This Spotify Tabata workout playlist helps me burn fat in 4-minute intervals

Man working out with headphones
(Image credit: Dollar Gill/Unsplash)

If you've ever spent time in a bare-bones hotel gym, you'll know what a horribly dispiriting experience it can be. I had the misfortunate to find myself in one recently; inside was just a folding treadmill, an elliptical machine, a rack of light dumbbells – nothing over 10K – a Swiss ball, and a single yoga mat, which was fraying at the edges, long past showing its age. 

It was barely a gym, a tick-box exercise by the hotel chain, which shall remain nameless, so it could put “has a gym” on its website. I went down there thinking a squat rack might be a bit much to ask for, but I was hoping for a few weights machines and a barbell, at least.

Ordinarily, I would have gone for a run, but even before 9am, the Italian heat was blistering hot and I wanted a quick, 20-minute routine. I didn’t even have one of the best Garmin watches to hand, so I popped on my favorite workout headphones and went to my phone to scroll through Spotify. Sure enough, there it was: the ol’ faithful Tabata Songs playlist. 

There’s been a lot of research around Tabata workouts. Named after Japanese sports scientist Izumi Tabata, the Tabata Protocol can be considered an extreme form of high-intensity interval training, in which you work hard, rest for a short time, then work hard again. The aim is to get your heart rate pumping in a very short amount of time with maximum effort and minimal recovery time. The Tabata Protocol operates in 30-second chunks: you pick an exercise, repeat it for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Once those 10 seconds are up, you perform another move – or the same one again – for 20 seconds, and so on.

In four minutes, you’ll go through eight sets of 20 seconds. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re on the mat at set seven, even the fittest person starts to feel their heart rate go up. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you pick, either, which means the Tabata Protocol can be used by anyone of any fitness level – from beginners (jog for 20 seconds, walk for 10 seconds, repeat) to intermediate exercisers and even serious athletes. 

There’s plenty of research backing up this short, sharp approach to fitness. A paper in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that 20-minute Tabata workouts “resulted in an increase in caloric expenditure”. The paper found four minutes of Tabata exercises burns around 54 calories, and 20 minutes burns 260-340 calories. Tabata has also been found by studies to be effective in “reducing body weight, waist-to-hip ratio, and body fat percentage” in overweight individuals.

You don’t even need to physically start and stop a timer; a pair of decent workout headphones will do the trick. Spotify and Apple Music have playlists appropriately titled “Tabata songs” featuring remixes of music from all sorts of genres, with instructions inserted at appropriate times. They're a little... processed, to put it lightly, and each cover is synthesized and removes the track of any soul it might have had. But they're great at providing minimal guidance while still offering your workout some structure. 

At each 20-second mark, you’ll hear “Three, two, one, stop!” or something similar, which is your cue to briefly pause, before the cue to go again. These audio instructions are non-specific, allowing you to apply the Tabata Protocol to low-intensity cardio exercises such as jogging and cycling, isometric poses like planks or wall-sits, or other exercises such as sit-ups and press-ups. 

I use these Tabata movements to break up my untimed morning runs by stopping for some core-work in the park, or make the most of less-than-ideal environments such as that sparse hotel gym. To give you a brief example of how I use it, in that hotel gym I picked press-ups, burpees, planks, and renegade rows using the dumbbells, and repeated this routine twice to make up a four-minute round. I then picked another four exercises and did it again, and you better believe my arms were burning inside of 10 minutes. 

Fitbit Premium, Peloton, and other subscription services also offer audio workout descriptions. If you’re sick of working out in front of your TV with subscription services such as Apple Fitness Plus, but still want a bit of structure to your HIIT workout routines, give these Tabata playlists a go. 

Matt Evans
Fitness, Wellness, and Wearables Editor

Matt is TechRadar's expert on all things fitness, wellness and wearable tech. A former staffer at Men's Health, he holds a Master's Degree in journalism from Cardiff and has written for brands like Runner's World, Women's Health, Men's Fitness, LiveScience and Fit&Well on everything fitness tech, exercise, nutrition and mental wellbeing.

Matt's a keen runner, ex-kickboxer, not averse to the odd yoga flow, and insists everyone should stretch every morning. When he’s not training or writing about health and fitness, he can be found reading doorstop-thick fantasy books with lots of fictional maps in them.