Tabata Protocol: Short, sharp – and shocking

The newest workout lasts just four minutes and gets you fitter than an hour of normal exercise. Sounds easy? Then you haven't tried it

Rather than describe a four-minute exercise regime devised by a possibly sadistic Japanese professor, I will reproduce here every word spoken as Robert Scrivener, my trainer, leads me through it.

The scene is a gym studio with a wooden floor and a mirrored wall. I have not included any grunts or cries (all mine). The only words that are mine are the swear words:

"Arms up, down, good, get height. Big push, down, up. Let's go. Big push. Come on, all the way through, and again.

"Crawl it out, quickly. Up, come on. Let's go. Jump, turn, use your arms. Come on, Si. Let's go. Back, knee low, chest up. Keep going, swing your arms."

"Christ!"

"Jump to me, lift the leg. In, jump, this way. Come on, Si, come on. Big jump.

"Get some height. Arms up. Let's go. Drive.

"Let's go, in out, quick. It's got to be fast, got to be fast. Let's do this. Chest low. Come on, come on. One more, one more, let's do it.

Knee low, come on, come on. Make it count."

"Oh sh*t!"

"Jump. Last 10, big push, big push. Come on. Let's do it. Last one. And the jump. That's it."

"Bloody hell!"

My face is red, I am sweating profusely, my heart is threatening to burst through my ribs like John Hurt's alien on steroids and, although my workout has lasted precisely four minutes, I'm done for the day.

I have completed the Tabata Protocol, a little-known fitness regime that is as brief as it is brutal.

Izumi Tabata, its inventor, is a Japanese professor and pioneer of sports science whose research in the mid-1990s showed that high-intensity exercise in 20-second bursts separated by 10-second rests achieves more in four minutes than an hour-long slog on an exercise bike.

The regime spread by word of mouth among athletes and fitness trainers and helped inspire the trend for high-intensity interval training.

Some gyms use Tabata's name but the man himself has now emerged from his laboratory at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto to reclaim his brainchild. Aged 56, he's signed his first licensing deal to launch Tabata classes and, later, fitness DVDs for those without even the time to leave their sitting rooms.

Scrivener has been creating the official Tabata routines as part of the deal with Universal Pictures, the film and distribution giant. I'm already a bit breathless after our five-minute warm-up at his north London gym, and even more so when we go through the four exercises.

The first and simplest, a side-to-side Sargent jump, involves springing from a squat like a frog while reaching up with the hands and, moving sideways through the air, landing in another squat. Repeat for 20 seconds, as hard as you can.

According to the Tabata principle, any high-intensity movement will achieve the desired effect. The key is to get the heart pumping and tip over from aerobic into anaerobic exercise. Or, as Scrivener puts it, "as long as you're going balls-out, that's the main thing".

Put simply, anaerobic metabolism is triggered by high-intensity exercise, when muscles require more fuel than breathing can provide. It's the sort of exercise that hurts and is tough to achieve while jogging, say, or cycling. It's also important for those who want to be truly fit.

In the 1980s, Tabata was part of the team of scientists that developed a way to measure anaerobic metabolism, back when interval training involved sprints to the theatre bar. It allowed him to compare different ways of working out, from "balls-out" down the pain scale.

In his breakthrough study, Tabata put a group of students on exercise bikes, ordering them to pedal like maniacs in 20-second bursts broken up by 10-second breaks, for five days a week. A separate group pedalled at normal levels of exertion for an hour a day over the same period. After six weeks, the maniacs had boosted their aerobic fitness by 14 per cent, compared to 10 per cent in the second group, the members of which had worked out for way longer.

Tabata applied his techniques as a coach with the Japanese Olympic speed-skating team and never imagined it would have appeal below elite sport.

"I didn't expect ordinary people to want to do it," he told me in London the week before my routine with Scrivener. "I was a little embarrassed because it's very demanding but if you look on YouTube you see many people enjoying it."

But as regimes and fitness classes inspired by Tabata's research have slowly grown in popularity, the professor says he believes gym-goers aren't being pushed enough. "If the intensity is lower than the one I approved it's less useful," he says.

Scrivener has got this message, as my buttock muscles in particular tell me as we warm down after four minutes of the toughest exercise I've ever done.

Yet, with stretches before and after, plus a few minutes to learn the drill, my visit to the gym has lasted little more than quarter of an hour, perfect for those who would exercise more if only they had the time.

It also allows me – and this is not part of the protocol – to eat two lunches when I get back to my office and not feel terrible.

Suggested Topics
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballLive blog: Follow the action from the Capital One Cup semi-final
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

    £125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

    Day In a Page

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century