Category Archives: Tabata Cardio Workout
Strength athletes are a studly bunch. We’re consistent, disciplined, structured, and often blessed with a high tolerance for pain. We also tend to sport a bit of an ego, a result of having fellow gym rats stare at us in fear and admiration. That ego, however, can get us into trouble, like when it comes to cardio.
Strength athletes tend to embrace cardio the way a housecat does a cold shower. Some simply choose to avoid it, often resulting in a beastly strong individual that gets winded climbing one flight of stairs and whose gut more resembles a beer keg than a six-pack.
Others embrace cardio. This group studies up, and learns that “conditioning” is better for them than cardio. So they add a variety of HIIT workouts and brutal circuits and complexes.
Their conditioning workouts are often more challenging – from a fatigue point of view – than their strength workouts; a result of them applying that, “I’ll make my body do what I tell it to do” attitude that’s served them so well with their resistance training to their conditioning workouts.
The end result is usually an in-shape and physically fit individual that finds himself standing on the bronze medal platform instead of the gold. What are they doing wrong?
That aforementioned ego is steering them in the wrong direction. A big ego is great in the weight room – the four-plate bench press gets all the looks, not doing 225 for six sets of eight with 30 seconds rest.
But the cardio/conditioning workouts that get similar nods of respect are not ideal for the strength athlete. And it all comes to down to energy systems.
According to the principle of specificity, our body reacts specifically to the stimulus we present to it. Training brutally hard for several minutes or longer with minimal rest is likely the best way to test what the body is capable of – but it’s not the best way to keep a strength athlete in shape, as it’s challenging a different energy system.
Strength athletes are kings of the phosphagen energy system. The phosphagen or ATP/CP system is a short duration system, usually lasting for about six seconds at full power before petering out completely by 30 seconds.
It relies on ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) and CP (creatine phosphate) for fuel rather than oxygen. It takes 30-60 seconds for a moderate recharge of its fuel reserves, and 3-5 minutes for a near-full recharge.
The glycolysis system is a moderate duration system – it starts kicking in at around the 15-second mark, hits full-speed by 30 seconds, and then starts to fade significantly after about the one-minute point. It uses glucose as a fuel source, which can come directly from the blood and, if the activity is long enough, can be pulled from the stored glycogen in the muscles.
When operating anaerobically, the glycolysis system lasts less than two minutes and produces lactate, which is associated with an intense burning sensation in the muscles that most fitness enthusiasts are familiar with.
However, the glycolysis system can also operate aerobically, which doesn’t produce as much lactate, although the power produced by way of this pathway is generally lower and lasts about five minutes.
The phosphagen system is the butt kicker in the gym. This is the system that powers massive squats and benches, powerful shot puts and slam-dunks, killer knockout punches and kicks, and lightning fast 100-meter dashes.
While these things are all badass, they’re not really that hard – they don’t produce the same level of total body fatigue as something powered by the glycolysis system.
The glycolysis system is the king of conditioning. This powers the 400-800 meter runs, the 500-1000 meter rows, maximal push-ups for time, and five set drop-sets on the leg press.
Too much time spent training the glycolysis system will cause the body to adapt to becoming proficient at that system, which usually causes a shift away from optimum performance with the phosphagen system.
It’s no coincidence that the guy who wins the 100-meter dash in the Olympics is rarely the guy that wins the 400-meter. Likely, the most performance-affecting shift is an altering of neuromuscular coordination for that activity accompanied by a shifting of motor unit recruitment and muscle fiber make-up.
So what do we do?
Strength athletes must leave their ego at the door when it comes to conditioning. That isn’t a license to get fat and out of shape, but we don’t want to be that guy in the middle of both the conditioning and strength world – too weak to be a good strength athlete, and not in good enough shape to kick ass in all the conditioning challenges.
We need to listen to our brain, not our ego. We need to focus on the phosphagen system.
- When conditioning, hard exertion should generally last 5-15 seconds – rarely more than 15 seconds, and never more than 30 seconds. When in doubt use a shorter work period.
- Each exertion period should be followed by 30-60 seconds of easy activity or passive rest; something one could easily do continuously for 30 minutes or more.
- Multiple rounds of the above work and rest periods should be performed 5-15 times (or more, if necessary).
- One should not be doubled over, nauseated, or puking during/after these workouts. Think about how you feel doing sets of three in the gym; it should feel a bit like that.
