips
7 years 8 months ago

Hey Mark. I’ve been doing a similar exercise this month called bodyweight soccer sprints. It’s similar to this but involves bodyweight exercises too and generally takes me around 20 to 30 minutes to complete. I’ve got to agree with Dr Tabata though. This type of training is seriously intense and I did notice the same kind of muscle soreness that I get from a good lifting session. They seem to be building muscle even. I’ve only been doing them for a couple of weeks so time will tell.

Joe Matasic
Joe Matasic
7 years 8 months ago

I need to find time (excuse here) to get some of these in addition to my normal weight workout. The problem is my legs are usually fried after squats and deadlifts, so I need to do them on another day. And find a location where I can sprint. Maybe I can try the some intervals other than sprints.

SoG: Spies Like Us…Love it.

Joe

Scott Miller
7 years 8 months ago
I think Tabata’s are a very poor choice, and this video only helps to show why: After one of two all-out sprints, you are too gases to achieve anything close to beneficial maximal output for the remaining sprints. Why this isn’t crystal clear obvious to everyone is puzzling to me. Other studies I’ve seen on intervals get it right, such as the study showing a 10-12 second all-out maximal output effort, followed by 2-4 mins of rest, then repeat 3-4 more times. Done. A total of 40-50 seconds maximum output. But, the key is that the rest is long enough… Read more »
Sonny
6 years 9 months ago
Here’s my thoughts. You’re right that by the 3rd or 4th interval, you’re just going to be spent and not be able to max out the next sprint. But I think it’s all a question of adaptation. You cannot just start doing 8 intervals from the get go; your body and lungs are not used to it. But both can adapt in time. Check out this link: http://www.tabataprotocol.com/ . The author explains how you need to start slowly, like doing 2 intervals your first time and slowly building up, as your body and lungs adapt. Not gonna comment on whether… Read more »
Martin Sach
Martin Sach
2 years 8 months ago

Other studies I’ve seen on intervals get it right, such as the study showing a 10-12 second all-out maximal output effort, followed by 2-4 mins of rest, then repeat 3-4 more times. Done

what studies? I think your right about this, if u think about it, it’s just common sense

duardi
duardi
1 year 9 months ago

As i would never take advice from someone who clearly didnt read the results of the study.

P. Singh
P. Singh
7 years 8 months ago

Scott – The point of Tabata sprints is to accomplish exactly what you seem to be against. The first couple sprints put you in oxygen deprivation. The next 6 or 7 keep you there. This form of high intensity training is great for anaerobic body systems, as the article explains.

Also, Tabata sprints don’t have to be the only type of HIIT you do. You list some great examples of other versions of sprints one can do. It’s good to mix it up from time to time.

Pete
7 years 8 months ago

Scott – What P. Singh said. If you’re interested in how and why Tabata intervals work, check out this link to the Abstract from the original study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez

The bottom line is you can’t argue with the results he got in training the anaerobic and aerobic systems. 28% increase in anaerobic and 14% in aerobic capacities in 6 weeks, exercising 5 times a week among trained olympic athletes (speed skaters)!!!

Scott Miller
7 years 8 months ago

P. Singh, and what exactly is the benefit of oxygen deprivation?

And, why not just run as hard as you can for several minutes? What is the exact purpose of those 10-second rests? These rests are too short to be of any benefit, because by the third and fourth so-called sprint, the person is running at a significantly reduced pace. Again, it comes off like a fast-as-you-can-go run for a few minutes, slowing down significant quite soon after starting.

P. Singh
P. Singh
7 years 8 months ago

Scott –

As Pete said, read the study or contact Dr. Tabata.

Maybe there is no huge difference between the 10 sec. rest version and running as hard as you can for a few minutes. But I’d be inclined to say that running as hard as you can for a few minutes is great for you, too. Apparently the tabata protocol shows that there is some benefit to the breaks. But I agree, toward the middle of either version I’m pretty much spent. I’m not sure though that this means it isn’t doing any good.

Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

Joe M,
I am glad someone got that!

The SoG

Scott Miller
7 years 8 months ago
Pete, that link doesn’t work — on Pubmed you need to reference the study’s reference #. And honestly, those results do not sound particularly impressive. Most athletes train in such a way that they are leaving a room for improvement on the table. Most over-train, for example, and most do not train with enough intensity–instead opting for duration, which strengthens the slow-twitch fibers versus the more desirable fast-twitch. The problem with the Tabata method — until I see supporting data that change’s my guess — is that it is in the muddy middle between a truly intense form of training,… Read more »
Ladyevidence
Ladyevidence
7 years 8 months ago

“There’s simply no excuse (save injury) not to try them”

Or pregnancy. Pregnant women shouldn’t raise their heartbeat above 140, for any period of time. And, I imagine that such a hard-and-fast approach will push some heartrates higher, particularly those who have never done such sprints before.

So, preggo women, stick with endurance! Besides, we need ome endurance training for the extreme labor hours anyway…

Stuart Buck
7 years 8 months ago
Scott — Tabata himself has reportedly said that “the rate of increase in VO2max is one of the highest ever reported in exercise science.” Do you have evidence of greater VO2max gains from some other regimen that was followed for 6 weeks? As for doing sprints with greater rest intervals, I’m sure that this would be better if the goal was overall sprinting speed. But it wouldn’t be as good for taxing your anaerobic and aerobic systems simultaneously: Tabata himself found that in a second study that compared the 20-on-10-off system with a group that did 30 second sprints with… Read more »
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[…] abs don’t exist (in case you forgot), surviving the kettlebell start-up, Tabata sprints, running options for ice and snow, adjusting your training priorities (also here and here; figured […]

roman
7 years 8 months ago

Yeah, doing these with pushups are great too!

sometimes I get a client who says they dont have time to workout … I use this method

-r-

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[…] you liked my Tabata Sprint post, Beach Fitness has a handy online Tabata Clock to time your intense intervals. The timer works […]

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[…] Mark Sisson breaks down tabata sprints and why they’re so effective for fat loss.  Preach on […]

South Beach Steve
7 years 8 months ago

Mark, great website! This sounds like a great plan. I am going to have to incorporate it into my workout.

sangita
sangita
7 years 8 months ago

(giggle!) The Wojciechoski Sprint would probably have us twisting our bodies in figures of 8 while doing cartwheels at the same time!!

trackback
7 years 8 months ago

[…] The Four-Minute Workout. […]

Ryan Denner
7 years 8 months ago

Mark, I love the beach sprints!

Jamie
7 years 8 months ago

Great article. For more info on Tabata and some of the bio-chemical nitty gritty, check out my post on Tabata Intervals, here: http://www.thefitblog.net/2008/12/the-tabata-method.html

sangita
sangita
7 years 8 months ago

Does doing interval training on a stationary bike help? I’m only asking because it is a non – weight bearing exercise. Of course I dont mean to replace actual sprints with the bike. Its just that I have one lying around the house so I plan to use it…I did some this morning and it did jack up my heart rate a lot.

Stuart Buck
7 years 8 months ago

Yes! Actually, Tabata’s studies involved sprints on a stationary bike, not literal sprints in the form of running.

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[…] other forms, you may want to also give Fartlek a try. Note: Mark’s Daily Apple also has a good piece on Tabata Sprints worth checking […]

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[…] for 60 minutes continuously), some strength training sessions and some Tabata sprints (thanks to Mark’s Daily Apple for the suggestion). I had actually done Tabata sprints all my high school football career, but we […]

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