We tried it: The 4-minute workout

by | Dec 12, 2021 | Last updated Feb 15, 2022

In the word “workout,” you’ll find the word “work,” which is why the thought of working out feels challenging and intimidating for so many people. At least that was the case for me a few years ago. In recent times, I’ve gotten back into working out. Specifically, I’ve found strength training and I absolutely love how it makes me feel strong and powerful. I usually spend about an hour in the gym 5 days a week, but lately, I’ve been struggling to find the time for it. (Only me?) That’s why, when I heard about a 4-minute workout, I was intrigued. Could I really feel good after just four minutes of movement? I was also skeptical. So, I decided to try it.

Breaking down the 4-minute workout

The 4-minute workout, also known as Tabata, is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and it’s gained a lot of popularity in the past few years for being a quick but challenging workout.

A typical Tabata workout includes short intervals of 20 seconds of a fast-paced exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. Most often, four exercises are repeated two times each until the four minutes are up. During the 20 seconds of exercise, the goal is to go “all-out,” staying focused on keeping the intensity high and getting in as many reps as you can, all while maintaining good form. 

The 4-minute workout I tried

The exact exercises you do may vary from one Tabata workout to the next, but I tried this circuit repeated two times over:

  • 20 seconds of mountain climbers, 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds of high knees, 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds of burpees, 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds of squats, 10 seconds rest

The first time I tried the 4-minute workout was at the gym before doing my regular one-hour strength training workout. The second time I tried it was two days later, in the middle of the day, while working from home. I wanted to give it a few tries in a few different contexts to be able to share an honest opinion. 

What I loved about the 4-minute workout (and what I didn’t)

You’re really packing a lot into those four minutes, which is why it was a significant challenge for me and my predisposition to spend gym time texting, staring at walls, and shopping on my phone for more gym clothes. (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this!)

Both times, I could feel my blood pumping with vigor immediately after doing it, and my mind felt alert in a way typically achieved by a cup of coffee. I was proud of myself for accomplishing something during an afternoon lull and I found it much easier to get into work mode afterward. (Note to self: Take more breaks.)

My body also felt sore the next day in a way that seemed to thank me, which to me was a sign that it challenged my body too.

What the 4-minute workout didn’t do for me was give me the total exhaustion I feel after a sweaty spin class or the flow of endorphins I experience after a long run. But it is, of course, much easier to fit into my day. I’m thinking of it as the new walk around the block, though I definitely finished a lot sweatier and it took much less time. 

The science behind the 4-minute workout

Research shows that the 4-minute Tabata workouts can improve physical fitness.

A study by Dr. Izumi Tabata, the Japanese clinician behind the regimen, compared physical fitness between two groups of people: one group doing a 4-minute, high-intensity Tabata workout and another group doing 60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio on a stationary bike. Both groups completed their respective workouts 5 days a week for a period of 6 weeks. The results showed that Tabata workouts were far superior at improving peoples’ physical fitness. The Tabata group’s anaerobic capacity improved by almost twice as much as the regular group’s. Anaerobic capacity is our body’s to generate energy without oxygen, which is needed in short “all-out” intervals. In simple terms, a higher anaerobic capacity translates to greater muscular strength and power when we work out. The Tabata group’s aerobic capacity also improved significantly, while the other group’s aerobic capacity didn’t improve at all. Aerobic capacity is our body’s ability to use oxygen as efficiently as possible when we work out. In simple terms, a higher aerobic capacity translates to greater endurance to work out for longer periods of time.

In conclusion, if you’re consistent, the 4-minute workout can be more effective at improving physical fitness than moderate cardio—in just a fraction of the time!

My final take on the 4-minute workout

Ultimately, what really does it for me is the science behind the workout. (If you can give me evidence a workout can improve my fitness and I enjoy it, there’s no convincing needed.)

It’s also something I can definitely work into my current routine. And since it’s stackable, I could repeat the 4-minute workout two or three times through when I’m looking for a more challenging workout

Most importantly, it’s the perfect workout for when you or I are in our work-from-home sweatpants, especially because we don’t need any equipment.

I’m sold.

Author: Ben Abramowitz