- Work hard for ≈5-15 seconds, shorter is often better
- Perform easy rest (active or passive) for ≈30-60 seconds
- Repeat 5-15+ times
- Avoid feeling like you’re going to die
Real World Example
Prowler. At my gym we have a challenge that’s 10 trips (about 35 yards) with the Prowler loaded to 90 lbs, performed for time. The guy who holds the current record is one hell of a hard worker and won’t quit, but he can’t squat 315 for a single. This is not the challenge strength athletes should be working on.
We have another Prowler challenge that’s a max weight pull for 10 meters using a harness. Guess who has that gym record? One of my powerlifting teammates.
Instead of a long and grueling event, it’s better to do a Prowler push of 5-20 yards (with longer distance use less weight) with 30-60 seconds rest, multiple times.
Ski Erg. Ski very hard for 10 seconds, then easy (just enough to keep the machine on) for 20 seconds. Repeat for 3 -10 minutes. The 20-second rest is shorter than standard recommendation, but 45-50 seconds of rest is too long for this drill. Note this is the inverse of the Tabata protocol, which can work well for strength athletes in some situations.
Jump rope. Jump for 15 seconds, rest for 30-45 seconds, depending on fitness and skill. Try to jump faster than normal since it’s such a short duration. Do for 5-15 minutes total.
Track. A spin on the classic “sprint the straights, walk the curves.” Sprint half of the straight, walk the rest, sprint half of the curve, walk the rest, etc., which works out to about 50-meter sprints or four sprints for the quarter mile. Do this for one-half to 1.5 miles.
Jacob’s ladder. Climb fast for 15 seconds (30-50 feet), rest for about 30 seconds, and repeat.
Complexes. You can still use barbell complexes, but only perform 1-3 reps per movement. This makes the complex much shorter and you can use a lot more weight. You can also perform more complexes if you desire (rest about a minute after each).
Five-meter sprints. I’ve always liked these and they can be performed inside an aerobic studio if necessary. Sprint for five meters (should take about 3-4 steps), stop, turn around, walk back to the starting position, and repeat. Repeating 10-30 times works well. Warm-up if you’re not used to sprinting, and it’s okay to go less than 100% while acclimating to this activity.
Heavy bag. Boxing kicks ass but boxers have to be capable of going three minutes, strength athletes don’t. To go for time, hit the heavy bag for 10-15 seconds. I prefer to count punches – 15-20 good punches and then rest. This ratio also works well with a sledgehammer and a tire.
Car push/pull. We’ve all seen strongmen struggle with a truck or freight train on ESPN for a full minute so we assume that’s best for us, but it’s not. Pull hard for 10-15 seconds, rest a bit and catch your breath, and repeat. Use a distance it might take you one minute to cover with the car and then break that distance into four sets.
Rowing machine. The rowing machine has a default program of rowing 500-meters with one-minute rest and then repeating. That’s a strength athlete’s nightmare. Instead, row 50 meters hard, then 100 meters very easy, and repeat that for about 2000 meters total.
Circuits. You can use circuits, but follow two rules: keep each station short (10-15 seconds) and rest about 30-60 seconds between stations. I do a car push/heavy bag/15-yard hill sprint next to my house, which makes for a great circuit. Get creative.
Of course this list is just meant to get you started. Apply the basic principles outlined here and you’ll be fine.
Choosing Your Rest
How you rest is up to you and the activity you’re performing. Some activities lend themselves to easy active rest like the Ski Erg, the rowing machine, or any piece of cardio equipment.
Generally, active rest should be no more challenging than a brisk walk. You need to be able to recover during the rest period, otherwise it’s too hard. At times the best rest will be simply standing still. If you’re pushing the Prowler for 15 yards hard with 30 seconds of rest, it makes no sense to do anything but just stand there and recover.
Steady state cardio. Walking is still a good choice for maintaining or increasing VO2 max and just making you feel healthier. I’ve long been a fan of walking and it causes little to no motor unit and muscle fiber transition. Most strength athletes can’t jog regularly without it affecting their 1RM’s.
You can still perform some grueling glycolysis-based conditioning events if you want to, but they should be done rarely (once a month sounds about right) and simply as a test to see where you are mentally and physically. Don’t try to master that “test” by practicing it too regularly – you might ace the test but fail the class!
