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Tabatas 3.0: Burn fat, get fit in 12 minutes a week

FACTOID: muscle burns fat and raises your heartrate FAST. Based on that, the fastest way to fat loss via exercise is a 4-minute high-intensity muscle-engaging workout!

4 minutes? I’m in.

The mantra “use it or lose it” applies quite specifically to muscles over the age of 30. Yes, 30. Over the age of 50, well, the downhill slide is faster than anyone ever dreamed possible.

Dr. Deborah to the rescue. She introduced Tabata workouts to the Weston A Price Foundation Conference attendees in Hotlanta back in November 2013. Tabatas provide a structure for doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

Remember “circuit training”? In a classroom or gym situation, you’d be at one station for a minute or so, do the exercise, then move to the next station. Think Curves or today’s Orange Theory or even Crossfit.

Tabatas are the same basic idea: doing one exercise for a short period, then moving to the next exercise. Except it’s all HIGH intensity. There is no aerobic portion where you get up to your training heart rate, then stay there like with Zumba or Aerobic dance class.

Get your heart rate high, keep it high while working, then take a break. Repeat!


Tabatas were developed by sports scientist Izumi Tabata and are scientifically proven to keep you fit even in only 12 minutes a week! Here’s Mr. Tabata’s video intro to Tabatas. (Don’t panic, we won’t be doing those exercises or wearing those outfits. At least not to start…)

So, “just four minutes of Tabata is better than an hour of cycling”? Yay to that!

Note the mention of “after burn” or EPOC: you continue to burn calories (fat calories) for up to 12 hours after you finish your 4 minutes. EPOC is a hugely powerful benefit of HIIT Tabatas. It is the key to fat-burning.

Simply put, Tabatas are the most efficient and fastest way to fat loss, to get & stay fit, and reverse the slide into decrepitude!

Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week. Seriously?

“Fitness” means maintaining core body strength and healthy aerobic and anaerobic systems that will support a high quality life on the planet. One 4-minute Tabata 3x a week gives you that.

Seriously, that is all you need to do. Anyone at any age at any fitness level can do four minutes in 20-second chunks at maximum effort. Anyone. Now, your max effort may be more or less strenuous than someone else’s. That’s ok, it’s not a contest.

If you are looking for serious improvements in core strength, Tabatas get you there. Just do more of them for a longer workout. I’m doing 12 minutes/day 3x week and that feels right for me. When I’m short on time, I do the 4 minutes and feel great!

Most of us probably shouldn’t do more than 5 Tabatas at a time. Five Tabatas takes 20 minutes which is more than enough HIIT to stay fit.

In fact, exercising intensely for more than 20 minutes can be counter productive.

Too much exercise is counter productive?

Did you know that when you over-exercise, your body thinks you are in a state of emergency and releases cortisol? Cortisol is the emergency hormone. It raises blood sugar (to make you feel good in an emergency) which screws with your insulin and keeps you from burning fat. Exercise for too long and say bye bye to those EPOC fat-burning benefits! Let’s just stick to under 20 minutes at a time, ok?

How to do Tabata Workouts

In four minutes, you’ll do 8 exercises. Any exercise(s): pick 4 different exercises and do each twice. Or do one exercise 8x. Or do 8 different exercises 1x. Any combination, lots of suggestions and videos below.

Do each exercise for 20 seconds as fast and hard as you can while keeping good form, then take a 10 second break. That’s one interval. Do that 8x total.

Click here for the tabata timer app I use (Apple). Very simple, no frills, I love it! Here’s one for Android (I have not used this one but there are several available!)

Tabata Workout Glossary

  • One 4-minute Tabata is a session.
  • A session is made up of 8 30-second intervals.
  • A 30-second interval is 20 seconds of all out effort + a 10 second rest.
  • If you do more than one session, you take a 1-minute rest between sessions.
    • For a 10 minute workout, do 2 sessions.
    • For a 20 minute workout, do 4 sessions.

You don’t even have to count. Use your timer — it does all the counting for you!

