This 20-Minute Workout Burns More Calories than Running

Mackenzie L. Havey
by Mackenzie L. Havey
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This 20-Minute Workout Burns More Calories than Running

Research has demonstrated just 20 minutes of exercise has the ability to alter our genes for the better — a sort of genetic reprogramming that can lead to increased endurance and muscle strength. What’s more, there are plenty of efficient exercise options that help you torch calories and lose weight in that short period of time. The key is to be purposeful about the exercises you choose so even a quick workout will elicit big results.

This is where Tabata, or the Tabata Protocol, comes in. Izumi Tabata first tested this training approach, which entails very short spurts of high-intensity exercise followed by short periods of rest, when he was working with the Japanese Olympic speed skating team. Happy with the results, he put his findings to the test with a group of university students, having them do eight rounds of 20-second sprints on stationary bikes, followed by 10 seconds of rest after each sprint. The circuit took just 4 minutes and was preceded by a 10-minute warmup.

Tabata discovered after the students performed these sprints five days a week for six weeks, they increased their aerobic fitness by an average of 14%. This is especially impressive when you consider the fact that the other group of students Tabata tested, who did 60-minute moderate rides five days a week, only bumped up their aerobic fitness by 10%. Put simply, the first group got in better shape even though their workouts were 56 minutes shorter. That’s five hours of exercise each week versus just 20 minutes.

For many of us, the original Tabata Protocol is too good to be true. First, while it helps improve aerobic fitness, it won’t allow most people to burn as many calories as they’d like, simply because four minutes of exercise isn’t a sufficient period of time. Additionally, most people struggle to reach the extreme intensity at which the participants in the study did. Most of us want exercise to leave us energized, not completely zapped.

The solution many trainers have landed on is to ease off the intensity somewhat but repeat the Tabata Protocol a greater number of times. Additionally, mixing up the exercises, rather than simply sprinting on a stationary bike, assists in working various muscles and keeping you from reaching the point of total fatigue. For instance, a 20-minute Tabata workout could include a number of different exercises, like jumping rope, squats and push-ups, performed at a high intensity for 20 seconds, followed by a 10-second break.

To test the calorie-burning potential of this type of workout, the American Council on Exercise put together their own 20-minute Tabata Workout. In just 20 minutes, they discovered participants burned between 240–360 calories, or 15 calories per minute. Considering a 150-pound person would only burn around 200 calories jogging for 20 minutes, this means one could torch hundreds of extra calories performing Tabata several times a week. Plenty of other evidence has also proved Tabata training has a fat-incinerating effect in an impressively short amount of time.

Based on the Tabata Workout Protocol designed by the American Council on Exercise, we’ve devised a beginner-friendly version you can jump right into. Before you start, be sure to practice the four exercises so you are confident performing each with good form.

EXERCISES

Bodyweight Squats: Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your arms out straight in front of your body. Keep your spine neutral and core braced as you slowly lower your backside down until your thighs are parallel with the ground. If you feel good, you can drop a bit more with your hips so your bottom drops lower than your knees. Press through your feet to stand back up, and repeat.

Jumping Jacks: Stand with your legs straight, feet together and hands down at your sides. In a single motion, hop your feet outward and your arms above your head, keeping both legs and arms straight. Then reverse course by bringing your hands and feet back to their original positions.

Pushups: Put your hands on the ground a little wider than shoulder-width with your arms straight, supporting your upper body. Extend your feet back and balance on your toes, making a straight line from the top of your head to your heels. Bend your arms and lower your body until your chest nearly touches the ground, and then press through the floor back up to the starting position. If you have trouble maintaining proper form, drop to your knees to perform the exercise.

Lunges: Stand with your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Step forward with one leg and lower your body until both knees form 90-degree angles. Press through your feet and bring your body back up to the starting position, and alternate legs.

WORKOUT

Repeat the below sequence a total of four times. One round is 5 minutes, so the full workout will be 20 minutes.

  • 20 seconds bodyweight squats
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds jumping jacks
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds pushups
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds lunges
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds bodyweight squats
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds jumping jacks
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds pushups
  • 10 seconds rest
  • 20 seconds lunges
  • 70 seconds rest

Tips

  1. Warm up for 5–10 minutes prior to conducting this workout.
  2. During each 20-second work period, perform as many of the exercises as you can at a fast pace and always keep moving.
  3. During rest periods, take time to catch your breath, and shake your legs and arms out.
  4. If you have trouble maintaining good form when repeating the sequence four times, start with two or three times, and work toward four.

Originally published March 2016, updated with additional reporting

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About the Author

Mackenzie L. Havey
Mackenzie L. Havey

Mackenzie is a freelance journalist and coach based in Minneapolis. She contributes to a variety of magazines and websites, including TheAtlantic.com, OutsideOnline.com, espnW.com, Runner’s World and Triathlete Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota, and is a USA Track and Field certified coach. When she’s not writing, she’s out biking, running and cross-country skiing around the city lakes with her dog.

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