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5 Tabata Workouts & Exercises – High-Intensity Training Routines

By Laura Williams

lungesTime is precious, so why would you spend 40 minutes jogging on the treadmill when you can get a great workout done in less than 10 minutes? That’s what Tabata is all about: Offering four-minute workouts that actually work – and all it takes at most is a yoga mat and a set of dumbbells.

Named for the Japanese researcher, Dr. Izumi Tabata, Tabata-style workouts are designed to mimic the research studies he performed at the National Institute of Fitness in Tokyo, Japan. Dr. Tabata and his team followed two groups of exercisers for a period of six weeks. One group exercised for an hour, five days a week at 70% intensity. The second group exercised four days a week, for only four minutes a session, cycling between 20-second bursts of highly-intense work (170% effort) and 10-seconds of rest. At the end of the six-week period, both groups saw increases in aerobic, cardiovascular capacity, but only the second group saw increases in anaerobic capacity. Essentially, the group that worked out less, with high-intensity intervals, ended up fitter at the end of the study.

Here’s the trick with Tabata: To truly mimic Dr. Tabata’s study, you have to exercise at 170% intensity. Most people aren’t familiar with what this level of effort feels like, but essentially, you’ll be pushing yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of for a period of four minutes. So, if you’re feeling okay after the first couple rounds, you’re probably not working hard enough. If you find it easy to catch your breath, you’re probably not working hard enough. If your muscles and lungs aren’t burning, you’re probably not working hard enough. A four-minute workout should leave you feeling shaky and spent.

Before You Start Your Tabata Workout

Keep in mind: You should start with a baseline level of fitness or work your way up to the intensities we’re talking about here before diving in. You don’t want to risk injury because you tried too much, too soon. You also want to make sure you’re comfortable with each exercise and can perform it with good form before trying to perform them at the intensities suggested. 

It’s particularly important that if you have chronic injuries or joint pain that you make adjustments to each exercise as needed. Plyometric (jumping) exercises don’t have to be performed with the jump – you can always step through the movements instead. If at any point you feel pain, stop the exercise or substitute a different exercise in its place.

If you’re new to fitness, it’s a good idea to work with a trained professional at first in order to master proper form and reduce the likelihood of injury.

Setting Up a Session

Setting up a Tabata session is easy. All you need is a Tabata timer (there are lots of free apps available for download) and a predetermined series of four exercises. Having a Tabata timer is particularly important, as you can set these up to auto-time your 20-second and 10-second intervals so you’re not always staring at your watch. If you don’t have a Tabata timer, see if you can grab a friend to time you for your four-minute series.

When choosing Tabata exercises, it’s important to note that you can choose either bodyweight exercises or exercises that incorporate equipment. If you choose exercises that incorporate equipment, you’ll want to get it set up and ready so that you don’t waste time getting things ready in between sets.

When doing a four-minute Tabata, you’ll cycle through eight rounds of 20 seconds of work, with each period of work followed by 10 seconds rest. So if you’re working with a set of four exercises, you’ll end up performing each exercise two times through. For instance, if you’re doing a series of squats, lunges, pushups, and rows, you’d perform squats for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, perform lunges for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, perform pushups for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, perform rows for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then cycle through the series a second time.

Rather than coming up with Tabata workouts of your own, try one of these five Tabata workouts that you can easily do at home. Just remember to spend a few minutes getting warmed up before you start so that you don’t risk injury during the series of exercises.

Tabata Workout #1

Perform this workout wherever you’d like. You may want a mat for some of the exercises.

Exercise 1: Burpee

tabata burpee

  1. Start in a standing position.
  2. Place your hands on the ground as you squat down.
  3. Kick your legs out behind you until you’re in a plank position.
  4. Lower yourself into a pushup (this step is optional).
  5. Jump your legs back to the squat position.
  6. Return to standing. You can add a jump to this step if you’d like.
  7. Continue as fast as you can, maintaining good form, for your 20-second interval.
  8. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Lunge With High Knee

tabata lunge high knee

  1. Lunge backward, leaning your torso forward slightly so that you can touch the ground on either side of your front knee.
  2. Push through your front heel as you return to standing, drawing your back knee forward in front of your body in a high-knee position. You can add a hop to this step, if you’d like.
  3. Immediately perform another lunge on the same side, continuing this cycle for your 20-second interval.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Pushup

tabata pushup

  1. Start in a fully extended pushup position with your palms under your shoulders and your body forming a straight line. Feel free to place your knees on the ground, if needed.
  2. Bend your elbows and lower your chest to the ground, keeping your torso engaged.
  3. Push through your palms and return to start, performing pushups with good form. Check yourself by ensuring that you don’t lock your elbows at the top of the movement, and that you keep your back flat throughout. If you find your back beginning to sway, drop your knees to the ground. Continue as fast as you can for the full 20 seconds.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 4: Lunge With High-Knee, Opposite Side

Perform the lunge with high-knee again, this time performing the lunge on the opposite side. Perform the exercise for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds before repeating the cycle through a second time.

