How to Optimize the 4-Minute, Tabata-Style HIIT Workout (Without Killing Yourself)

Supercharge Your Results and Prevent Exhaustion By Using the Escalating Intensity Strategy During Your HIIT Workouts

Not too long ago, I introduced the escalating intensity strategy that I’ve been using for a number of years, and I gave some examples for applying it to straight sets, supersets, and circuit sets (click here for the full article). Today, I’ll be explaining how to apply this strategy to interval training, and in particular, the Tabata-inspired, 4-minute high-intensity interval training workouts (HIIT).

In case you’re not familiar with this superb training protocol, here it is in a nutshell:

Perform 20 seconds of work immediately followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeat 8 times for a total of 4 minutes. The shorthand version of this is 20/10×8.

It’s a fantastic training protocol because it’s very¬†simple and effective, but never easy – even for the most advanced athletes and trainees. Many different training programs use it, such as TACFIT Commando and TACFIT Warrior, just to name a couple, and you can learn more about it here if you’d like: 4 minute HIIT workout.

Male cyclist

Now, the inherent problem with this model for a lot of people is that performing truly high-intensity exercise for this long is extremely difficult, and most people can’t do it properly without a coach – if at all. Inevitably, basic exercise technique begins to fail around the middle point and it just goes downhill from there – bad news.

And that’s the reason why I started experimenting with the escalating intensity strategy during my HIIT workouts. To say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results would be an understatement. Quite frankly, I’ve been shocked that I can do less total work at a lower overall intensity level and still get equal or better results. Are you intrigued yet? Yeah, I was, too!

So, for those who aren’t in the know, the whole idea behind the escalating intensity strategy is to gradually build intensity from the first set of a workout to the last set. The ultimate goal is to peak on the last set for an optimal, high intensity performance. That’s the gist of it anyways. You can learn more at the article I linked in the introduction above.

How The Escalating Intensity Strategy Works With the 20/10×8 Workout

Now, there’s a big difference between going all out 8 times in a row (which is how most people do tabata-style HIIT workouts) and slowly building up to maximum intensity for peak performance. So, instead of performing each round at 80+% of maximum intensity, here’s an example of how the escalating intensity strategy would work with the 20/10×8 HIIT workout…

Round 1: 20 seconds of work @ 20-30% of maximum ability or speed, 10 seconds rest
Round 2: 20 seconds of work @ 30-40% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 3: 20 seconds of work @ 50-60% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 4: 20 seconds of work @ 60-70% of max, 10 seconds of rest
Round 5: 20 seconds of work @ 70-80% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 6: 20 seconds of work @ 80-90 % of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 7: 20 seconds of work @ 90+% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 8: 20 seconds of work @ 90+% of max, 10 seconds rest

Essentially, you’ll just start with a very easy, low intensity “practice” set, and gradually build intensity every set until you’re finally performing a near-max effort on the final 2-3 rounds. Like I said, simple, but not easy.

Now, this exact protocol has not been extensively tested and documented in the research journals. However, I’ve used it with great success both myself and with some of my clients. I’ve also heard from at least two other coaches that they’ve adopted a similar protocol intuitively in their personal training businesses. So, it’s definitely a viable option – albeit still in its infancy. Should you decide to try it out, you’ll be adventuring into mostly uncharted territory. But that wouldn’t deter someone like you, would it?

To tell you the truth, it’s entirely possible that over a long enough timeline, the traditional Tabata protocol could offer better results than this progressive method.¬† That said, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results if you choose to escalate your intensity from set to set rather than try to max out each time – regardless of how you decide to do it.

Advice For Advanced Trainees and Athletes

My recommendation for advanced trainees is to begin increasing the intensity by greater portions earlier in the workout (e.g. increase by 20+% each set until at near-max intensity). The general strategy remains the same – that of starting at a really easy set and finishing with a near-max effort – but the progression to high intensity sets can happen much faster. Here’s one example of it – note the increase intensity level earlier on in the workout:

Round 1: 20 seconds of work @ 20-30% of maximum ability or speed, 10 seconds rest
Round 2: 20 seconds of work @ 30-50% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 3: 20 seconds of work @ 50-70% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 4: 20 seconds of work @ 70-90% of max, 10 seconds of rest
Round 5: 20 seconds of work @ 80-90% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 6: 20 seconds of work @ 80-90 % of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 7: 20 seconds of work @ 90+% of max, 10 seconds rest
Round 8: 20 seconds of work @ 90+% of max, 10 seconds rest

The benefits of applying this model to HIIT

There are many distinct advantages that this model has over the traditional Tabata HIIT method, including the following:

-You’ll actually improve your technique, rather than have your technique get worse as the workout goes on. The longer you do high intensity exercise, the more likely you will be to compromise in an exercise’s technique. If you try to maintain high intensity for a full 4 minute round of 20/10×8, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to last the full duration without problems. However, if you gradually increase intensity while maintaining excellent technique, you’ll better groove your technique through heavy exertion, which is a win-win situation.

-There is a lower likelihood of injury because of the improved technique, but also because the warmup is integrated right into the session itself. Anytime you train with high intensity, the risk of injury increases. So, this method acts like a safety valve for exercise-specific injury prevention and allows one to reap the benefits of high intensity training without taking unnecessary risks.

-If you track your workout performance, you’ll find you’re far more likely to set a personal record each time you train using the escalating intensity strategy – even with HIIT training. And isn’t that the whole point behind physical training – to get better?

-Not only will you get a better training effect from the high intensity work, but you’ll also recover and be able to get back to training sooner because of the reduced volume of high intensity exercise. Plus, you won’t feel completely wasted after your workout is over.

-Due to the improved performance and more manageable training protocol, it will be easier to stay motivated to do this type of training regularly. HIIT can definitely burn you out, but this offers the same results with from a lower investment and that’s highly motivating when you see it at work.

-If that wasn’t enough already, you’ll also have less muscle soreness to deal with.

Need I say more?

Sample 20/10×8 Workout

Below, you’ll find an example of how to craft a training session using this protocol. For a well-rounded training session, I’d suggest selecting 4-6 compound exercises that will hit your primary muscle groups and movement patterns.

After a joint mobility warmup, complete the following:

Bodyweight squats: 20/10×8
Rest 1-2 minutes
Pull-ups or chin-ups: 20/10×8
Rest 1-2 minutes
Lunges: 20/10×8
Rest 1-2 minutes
Pushups: 20/10×8
Rest 1-2 minutes

Finish with a cooldown to release tension in and around working joints to boost recovery.

That workout will take 20-24 minutes. With a quick warmup and cooldown, you can be done with your entire training session in under a half hour.

Wrap-Up

Gone are the days of performing maximum exertion for the sake of increasing intensity. Instead, we’re moving into a more sophisticated fitness future, where intensity is specifically regulated for the purpose of improving performance and the results and benefits we get from that performance. So, next time you try out a 4 minute HIIT workout – or another type of HIIT – give the escalating intensity strategy a shot. You’ll be glad you did.

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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach

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P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rexboggs5/

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