Fitness in 4 Minutes 3x per Week: Meet Tabata Workouts

By Sally Oh

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 in November 2013.

The benefits were instantly clear: not only is it a hard, fast, effective workout, but people of any age and fitness level can do a Tabata and improve overall fitness!


“Fitness in Four Minutes 3x a Week.” Really?

Yes, really. For most of us, “fitness” means maintaining core body strength, as well as functioning aerobic and anaerobic systems to support a high quality life on the planet. To maintain basic fitness levels, 4 minutes 3x a week should do it.

Even if you are looking for serious improvements in core strength and systems, Tabatas will work for you. Just do more of them!

According to sports scientist Izumi Tabata, tabatas are enough to keep you from losing it:

Anyone can do four minutes in 20-second chunks at maximum effort. Anyone. Your maximum may be more or less strenuous than someone else’s, there is no contest.

Tabata Workout Definitions

  • One Tabata session is 4 minutes total.
  • 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.
  • An entire Tabata session is 5 minutes including the one minute rest
  • For a 10 minute workout, do 2 sessions.
  • For a 20 minute workout, do 4 sessions.

You don’t even have to count. Use the Tabata Timer — it does all the counting for you (plus there’s applause at the end!)

What Exercises are Good to Use in a Tabata?

Any exercise. The #1 criteria for the 20-second “all out” portion of the Tabata is this: the exercise must be hard enough so you breathe heavy (e.g., you can talk but not sing).

  • March in place
  • Jumping jacks
  • Step side to side
  • Pull-ups
  • Squats
  • Sit and stand
  • Use a Kettlebell
  • Use bands
  • Use weights
  • In a gym? Use those machines: leg press, leg curl, squat machine, rowing machine, dead lifts, military press, etc.

You can do any combination of exercises for each session. Or do the same exercise for all 8 intervals: do all sit-ups one day, all Kettlebell swings one day, half and half another day, 8 different exercises the next… you decide.

About Kettlebells

Kettlebells are perfect for Tabatas. The trick is to pick a weight that is light enough to allow you to maintain good form for all 8 intervals, 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 should be a good starting weight!

A gallon of liquid is approx 8 lbs. So you can test out suitable weights at home first!

Tabata Workout Timers

Along with the free online Tabata workout timer at, there are also Mac and Android apps for anytime you need a 4-minute mental clarity session.

Remember, you can do ANY movement that gets your heart rate up: step side-to-side, sit down and stand up, sit-ups, yoga poses — the plank held for 20 seconds is a great Tabata move.

Yes, you can do this in your cubicle.

Example: a Basic Tabata Workout

This is my basic workout and it consists of four exercises that work the entire body: Kettlebell Swings, Kettlebell Squats, Push-Ups and Bicycle Crunches.

A creature of habit, I pretty much do these in this order, two of each. But you can do them in any order you like!

For variety, switch out a plank or any other exercise for one of the intervals. If I’m feelin’ weak (for lack of coffee, lol) and out of breath, I’ll do a side-to-side step or slow jumping jacks for one of the intervals.

How-tos for the Exercises:

Kettlebell (KB) Swing

  • Stand with feet a bit wider than hip-distance apart
  • KB is sitting on the floor between your feet
  • Sit back to a squat position: knees over your ankles, like you are sitting back into a chair, chest is open so back is relatively flat.

“Tits up” is a favorite workout term. Say this to a room full of women working out and chests immediately open, backs go flat! If your back is rounded during a workout, those back muscles won’t be engaged. You want them engaged — they help protect your lower back from doing all the work alone!

  • Grab the KB with both hands
  • When the timer starts the 20 second countdown, swing the KB up to about shoulder height, straightening your legs and snapping your glutes at the top of the swing, pushing them forward a bit.

The KB ball should not hang from your hands at the top of the swing, but swing out parallel to floor. You are using momentum here and that’s a good thing.

  • Allow the KB to swing back toward starting position. Don’t let it touch the floor, but swing it back between your legs a bit. At the bottom of the swing, you are again in a squat position with chest open.
  • Keep looking forward or slightly up. Don’t let your eyes follow the KB — that will make you dizzy and lead to rounding your back.
  • Repeat as many times as you can with good form until the 20 seconds are up.

Following is an excellent beginner video demonstrating the swing as well as a few other KB exercises. She uses perfect form! Her chest is always open and lifted, knees never travel forward over her toes. (The one exercise to skip is the twist. Your abs have to be super strong to do this without injury.)

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. Sit back into your heels, chest up and don’t let your knees come forward no matter how low you go.

As with all Tabata exercises, do as many as you can with good form in the 20 seconds. Better to do fewer in the 20 seconds with good form then to risk injury.

Bicycle Crunch Lay on your back, hands behind your head, feet on the floor hip distance apart. Your hands are lightly touching your head.

Don’t cross your fingers to make a pillow for your head and don’t pull on your head. Your hands are there just to give a little support so your neck doesn’t get too tired. Since we are doing a slight twist, your elbows will help work the abs.

Raise your upper body, touch right elbow to left knee, switch sides without lowering upper body. Touch toes to floor between knee touches to elbow.

NOTE: In the video, the moms lower the upper body between crunches. That up and down motion could strain your lower back. Better to stay up, then just slightly twist your body to touch elbow to knee.

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.
Let’s Do This: 4 minutes 3x a week.

How do you make yourself “just do it”? Here’s what I do: I am not allowed to have my second cup of coffee until I’ve done my 4 minutes.

I am a coffee addict. I’ve given it up so many times, it’s not funny. Most of the wretched episodes are documented on this blog… I doubt I ever will give it up. I LOVE coffee. So I’m going to use that addiction FOR me! Find something you can tease yourself with and use it to motivate you to get that measly four minutes over with.

No more excuses: LE’TS DO THIS! And let us know how it goes!

Image credit: The Money Crashers

Sally Oh – Formerly at A Broad in Costa Rica, is a native Kentuckian and liberty activist married 24 years to Hal, mother to two grown 100% homeschooled sons, sober since 5/5/88, homesteader, nutritional coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition practitioner-in-training. In her spare time, she blogs here 🙂 at Nourishing Liberty where this article first appeared.

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