In 1996, Dr. Tabata and his research team at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan undertook a study with a simple premise: after a 10-minute warm-up, subjects performed eight rounds of 20 seconds of work on a mechanically braked cycle, each followed by 10 seconds of rest.
The total exercise time after the warm-up was 4 minutes. That’s it. There’s a caveat, however: the 20-second bursts were all-out effort at a mind-boggling 170 percent of VO2 max, which is the highest amount of oxygen the body can consume and use for energy.
This short-term explosion of energy produced some incredible results both in the short- and long-term. Just one four-minute session burned the same number of calories as a 60-minute jog. But when performed four times per week for six weeks (with a single day of long-duration cardio added in), it was also more effective at improving the body’s aerobic and anaerobic capacity compared to regular moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
In 1997, Dr. Tabata concluded that 30-second bursts at 200 percent of VO2 max with 2-minute rests was not as effective as the 20-10 protocol at taxing the aerobic and anaerobic systems, even though the 30-second, 2-minute protocol had longer and more intense bursts of exercise. The 20-10 model has borne his name ever since.
Despite what you may have heard, the two studies did not deal with fat loss, body composition, or the much-discussed “afterburn” effect. But Dr. Tabata says he’ll soon produce a paper on the improved effects of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) following the Tabata protocol, which will be the first scientific study showing clinical results that the 20-10 protocol can burn calories for up to 12 hours after the workout.
Even though the original study was conducted on Olympic speed skaters, Tabata says he has seen encouraging results implementing the Tabata protocol with subjects dealing with illnesses such as diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and stroke. “You don’t have to be an elite athlete for this [protocol] to help improve your life,” Tabata says.
Just to be clear, a Tabata workout isn’t supposed to be a walk in the park. Dr. Tabata is concerned that people aren’t using the Tabata protocol correctly, because their 20-second bursts are often too mellow to elicit increased EPOC and improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness. If this is the case for you, it could be because your movements are too complicated, or you do movements like planks or bodyweight squats, which are hard to push to maximal intensity.