Putting it all Together
Perform this strength-training friendly conditioning 1-4 times per week, depending on your goals and time available. Those with weight loss or lofty conditioning goals should be on the higher end of the scale. Perform it after your regular strength-training workout or as a separate workout – it would likely have a negative affect on your training if performed before the main workout.
Keep the conditioning workout under 30 minutes total (15 minutes works well) including the rest time, and again, don’t feel like you’re going to die during the workout. That sensation is the glycolysis system pushing your ego to the limit.
Put the allure of being “pretty good” at everything aside and focus on your specific goals – becoming a stud in the gym, and someone that can lift heavy-ass weight repeatedly with short rest for a long period of time. Your physique, PRs, and your ego will thank you for it!
Every successful career has hiccups along the way. Making mistakes and learning from them are the bricks and mortar of a long and productive career.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve stolen points from the best of ’em to advance my own training knowledge. In doing so, there were principles and exercises that I readily accepted as gospel and would defend from the tallest tree.
This is how it is. Disagree? Well, you’re just misinformed.
But times change. New research is performed, new information becomes available, and it only makes sense that methodologies would evolve. That is, unless you’d rather stay “right” than admit you were wrong.
1. My Revised Take on Cardio
My one-track mind nearly eliminated the possibility of using conventional “cardio” for fat loss. I sided with the many coaches who argued that slow-go cardio was a potential muscle-waster, not to mention woefully inefficient at burning calories.
Though there is some science to support this position, I realize now that there’s a big fat exception to this:whether to perform steady state cardio depends on the size and musculature of the individual.
Steady state cardio – especially the fasted version – can be a great tool for intermediate and advanced trainees that carry a significant amount of muscle mass.
People generally support interval training as it will have a greater affect on the metabolism, primarily because it promotes two things:
- Oxygen debt
- Utilization of fast-twitch muscle fibers
But if you’re carrying a lot of muscle, chances are you’ve lifted, pushed, and pulled a lot of heavy things to get there. That means your fast twitch fibers have been thoroughly exercised – since they’re the strongest fibers available – so it won’t be the end of the world if you add in a bit of steady state cardio during fat loss phases.
Bodybuilders are perfect examples. While some high-intensity cardio has made it’s way into their fat loss programs, isolation splits combined with a good, clean diet, and fasted and/or post workout cardio still dominate the scene. This improves thermogenesis – heat production within the body – that helps burn fat.
While anaerobic training is what makes athletes like sprinters and running backs get so lean and muscular, most of us are just regular exercise enthusiasts, not pro athletes, meaning we can’t expect to train – or look – like Adrian Peterson.
But we can lift weights and train our strength and anaerobic capacity. Once we’re big and strong, as long as we don’t go overboard, we can use steady state cardio to achieve some solid fat loss.
2. The GHR – A Little-Known Knee Killer?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to completely outlaw such a great exercise. But here’s what I’ve found.
I’ve had several clients complain of knee discomfort during or after a workout that involved a variation of the glute-ham raise (GHR), most often the eccentric GHR.
At first, I didn’t think that this exercise was the culprit, but a couple of sit-downs with a practitioner-buddy of mine had me thinking it might be something to use on a case-by-case basis.
Some say the GHR is a “closed chain” movement since the feet don’t move anywhere during the movement, but here’s the catch. Just like a seated leg extension, a GHR makes only one set of muscles act on the knee joint during the movement (hamstrings). There isn’t a co-contraction of muscles on both sides of the joint.
This can produce the same amount of shear from the opposing side, and therefore pull on the corresponding ligaments that attach to the tibia away from the femur.
With an actual GHR machine, it’s normally not that bad. But when we go into variations like the makeshift eccentric GHR, the shear is intensified since the entire weight of the body is resting on the tibia, inaddition to the hamstrings’ contraction pulling it even further. That means a lot of stress on your PCL.
Still, some are more resilient to shearing forces than others. We all know guys who’ve been doing leg extensions and other open-chain movements for years with zero joint problems, while others get shooting pains if they so much as look at a leg extension machine.
The moral of the story? If you’re using the eccentric GHR in your training, be cautious of its effects. Hopefully you don’t fall into the contraindicated group.
3. “Functional Training” Revisited
The more I looked into it, the more variety I found in trainers’ definition of the term “functional.”