A Few Good Tabata Exercises

Any exercise will do as long as it makes you breathe heavy. Here’s the trick: getting your heart rate up requires using your large muscle groups: gluteals (butt), quads (thighs), lats (back). A few simple ones are listed below plus you’ll see some great combos in the videos farther down:

  • March in place
  • Jumping jacks and/or jump rope
  • Step side to side
  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Squats
  • Arm exercises (deltoid raises, military press, curls) – Now, these generally won’t get your heart rate going high enough when done alone. But in combo with a squat, they are killer for fat-burning!
  • Dr. Bert offers several HIIT exercises. He shows a 70yo man doing them!

NOTE: Whenever you raise your arms over your head, your heart rate goes up because your heart is now pumping your blood uphill. It doesn’t count as far as working your cardio system, you gotta get those big muscles working.


You don’t really need equipment for jumping jacks, squats, push ups… But if you do want some variety, these are great:

  • Kettlebell — lots of info below. Kettlebells and Tabatas were made for each other!
  • Bands — I work my abs with a band, video below in the abs section.
  • Weights: here’s a link to all of the weights on Amazon.
    • WOMEN: I like this set for women, 8 lbs is plenty for an HIIT exercise. Having the 3 and 5 lb sets there is perfect to build up to the 8, plus you’ll use them in other exercises.
    • MEN: For most men, 15 lbs is plenty. (Although you can use the dropdown and choose any size you want.) Remember, we are building fitness not gigantic muscles!
  • In a gym? I would not recommend that beginners do Tabatas in a gym. Since you don’t have as much control over the mechanism once the exercise is in process, there is chance of a strain which can keep you on the couch for weeks. However, if you have a trainer or you are experienced with machines, then have at it. Remember that you’ll need to set the weight stack for fast reps without injury. This means lighter weight than for a regulation muscle-building routine.

About Kettlebells

Kettlebells are the bomb for Tabatas.

The trick is to pick a weight that is light enough to allow you to maintain good form, yet heavy enough to get you breathing hard.

Here’s how to pick your first Kettlebell: if you can manage to pick it up with one hand, but it’s so heavy you don’t want to carry it all the way to the register, that’s a good starting weight!

A gallon of liquid is approx 8 lbs. So grab that gallon of vinegar and do a test swing. Or stand in the aisle at Walmart and test out different size weights. I bought a 15 pounder there (like $20), just right for me.

My Basic Tabata Workout

Here’s my basic workout. It consists of four exercises that work the entire body: Kettlebell Swings, Kettlebell Squats, Push-Ups and Planks.

A creature of habit, I do these in order, two of each. Somedays, I’ll do 8 of the same exercise. Somedays I’ll do a completely different exercise that I found on youtube. Switching it up is good for your body — it needs to be confused to work hard!

How-tos for My 4 Exercises:

Kettlebell (KB) Swing Amy gives a great lesson in the basic KB swing. (Look for her other vids on more Tabata-appropriate exercises, too.)

Kettlebell Squat

Following is an excellent short video demonstrating the KB squat. Notice that he sits all the way down. Squat only as low as suits you, if that’s all the way down, great! Sit back into your heels, chest up. Be sure to squeeze your glutes (butt) hard at the top of the movement (when you stand) — that’s where the gold is as far as glutes go!

Plank and/or Ab work with a Band These are both very well explained and demonstrated in the video:  

Push Ups If you are going to do just one exercise, do a push up. When done properly (and it’s not rocket science), it works EVERYTHING. Mark Sisson has the ultimate push up primer. Here are instructions on the plank and a very thorough post and video for pull-ups, especially for beginners.

THE Fastest Way to Fat Loss

How do you make yourself “just do it”? Here’s what I do: on Tabata day, I am not allowed to have my second cup of coffee until I’ve done my Tabatas.

The bad news is: there is no way to be healthy into your dotage without exercise.

The good news is: it doesn’t take much. Give Tabata workouts a try. At just 12 minutes a week, fitness will never be any easier than this!

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