Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Jan

What Are Tabata Sprints?

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?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

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

    Burt Wojciechowski wrote on January 15th, 2009
    • Ja obstawiam za Wojciechowski sprint

      Greg wrote on January 13th, 2014
    • 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 jackson wrote on July 19th, 2016
  2. 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!

    Holly wrote on January 15th, 2009
  3. Ahhh Tabata sprints. There’s nothing like that rewarding feeling of yearning to vomit out your ears when you’re done.

    Troy wrote on January 15th, 2009
  4. 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

    Pablo wrote on January 15th, 2009
  5. 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 wrote on January 15th, 2009
  6. I mean Dr. Tabata. Doctor…. doctor… doctor?… doctor.

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on January 15th, 2009
  7. 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!

    Pete wrote on January 15th, 2009
  8. 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.

    JE Gonzalez wrote on January 15th, 2009
    • 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.

      John wrote on February 25th, 2012
    • 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.

      Markus wrote on September 28th, 2012
      • 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)

        duardi wrote on December 9th, 2014
  9. 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!

    Clint wrote on January 15th, 2009
  10. 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.

    primalman wrote on January 15th, 2009
  11. 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?

    onelasttime wrote on January 15th, 2009
  12. 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 sprints, especially for those occasions when even 20 minutes on the elliptical seems like too long. Thanks for another informative post!

    Maria wrote on January 15th, 2009
  13. 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.

    Erik wrote on January 15th, 2009
    • I was just about to post the exact same thing!

      CRO-MAGNON wrote on October 15th, 2011
  14. 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.

    Conny wrote on January 15th, 2009
  15. 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?


    mcshow wrote on January 15th, 2009
  16. If anyone is interested, I discussed all of Tabata’s studies here, as well as several other sprint studies here and here.

    Stuart Buck wrote on January 15th, 2009
  17. onelasttime – We go easy on dairy with the Primal Blueprint diet. You certainly can go Primal on just fish and shrimp. And you’d certainly be better of than any vegetarian trying to go Primal:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers!

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 15th, 2009
  18. 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 be excellent soldiers.

    (People who’ve completed a 20-rep breathing squat program would be my generals).

    Matt wrote on January 15th, 2009
    • 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 every morning that most Army platoons fall into.

      Mark wrote on February 13th, 2010
  19. 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 synthesis. Personally, I take much longer breaks between sprints than the people in the video.

    P.S. a lot of coeliacs are also intolerant of casein, the primary protein (80 %) in milk. Casein has a lot of structural similarities to gluten. It’s not just lactose that’s a problem.

    Robert M. wrote on January 15th, 2009
  20. 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.

    Zen Fritta wrote on January 15th, 2009
  21. 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?

    Sveninarxao wrote on January 15th, 2009
  22. 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?

    Robert M. wrote on January 15th, 2009
  23. This is similar to changing your walking pace. Sprinting up a hill is especially high-intensity!

    Michele wrote on January 15th, 2009
  24. 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 casein.

    One of fifteen controls had a statistically significant inflammation response. In fact only about half of the controls had no measured adverse reaction to the cow’s milk protein enema.

    The same author also showed a correlation between corn gluten intolerance and coeliac disease.

    Robert M. wrote on January 15th, 2009
  25. 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.

    Rodney wrote on January 15th, 2009
  26. 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).

    Stuart Buck wrote on January 15th, 2009
  27. 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.

    Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips wrote on January 16th, 2009
  28. 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 Matasic wrote on January 16th, 2009
  29. 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 to allow you to TRULY ACHIEVE a maximal, high-wattage (power measurement) effort. On a bike, for example, I maintain 800+ watts for 10 seconds, and by that time my thighs are so filled with lactic acid it’s impossible to continue. Not to mention I’m gasping for air.

    Running for 30 seconds doesn’t push us to our true limit. Duration is the enemy of intensity. At true maximal wattage, we can only go at most 10-12 seconds. And then we need at least 2 mins to recover, otherwise our next sprint will be less than truly maximal, and therefore less that fully beneficial.

    With the super short rest periods of Tabata’s, it comes off looking more like a fast run than real sprints. I would never recommend this training technique.

    Scott Miller wrote on January 16th, 2009
    • 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: . 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 the Tabata 20 on, 10 off routine is better than other interval routine timing, I just have no way of knowing. But I am certain about the body and lungs needing to adapt by becoming stronger over time.

      That said, with respect to sprinting (which is pretty effing tough to do for 20 seconds), you need to simply start slowly and gradually build up to 8 intervals. I mean, personally, I would start off doing 2 intervals for 3x week for 2 weeks before I added a third interval and not add a fourth until I’m able to go still go full speed on the third.

      Sonny wrote on December 2nd, 2009
    • 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

      Martin Sach wrote on January 6th, 2014
    • As i would never take advice from someone who clearly didnt read the results of the study.

      duardi wrote on December 9th, 2014
  30. 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.

    P. Singh wrote on January 16th, 2009
  31. 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:

    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)!!!

    Pete wrote on January 16th, 2009
  32. 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.

    Scott Miller wrote on January 16th, 2009
  33. 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.

    P. Singh wrote on January 16th, 2009
  34. Joe M,
    I am glad someone got that!

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on January 16th, 2009
  35. 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, and a duration mode of training.

    Scott Miller wrote on January 16th, 2009
  36. “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…

    Ladyevidence wrote on January 17th, 2009
  37. 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 2 minutes rest. See here.

    Why does the Tabata system work? No one can literally sprint at top speed for four minutes straight. The ten-second rest periods are to give you just enough of a breather that you can run the next segment as fast as possible (granted, it won’t be as fast as if you rested for 3 minutes, but it WILL be faster than if you tried to run for 4 minutes straight . . . that’s the point). So by the end of 4 minutes, you’ve spent the majority of the time running as fast as you can (under the circumstances) with very little rest. As for whether it taxes your anaerobic and aerobic systems as Tabata found, if you’ve done it right, then you’ll be out of breath for the next 10-15 minutes, just trying to gasp for more oxygen.

    Give it a shot, and see what you think.

    Stuart Buck wrote on January 17th, 2009
  38. 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


    roman wrote on January 17th, 2009

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