Sure, we have the basic exercises that have carryover into typical day-to-day situations like squatting, deadlifting, and standing pressing. But do we avoid biceps curls, hamstring curls, or bench presses because they seemingly don’t carry over to our daily grind?
Fact is, functional training can take on whatever description we want it to. A hamstring curl action has very little “real life” application, but one of the functions of the hamstrings is to flex the knee, and hamstring curls recreate this movement.
I advocate the big bang movements as much as the next guy. If our muscles aren’t performing their prime actions the way they should, then the number one exercise choices should always be those that enhance those prime actions.
However, I’ll humbly add that most T Nation readers seek strength and hypertrophy. What if we want bigger arms, and we’ve already spent the last three months overhead pulling, farmers’ walking, and close-grip pressing our way to oblivion?
Do we continue to avoid biceps curls because they’re “isolation” movements despite the stimulation for the biceps they provide? Do we still steadfastly avoid skull crushers or pressdowns, even though our horseshoes better resemble shoelaces?
Focus on the must-do’s first, keeping your muscular and skeletal health in check, but sometimes building up your body means training like a bodybuilder. In certain cases, that means isolating right down to the muscle.
4. Stretching and Foam Rolling
For a long time I used this stuff as an “answer.” Today I use it as a “prescription.” In almost all cases, muscles become tight because of a deficient muscle somewhere else. Usually the tight muscle is taking on the role of a muscle that isn’t pulling its own weight. A perfect example would be a pair of tight hamstrings picking up the slack for a set of inactive glutes.
A good rule of thumb is that when a muscle appears deficient, the answer isn’t always to give that muscle more attention. Considering this, we should be able to look at our weak links to see which smaller muscles aren’t doing everything they should to contribute to a functional body.
Flexibility and ROM increases will come immediately through restoring your antagonistic balance. This can be as simple as activating dormant muscles that for a while have been compensated for by the big dogs.
The true “answer,” in my book, is mobility. One of my favorite books is Assess and Correct by Eric Cressey. It has hundreds of drills that make small muscles fire up to create or restore range of motion.
I’m not saying that stretching and foam rolling to respectively lengthen and improve tissue quality is a waste of time. I still use them, and you should, too.
My advice is to turn it into a tactical approach. Instead of prescribing stretching and rolling to any ailment under the sun, start thinking in three ways: improve tissue quality first, activate muscles second, reduce inhibitions third.
Use foam rolling for myofascial release, dynamic warm ups to add range of motion and activate dormant muscles, and then static stretching to muscles that are “blocking” proper movement patterns, such as tight hip flexors affecting pelvic position during a back squat or Romanian deadlift.
5. A Quiet Tweak to Training Volume
This might be stating the obvious, but not all programs are for everyone.
Training volume should be tailored to each athlete, and failing to recognize this is what keeps some athletes from seeing continued progress.
I first experienced this as a collegiate track and field athlete. We sprint athletes would have our workouts set by the coach, though we’d train alongside the athletes from other disciplines (the jump athletes, etc). This was done for simple time management reasons, as it was the easiest way to train a bunch of athletes at the same time.
But each athlete isn’t going to respond to the same training volume the same way – especially when our “base” workouts, usually Mondays, would often look something like this:
- Dynamic warm-ups/flexibility work
- Plyometric/ballistic training – Static jumps, stairs, uphill jumps, med ball work
- Base training workout – 300m + (2)200m + (2)150m @ 85% of max effort
- Core training circuit or weight training circuit
Needless to say, that’s a tough workout and would leave me destroyed. I’d be so sore that it would sometimes affect the practice on Tuesday.
This example is intended to show that quality is everything where training for performance is concerned. Big, tough, and heavy workouts have their place, but if you want to get stronger, bigger, or both, you haveto know when your body is working at its physiological peak, and when it’s starting to go down hill.
Once that line is crossed, it’s a good idea to cut your workout short, or heavily modify its contents.
I’m sure my track coach had the best of intentions, but not everyone’s going to have the same threshold and work capacity. Some levels of DOMS don’t need to be reached, and certainly not repeatedly.
Since you’re not training with a team and can control your workout, don’t be afraid to modify your programming. It may not take longwinded workouts to make your muscles big and strong.
Don’t Worry, I Haven’t Turned Into a Pansy
The smarter I get as a trainer, the more I’m reminded that there are many methodologies, techniques, and strategies for doing things, and many ways to achieve a desired result.
