Imagine a world where any type of exercise you performed could burn fat and help you lose weight. Whether it was the treadmill, the weight room, or the swimming pool. You choose the activity, and the pounds melt away.
Now, understand that the world you are looking for does exist. And it’s not hiding in some fitness Eden. It’s the same world you live in, one filled with big box gyms, cardio rooms, CrossFit boxes, mobile fitness apps, swimming pools, rowing stations, stadium steps, and every type of exercise in between.
While different fitness enthusiasts have their preferred method of burning calories (and rightfully so — a world without different opinions would be pretty boring and limit innovation), the reality is that many things work in fitness.
The biggest problem with Tabatas is that people took a great concept (higher intensity, less rest) and destroyed the execution.
The same reason people get frustrated looking for “the answer” in nutrition applies in fitness, too. There is no one answer, and there are many types of exercises that burn calories.
While any type of activity can help you burn fat, certain methods — like weight training — are more efficient than others. And while it’d be easy to tell every person to just lift some damn weights (I do it quite frequently on my blog and on Twitter), there’s one small problem: Some people don’t like lifting weights. In fact, they hate it.
No matter what they do they can’t fall in love with the iron and the challenge of pushing themselves to lift more weight, perform more reps, or do it all in less time. These people are oftentimes written off. They’re told their approach to fitness won’t work, and generally ignored and left as fitness loners.
I hate that. You see, any type of exercise can be turned into a fat burning experience. Fitness shouldn’t be a place just for those who conform. It’s a platform for those with desire to make improvement. And who am I (or anyone else) to insist that fitness must occur on my playground?
While my preference always focuses on resistance training and trying to lift heavy objects, I care much more about helping everyone become active as opposed to convincing people to do things my way. (Dear fitness industry: Please read that sentence again. And then spread the word.)
So for those of you looking for a different approach to fat loss (whether with weights or not) it’s time to take a well-known recipe for fat loss, and apply a modified version to your activity of choice.
The Tabata Method: What We Know
Some of you might have heard of Tabata Protocol. Many view this method as the holy grail of fat loss, and here’s why.
In the mid-1990s Dr. Tabata designed a study where one group of people performed “steady state” cardio for 60 minutes. This is what most people have historically considered fat loss exercise: slug away for 60 minutes at a constant pace, let the elliptical tell you that you burned a ton of calories, and then call it a day.
The other group? They just pedaled on a bike for a pathetic four minutes. (Or as long as it takes you to karaoke to “Living on a Prayer.”)
But it wasn’t any regular four minutes; the participants biked as fast as they could for 20 seconds (max effort), rested for 10 seconds, and then repeated this pattern for eight rounds until time was up.
Sure, 60 minutes of exercise versus four minutes of exercise doesn’t seem like a fair trial. And it wasn’t: The four minutes was superior to the 60 minutes in terms of overall conditioning and fat loss.
And thus began the evolution of high-intensity training and intervals. Push yourself really hard and rest less, and you can burn more fat. The concept is simple, but the execution is one that has still been hard to apply correctly. Until now.
How to Burn Fat Faster (And Why You’re Doing It Wrong)
The biggest problem with Tabatas is that people took a great concept (higher intensity, less rest) and destroyed the execution. If four minutes is great, then eight minutes must be incredible. And if eight minutes is incredible, then 16 minutes must be mind blowing.
Yet, much like many other things in life, sometimes more isn’t better. And in the case of Tabatas, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Remember, the key to Tabatas was the intensity. Push to you maximum output, rest for just enough time to keep that intensity at it’s highest, and then get back to work.
The secret of Tabatas is not just the work-to-rest ratio; it’s the fact that you can push your body to the extreme and experience supreme benefits.
Now, that’s not to say that you can’t do two or three or four rounds of Tabata style workouts. But those additional rounds might have diminishing benefits if your intensity isn’t as high, which is what happens if you maintain a 20-second exercise-to-rest ratio for long periods of time.
By round four, odds are you’ll be moving at an intensity that is far from your max. Or in other words, you take your output from being a sprint to a marathon. And in a marathon, a sprinter won’t win because he or she can’t sustain his or her intensity for the duration needed.
The solution: Manipulate the work rest ratio so that you can squeeze in a longer workouts and maintain higher intensity.
This approach is not Tabatas.
Calling every type of four-minute interval Tabatas is like labeling every type of high intensity training or Olympic lifting as “CrossFit.” (It’s not, so please stop.)
But, it is taking the Tabata concept (high intensity, low rest) and applying it in a way that you can have a short workout (12 to 20 minutes) and push yourself in a way that will deliver great results by maintaining higher intensity.
Designing Your Fat Loss Approach
Creating workouts is a science, but not all plans need to be overly complicated. Here’s a three-step approach that will start you on the right track and familiarize your body with the type of intensity you need to see results. [Note: by the rules established above, this is not the Tabata method.]
Step 1: Choose a form of exercise of your choice.
Note: It must be something that allows you to push at a very high intensity. If you choose to walk, then you must be able to run. If you want to bike, then bike harder. If you’re swimming, swim faster. And if you’re lifting weights, you’re picking a weight that you can lift for about six reps. (For other activities, I think you get the idea.)
Step 2: After a thorough warm-up follow this routine:
- 10 seconds of high intensity work.
- 30 seconds of rest or low intensity work.
- Repeat for 8 rounds (or a total of 4 minutes)
Step 3: Rest one minute and then repeat.
Follow this process for three to four total rounds, or a total of 15 to 20 minutes.
This way, you choose the activity you want, spend enough time to produce real (visible) results, and keep the workouts short enough that time is never an excuse. The result is a workout with enough rest that you can maintain a higher intensity for a longer period of time.
Best of all? You can make progress at any activity, burn fat, and not have to completely sacrifice your schedule to become fit. And while it’s just 15 to 20 minutes, if you push the pace and maintain a high intensity, you’ll be shocked by how much you can transform your body.
Personalize Your Fitness Plan
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.