Here’s a question: can you really do a workout that lasts less than four minutes? Yes. Here’s a better question: once you’ve done it, will you ever want to do one again?
Here’s a little story.
I once went to watch world champion 400 metre hurdler Dai Greene practise. The word ‘elite’ gets thrown around a lot by people wanting to sound like they train serious athletes – or wanting to convince themselves that a performance that barely scrapes the top tenth percentile of their sport qualifies for the term – but Dai is elite. He’s an actual world champion. He went to the Olympics – didn’t win, but anyone can have a bad day.
Anyway, here’s what Dai’s workout was, that day.
Stretch, massage: about 45 minutes
Light jogs, easy-pace warmup: about 30 minutes
300m all-out sprint.
Rest 10 minutes.
Repeat two more times.
Easy, right? Well, no, but just for the sake of it, let’s say yes. That’s three sprints that weren’t even the full length of the track (and didn’t include hurdles), with a tonne of rest between them. Less than a kilometre of actual serious work, total. If you wrote that on the whiteboard at your gym/box/track, a few people would probably laugh at you.
This, no kidding, is one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever seen anyone do.
Dai destroyed himself. He did every one of those intervals just as fast as he possibly fucking could, and spent the next ten minutes trying to recover. He drew on all his years of training to push his body just about as hard as he could possibly push it, probably right to the edge of what’s actually genetically possible for him, motivated by who-knows-what combination of looking for Olympic glory, financial stability, or maybe just being the best he could possibly be.
So here’s another question – maybe the best question, when it comes to short workouts: can you do that?
Tabata workouts are popular these days. They’re short – 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times, for a total of four minutes – and they work, sort of. Or at least, they worked for the high-level cyclists who did them under the supervision of Dr Izumi Tabata and saw improvements in their V02 max (and yes, probably got some sort of fat-burning effect out of them). But those cyclists also worked so hard that they had to, in some cases, be forced to get back on the bikes.
Doing ‘Tabata-style’ pressups is not really ‘doing Tabata’. Neither is doing bodyweight squats, burpees or kettlebell swings – in every case, there’s a point where you simply can’t do enough work in the time to really ruin yourself on the level intended by the original experiment. What can you do Tabata-style? From personal experience, I’d say: cycle sprints, rower sprints, and front squats. Those three will ruin you, if you do them properly. But can you even do them properly?
I’m not sure I can, if it helps. I’ve been training seriously for about seven years now, and I push myself pretty hard pretty regularly. But even now, I don’t think I’ve always got it in me to push as hard as I can really push – as hard as I’d push if I was running away from a maniac with a chainsaw, or racing in front of 70,000 people and my own children, or with my future financial stability on the line, or even if I just had a gym full of people I respect yelling at me. I’ve trained myself to push harder than most people who go to a Tabata class, and I’m probably still not pushing hard enough. And when I do, it’s fucking awful.
So here’s my answer when people ask if a four-minute workout can really do everything it’s promising: yeah, but everything costs something. Without years of training, you aren’t near enough your genetic limit to really push it, and you haven’t developed the mental capacity to get near the redline. You might think you’re going as hard as you can: but you aren’t. If you want to burn a few calories, get a tiny bit stronger, work off a third of a caramel latte, fine: do your four-minute workout. If you want the gains you’ve been promised by the leaflets, you’re going to have to work so hard you never want to do it again.
HOMEWORK: Surprise! I’m not going to make you do a rowing Tabata. Instead, do the following: go to the gym/track/whatever, get in a good warmup, and then do a 500m row, 400m run or 3km bike as fast as you possibly can. That’s today’s workout. Feel ready for more afterwards? You didn’t do it fast enough. Feel like it’s something you’d consider doing again? You didn’t do it fast enough. Feel even vaguely human in the two hours afterwards? You didn’t do it fucking fast enough. LIVE HARD!