“Work smart, not hard.” It’s a nice soundbite — and sometimes it’s true. For fitness, it’s especially true with High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): bursts of high intensity punctuated by breaks of low intensity. I first touched on HIIT with The Spartacus Workout (here and here). Now I’ll discuss it with regards to a workout protocol called Tabata, named after its Japanese scientist inventor.

This is the Tabata method: 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest. Do this eight times for a four-minute set.

That’s it. It’s simple but brutal. You will train to failure. You will sweat. You will lose body fat. Your metabolism will skyrocket. So might your grocery store bills. I’ve been doing Tabata workouts with compound exercises (a similar concept to The Spartacus Workout) for the past few weeks. I’m doing 45-minute workouts four days a week, and I’m getting better results than when I was doing two-hour workouts six days a week. It’s crazy. Better results in 1/4 the time! I may never return to the “3 sets of 10 reps” routine.

Of course, this is really working both smart and hard. Here are some tips to make that happen. First, you can Tabata anything: running, lifting, compound exercises. Whatever workout you’re doing now, run it through Tabata for a twist. Second, if weights are involved, use 50-75% of your normal weight. It may feel weird putting up such light weights, but trust me, you will feel the burn. Finally, if you want to do Tabata with compound exercises, I suggest this page as a starting point. It’s what I’m using right now.

Unlike with The Spartacus Workout, I’m not providing a dedicated soundtrack for Tabata. The time intervals involved are too short. But the good news is that there’s a great online workout timer here. It’s free, and it’s flexible. (For Tabata, the Round Length = 4 min, High Intensity Interval = 20 sec, Low Intensity Interval = 10 sec; I use a Rest Length of 2 min, and Stop After = 7 rounds for the abovementioned workout; start with High Interval; set a few seconds Delay before start to give yourself time to get into position.) With this timer, you can listen to whatever you want underneath!

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What I’ve been Tabata-ing to recently is Dawn of Demise‘s A Force Unstoppable (Deepsend, 2010). It’s not something I would normally like: over-produced, over-compressed brutal death metal, a style that got played out long ago. But that’s partly because so few of its practitioners get it right. It takes a certain tightness to achieve the unity of attack the music requires. Otherwise it becomes a bunch of little punches hitting around the same time instead of one big punch. Dawn of Demise have that punch; heads will nod and toes will tap.

More importantly, though, they have subtlety. I didn’t catch this the first time I heard the record. (That’s why it’s called subtlety.) But the fact that I made it through an entire brutal death metal album was a marvel, so I set out to find out why. On subsequent listens, I found myself listening to the record: seeing what riffs what would come next, how the drummer would accent them.

It turns out that the band’s approach is actually quite minimalist. Riffs have lots of space between them, and grand gestures are infrequent, thus hitting harder when they do. Just when you have the band pegged as an atonal riff machine, it busts out an melodic, emotional solo — then gets back to steamrolling you. This band lays out its cards gradually. Instead of playing a thousand notes and blastbeats, it sets them out one at a time. Each one matters. That’s working smart and hard.

— Cosmo Lee