Tabata Workout #2

Exercise 1: Mountain Climbers

tabata mountain climbers

  1. Get into a pushup position with your body extended and your palms under your shoulders. Draw one knee forward, placing your toes on the ground, almost as if you were about to take off in a sprint. This is your starting position.
  2. As fast as you can, keeping your abs and hips engaged, jump your legs back and forth for the full 20-second interval. If you become too tired to continue jumping your legs back and forth, you can instead step your legs back and forth. Just be sure that you keep your elbows from locking out and that you focus on keeping your abs engaged. This helps prevent injury.
  3. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Jump Squat

tabata jump squat

  1. From a standing position, sit your hips backward, lowering yourself into a squat. Your torso should remain aligned even as you lean forward, and your heels should remain on the ground. By raising your arms in front of your body as you squat, you can help maintain proper form.
  2. From the lowest point of your squat, explode upward, jumping into the air while swinging your arms behind you.
  3. Land with soft knees (slightly bent), and immediately perform another squat. Continue this cycle as fast as you can with good form for the full 20-second interval. As you get tired, it will be tempting to land with “locked” knees in a standing position. However, this could lead to injury. Protect your ankles, knees, hips, and back by landing with slightly bent joints, your knees remaining hip-width apart.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Mountain Climbers

Perform another 20-second interval of mountain climbers, then rest for 10 seconds before moving on.

Exercise 4: Bear Squat

tabata bear squat

  1. Start in a pushup position with your body forming a straight line from heels to head, your palms under your shoulders (image not shown).
  2. Bend your knees and shift your weight backward, as though you were squatting, so that your hips shift over your heels, your upper body remains straight, and your knees remain off the ground.
  3. Explode forward, pushing through your feet, returning to the plank position. Immediately shift your weight back again, continuing to cycle through for the duration of the 20-second interval.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds before cycling through the series again.

Tabata Workout #3

Exercise 1: Skaters

tabata skaters

This exercise is one of constant action. The best way to think of the movement is to imagine a speed skater pushing from one skate to the other, crossing over the midline.

  1. Start in a “ready position” with your knees bent slightly. Bend your elbows and start with your hands in front of your body, almost like a basketball player playing defense.
  2. Hop laterally to the right, placing your right foot on the ground and crossing your left foot behind your body, bending both knees as you swing your right arm behind your body and reach your left hand across your body, touching the ground in front of your right foot.
  3. Immediately hop to the left as you explode upward, this time planting your left food, crossing your right foot behind you, and swinging your left arm back and reaching across and in front of your left foot with your right hand.
  4. Continue hopping back and forth, “skating” as fast as you can for the full 20-second interval. If you become too tired to hop, simply step through the exercise, instead.
  5. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Plank Jack

tabata plank jacks

  1. Start in a forearm-supported plank position with your legs together, keeping your body straight and tight.
  2. Hop your legs outward, maintaining your tight torso position. Immediately hop your legs back to center, continuing to hop your legs back and forth as quick as you can for the 20-second interval. Feel free to use a mat or towel under your elbows for comfort!
  3. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Sprinting Up-Down

tabata sprinting up downs

This exercise is a combination of quick feet and a full-body pushup.

  1. Start in a “ready position” with your knees slightly bent, hip-width apart, and your arms in front of your body, elbows bent and palms facing each other.
  2. Run in place as fast as you can (think, “quick feet”) for five steps, then drop yourself to the ground, pushing yourself back to standing as quick as you can. Immediately start quick feet again, repeating the sequence for the full 20-second period.
  3. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 4: Spider Plank Pushup

tabata spider plank pushup

  1. Start in a pushup position with your arms fully extended and your palms beneath your shoulders.
  2. Rotate your right hip outward slightly as you draw your right knee toward your right elbow. Lower yourself into a pushup during this movement, if you can. It’s helpful to point your toe outward, away from your body to maintain good form during this movement.
  3. Return to the starting pushup position and repeat on the opposite side. Continue this sequence as fast as you can with good form for the full, 20-second interval.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds before cycling through the exercises a second time.

Tabata Workout #4

Exercise 1: Jumping Jacks

tabata jumping jacks

You know this one from elementary school.