However, true wisdom comes from recognizing that what might work supremely well for person A could be a disaster for person B. In reality, it’s not the exercises that are contraindicated, but the people who do them. Stay aware of that and play your game, not someone else’s.
With age comes perspective and more importantly, wisdom. A lot might change in the next five years, but I can’t see that principle going anywhere.
Our proof: The fast and furious routines that follow, courtesy of fitness expert BJ Gaddour, CSCS, owner of StreamFIT.com—a web site that offers follow-along, bootcamp-style workouts (that you can stream to your TV, tablet, smartphone, or computer). These 4-minute workouts are all based on the “Tabata protocol.”
For background, the Tabata protocol is a training method that was originally used by the Japanese Olympic speed skating team, and named for the scientist—Izumi Tabata—who studied its amazing effect on a group of male college students. The study subjects were all fit P.E. majors, and most were members of various varsity sports teams.
You might think it sounds too simple—and short—to work: On a stationary bike, the university students did seven to eight 20-second, all-out sprints, each separated by just 10 seconds of rest. Total time: 4 minutes. (They also did an easy 10-minute warmup before each session.)
The results were fantastic: After doing the routine 5 days a week for 6 weeks, the college kids boosted their aerobic fitness by 14 percent. By comparison, another group—who performed a steady but moderate pace on the bikes for 60 minutes—increased their aerobic fitness by only about 10 percent. (Is your workout dangerous? Find out by reading my new story, America’s Scariest Fitness Trends.)
The upshot: The high-intensity 4-minute workout was more effective than an hour of moderate cycling. Even better, the Tabata participants saw a 28-percent improvement in “anaerobic capacity”—a measure of how long the men could exercise at their top effort. The second group saw no such improvements.
So why isn’t everyone doing Tabata workouts? Well, most people would vomit—or come close to it—if they actually tried the routine that was used in the study. That’s not good. Plus, to burn as many calories as you might like, you need to regularly exercise longer than just 4 minutes. (The study participants literally exercised themselves to exhaustion, making additional work unlikely.)
The good news: Gaddour has a way to solve both problems—while also making the Tabata method even more beneficial.
Instead of doing a single mode of exercise for each sprint, Gaddour alternates between two body-weight exercises that work your muscles in different ways. This way, fatigue doesn’t overtake you as quickly—such as was the case with the stationary bike. So you’re still working hard for each 20-second interval, but you’re spreading the challenge around. (Makes sure you don’t negate all your hard work in the gym: Avoid The Worst Desserts in America.)
Will it improve your fitness as fast as it did for the Japanese college students? No one knows. But you’ll no doubt find it highly effective. “Whether you’re short on time and need a quick workout, or just want to add some extra intensity to the end of a longer session, one of these 4-minute routines will do the trick,” says Gaddour, who calls each mini-workout a “finisher,” since he often ends his fitness bootcamps with them.
There’s more: Because this style of Tabata training allows you to better manage your fatigue, you can “stack” multiple 4-minute routines together. The key is to simply take 1 minute of rest between every 4-minute mini-workout. This way, you’re able to recover briefly between routines, and give it your all each time—while creating a longer workout for greater calorie-burn. And by stacking these routines, you can choose exercises that work your muscles and joints in multiple directions—which helps you build a stronger, more fit body.
Ready to get started? Check out the three 4-minute finishers on the next page. Gaddour refers to them as “cardio-core” routines because each combines a total-body calisthenic with a cutting-edge core exercise. “The cardio exercise burns the fat covering your belly, while the core exercise strengthens and tightens up your midsection,” says Gaddour. “That makes it a fantastic one-two punch for achieving flat, sexy abs.” (Speaking of flat, sexy abs, make sure to check out this list of The 100 Hottest Women of All-Time.) How to do the workouts: Choose one finisher and perform the first exercise for 20 seconds. Then rest for 10 seconds. Do the second exercise for 20 seconds, and rest for another 10 seconds. Continue to alternate back and forth for 4 minutes—a total of eight 20-second intervals. That’s it!
If you want an even greater challenge, simply do Finisher #1 for 4 minutes, then rest 1 minute. Next, do Finisher #2 for 4 minutes. Rest for another minute, and do Finisher #3 for 4 minutes. Do the math: That’s a 14-minute high-intensity cardio workout. It’s guaranteed to blast fat, boost your fitness, and get you in shape in (almost) no time.