Tabata is a high intensity intensity workout protocol. It gets the name Tabata from the man who did the original study of the aerobic and anaerobic benefits, Dr. Izumi Tabata.
In 1996, Tabata did a study using two groups of amateur male athletes who went through two different exercise programs in 6 weeks. The first group pedaled on a bike ergometer for one hour at a moderate intensity (70% VO2 max), 5 days per week (1800 total minutes). The second group pedaled for 20 seconds with 10 seconds rest for 4 minutes, 7-8 sets, at max effort, 5 days per week (120 total minutes).
He found the second group had considerable improvements in both anaerobic and aerobic fitness measurements. The anaerobic fitness levels increased by 28%.
Mainstream fitness got a hold of this concept and all of a sudden Tabata became the new thing to improve anaerobic capacity and burn fat. Everything became a Tabata from doing hang cleans to jumping rope.
I'm not going to lie, I've tried Tabata in many things (including both of the exercises I mentioned above). But as my friend Mike Boyle says, most of these choices for exercises are "fake Tabata."
What most people fail to implement is the max effort part. I've seen plenty of people get really tired doing Tabata workouts at a moderate effort. But why wouldn't you? It's negative work to rest ratio. Try seeing how many push ups you can do in each set of the 8 for 20 seconds with 10 seconds rest at any intensity.
There are a few things to consider if you want to get anything out of Tabata workouts besides just getting tired.
1. It's max effort: That means ball out. That means this should be the worst 4 minutes of your life. Where a nice jogging session is about 70% of your VO2 max. A max effort Tabata session is more like 170% of your VO2 max. This also means max effort for 20 seconds, not just 5 or 10 and then coast through the rest.
2. There are only a few good exercises for Tabata: The first is the bike. The Assault bike is preferable. Others are rowing, sprints, hill sprints, and sled pushes.
3. Don't start your new years off with these. Maybe you haven't worked out in a while and you've seen or read how effective these are. You like the fact that you only have to workout for 4 minutes a day. If you are going to do these correctly, I recommend you have a solid base of fitness first. Most people don't want to jump into something on their first day that is called the "worst 4 minutes of your life."