Tabata What? The Hot Fitness Method from Japan Gains Popularity

Intense micro-intervals are at the heart of the hottest fitness method: Tabata training. (Photo: Getty Images)If you could get in shape with a super-fast, super-intense fitness routine, would you try it? Tabata training, an intense regimen first developed for athletes in Japan, is gaining popularity with people the world over who are incorporating the high-intensity interval training into their regular workouts.

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Tabata training is made up of 20-second bursts of give-it-your-all effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated for eight intense cycles. You don't have to do a particular set of exercises—biking, running, pushups, crunches, it's all good—as long as you're pushing yourself to your limit each time.

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The fast, four-minute session was developed in 1996 by Dr. Izumi Tabata, who noted that short, but difficult, intervals of hard exercise seemed as effective as hours of more-moderate training. He later tested out his short-form interval training on university student athletes in Japan.

"They were dead!" he told The Guardian. "After four minutes' of hard exercise they were wiped out. But after six weeks they saw the results and were surprised. We all were."

Dr. Tabata's students exercised a total of 88 minutes a week for six weeks, compared to a control group who did five hours of more-moderate exercise each week during the same time. Since his tests were done on athletes, weight loss wasn't the goal; instead, Dr. Tabata measured the anaerobic capacity and VO2 max—key indicators of cardiovascular health and muscle power. The group that performed the more-intense but less time-consuming Tabata training showed far more improvement than the group who spent more time on a less-intense workout.

"We have also measured increases in heart size after three weeks of doing the protocol," Dr. Tabata told The Guardian. "And there is also forthcoming research that shows that it lowers the risk of diabetes in humans, something we have already shown in rats."

But how many calories can you really burn in a four-minute session? It depends on how hard you push yourself—the whole point of Tabata training is to max yourself out for each 20 second interval. The magic happens in the hours after your workout ends.

"During the 24 to 36 hours after your workout, there is an increase in your resting metabolic rate," New York-based fitness instructor Amanda Young told Time magazine. "Basically, you are going to burn more fat over the next 24 to 36 hours than you normally would, as opposed to if you were doing a steady state workout like running on a treadmill."

In his study, Dr. Tabata found that the athletes who followed his protocol burned an extra 150 calories in the 12 hours after exercise, even if they were just resting—proof that they were burning fat far longer than with other fitness routines.

Tabata training is most popular with people who are already in stellar shape but, since you don't need special equipment, it's accessible to everyone, and gyms like Equinox in New York City and Los Angeles have added it to their offerings. But the fact that it doesn't take much time doesn't mean it's easy. "The first three repetitions will feel easy but the last two will feel impossibly hard," Dr. Tabata explained. "In the original plan the aim was to get to eight [repetitions], but some only lasted six or seven."

Still, "Beginners should start with educated trainers so that they can work at the correct intensity for them," Dr. Tabata warns—which is why he's agreed to a deal with Universal Studios to establish a network of instructors and a set of workout DVDs later this year.

"I decided to do this because I often go on YouTube and, while I am honored that people are doing it, some are doing it wrong because they don't realize the intensity you need to work at," he told The Guardian. "If you feel OK afterwards you've not done it properly."

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