  1. Start with legs together, knees slightly bent, and arms at your sides.
  2. Jump your feet out to the side as you swing your arms up over your head.
  3. Hop your feet back to center as you lower your arms.
  4. Continue performing jumping jacks as fast as you can for 20 seconds.
  5. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Lateral Slides

tabata lateral slides

  1. Mark out a 10-foot space. Start in “ready position” in the center of the space, with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, hips pressed backward slightly, elbows bent and arms in front of your body, and palms facing each other.
  2. Slide your feet to the right as fast as you can, planting your right foot on the edge of the 10-foot space when you reach it, reaching across your body with your left hand to touch the ground at the edge of the space.
  3. Reverse the movement and slide to the left as fast as you can, planting your left foot at the edge of the space and reaching your right hand across your body to touch the ground.
  4. Continue sliding laterally back and forth across the 10-foot space for the full 20-second period.
  5. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Mountain Climbers

Perform the mountain climbers exercise as described above for the full 20-second interval. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 4: Lateral Slides

Perform lateral slides again for the full 20-second interval. Rest for 10 seconds before cycling through the exercises a second time.

Tabata Workout #5:

For this Tabata workout, grab a set of dumbbells to complete the exercises, as shown.

Exercise 1: Squat Press

tabata squat press

  1. Start in a standing position, your feet hip-width apart, holding a set of dumbbells at shoulder-height.
  2. Sit back and bend your knees, lowering yourself into a full squat.
  3. As you return to standing, press the dumbbells up over your head into a full press.
  4. Immediately squat back down again, lowering the dumbbells to shoulder-height as you reach the bottom of the squat movement.
  5. Continue squatting and pressing for the full 20-second period, moving as fast as you can while maintaining good form. Avoid locking out your elbows at the top of the press, and be sure to keep your weight focused over your heels during the squat. Also, be sure to keep your torso tight and well-aligned throughout the movement. You don’t want your back to sway awkwardly.
  6. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Pushup Row

tabata pushup row

  1. Start in a pushup position, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Shift your weight slightly to the right as you draw the left dumbbell up toward your chest, squeezing your shoulder blade as you perform the row, lifting the dumbbell until it reaches chest-height.
  3. Return the dumbbell to the ground and perform a row on the opposite side.
  4. Return the dumbbell to the ground and perform a full pushup before returning to start.
  5. Continue cycling through this series of movements as fast as you can with good form for the full 20-second period.
  6. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Forearm to Extended Plank

tabata forearm extended plank

  1. Start in a forearm plank position, balancing your body on your forearms and your toes.
  2. Plant one palm on the ground and begin pushing yourself up before planting the other palm on the ground, extending yourself into a fully extended plank (or pushup) position.
  3. Bend one elbow and place a forearm on the ground, lowering yourself so you can place your other forearm on the ground, returning to the forearm-supported plank position.
  4. Continue stepping yourself up and down from the forearm plank to the extended plank for the full 20-second period. If you need to, lower your knees to the ground to help maintain good form.
  5. Rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 4: Jumping Lunge

tabata jumping lunge

  1. From a standing position, step one leg backward and lower yourself into a lunge.
  2. Explode upward from the low-lunge position, switching your legs in the air so that when you land, you can immediately lower yourself into a lunge on the opposite side. Make sure to land with “soft” (slightly bent) knees.
  3. Continue jumping back and forth for the duration of the 20-second interval. If jumping lunges become too difficult, simply perform walking lunges instead.
  4. Rest for 10 seconds before repeating the cycle a second time through.

Final Word

Tabata workouts are a great option when you’re short on time and don’t want to shortchange yourself on a home workout. Even if you can’t work at the intensities mentioned here, the principle of high-intensity interval training remains the same, even at slightly lower intensities. Try a slightly longer workout with slightly less-intense intervals to achieve the same type of results. For instance, exercise for 20 minutes, alternating between one-minute intervals at 90% effort and one-minute intervals at 70% effort. The point is to push yourself and stretch your aerobic and anaerobic systems throughout your fitness routine.

What’s your favorite way to workout when you’re short on time? Have you tried a Tabata routine before?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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  • Mary Anne @ BillGuard

    These photos and descriptions are fantastic — I feel like I should print this page out and keep it with me the next time I hit the gym. I’ve never heard of the word “Tabata,” and didn’t know there was a particular person or movement associated with many of these exercise moves, but I’m definitely familiar with many of the specific techniques — Mountain Climber, Burpees, etc. These are often used at morning boot camps, as well (which makes sense because people there are in a hurry to exercise for 30-45 minutes before driving home, showering, making breakfast and driving to work). And, as you pointed out, they’re free and you can do these at home — which means they’re available to anyone :-)

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