In the book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, there's a great moment where Millman is standing on a bridge. "I wonder how deep the water is?" he wonders aloud. His mentor, Socrates, picks him up and throws him into the water. Millman no longer has to wonder.

If I could make most people stop doing one thing, it would be wondering. This is especially true when it comes to the Tabata method, an interval training concept I first introduced to T Nation in 2004.

I've received thousands of emails and forum questions about Tabata. Most of these fall into the "I wonder" category.

"Dan, I wonder if I can do it seven days a week?"

People who ask questions like that need to be thrown into the water. In other words, if they ask that question then it's clear to me that they've never actually tried Tabata!

For clarity, let's revisit what Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata said. His epic line was: "Six to eight very hard 20-second intervals with 10-second rest periods may be one of the best possible training protocols."

A Tabata workout looks like this:

  • Work for 20 seconds
  • Rest for 10
  • Work for 20 seconds
  • Rest for 10
  • Work for 20 seconds
  • Rest for 10
  • Repeat five more times

The whole thing only takes four minutes, but those will be the longest four minutes of your life!

I first read about the Tabata protocol during a time in my life where all I had was an Olympic bar, two 35-pound plates, and two 25-pound plates. So with a total of 165 pounds and an eagerness to compete at the National level as an Olympic lifter, I had to think things through a bit.

First I tried the Tabata protocol with weights. My journals record a number of epic failures. I tried more things and discovered that I could bring on my own near-death experience with 95 pounds in the front squat if I could get 16 to 20 reps for the first two minutes or so (per 20 seconds) and still nail eight or nine in the last 20 seconds.

I tried it with military presses and learned that the mass of the "pushing muscles" couldn't handle the amount of work.

When I first wrote about Tabata, I suggested doing thrusters, an odd front-squat-to-press variation. That was wrong. You should never put weight overhead in a fatigued state. Don't black out with the bar overhead. It can damage the floor.

Soon, I discovered one and only one weightlifting move that worked: the beloved front squat. Just keep your fingers on the bar during those "delightful" ten seconds of rest and keep going.

I strive for a weight that still allows around eight reps on the last set. That can be amazingly light, but you'll soon learn not to judge the workout by the first set of 14 to 20 reps. The accumulation of fatigue is going to shock you.

Since I wrote my first article on this protocol, I've had the opportunity to try out some "easier" variations that still work very well. The front squat remains the king of Tabata exercises, but here are a few twists:

1. Stationary Bike

The stationary bike, used by Tabata himself and therefore not a bad idea, is really well-suited for this job.

I remember doing this a few years ago and a colleague said, "This seems like just a warm-up." Cranking out twenty seconds with as much load as I could crank, letting momentum spin my legs for ten, and holding on to this for four minutes was more than just a warm-up. I stayed hot and sweaty for hours later.

If EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) is as effective as they say, this workout is its poster child. I felt like my own little space heater.

This variation is "easier" than front squats, but still a wonderful training addition.

2. Swings

This variation only works if you know how to do swings correctly. (See my article here for more info.)

If you feel swings in your lower back, you're doing them wrong and you need to stop. If swings make your hamstrings sing and feel smoked the next day, you're doing them right and you may continue.

Goblet Squat

3. Goblet Squat

For goblets, you can do the ten-second rests while cradling the 'bell in the standing position, or you can "rest" at the bottom in the deep squat position. The latter would require a solid bottom position, and not everyone has that, so experiment here.

4. Farmer's Walk

The farmer's walk Tabata might be the safest of all the moves, but it does have a downside: grip. If you can hold it, I can guarantee you can keep walking.

The same guidelines apply: walk for 20 seconds, rest for 10, repeat 6-8 times. You'll probably need a partner to call out the times to you.

At 20 seconds, set the weights down and try to breathe. At about eight seconds into the ten-second rest period, you should be regripping and getting ready to go again.

1. Tabata for Biceps

I was recently told that there exists a "Tabata Biceps Program."

Just shut up. I don't want to hear this. Tabata isn't about pumping up a small area of the body. It's about four minutes of honestly coming close to the end of your energy resources.

It doesn't burn fat in those four minutes; it burns fat in the next bunch of hours. It's not a workout to fill a muscle full of blood; it's a battle.

2. Sprinting

Also, I don't want to hear about sprinting variations. You can't sprint for twenty seconds and "suddenly" rest for ten. It doesn't work.

Someone mentioned a treadmill variation where you leap off and put your feet on the sides. Reminds me of the fisherman years ago who caught a baby rattlesnake and brought it close to his face to get a better look. (Rest in peace.)

Jumping on and off a treadmill sure sounds like a good idea... until you're tired.

Through trial and error, use and misuse, the Tabata method has come full circle. The protocols above, from front squats to farmer's walks, are your best tools for this method.

Is Tabata the hardest workout you'll ever do?

I wonder.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook