Why Tabata Fails
By Kate Vidulich
High intensity interval training (HIIT) has exploded onto the mainstream fitness scene, and is a prominent part of every intelligent person’s fat loss training program. With this increased exposure, it’s no wonder someone got a hold of the scientific research on interval training and spun it the wrong way.
Thousands of trainees are using one particular type of interval training – without a clue what they’re really doing.
Professor Izumi Tabata and friends in Japan created this 4-minute ultra intense protocol and tested it on his Olympic speed skating guinea pigs in 1996.
Today’s version of Tabata in commercial gyms is far from the real deal. Tabata training requires “exhaustive intermittent training consisted of seven to eight sets of 20-s exercise at an intensity of about 170% of VO2max with a 10-s rest between each bout.” That quote is from the study itself (1).
It’s time to dispel the myths right now…
Can the real Tabata protocol please stand up? (Rap on).
Why Tabata Fails
Mistake #1: You’re NOT doing Tabata
Hands up if you’ve read the study? If you’re not a science fan, it’s like alien language. Despite the widespread use of this training protocol, no one actually has a clue what it really means.
Sure, so I’ll enlighten you now.
The control group of athletes did steady state (70% VO2max) training 5 times per week, similar to what most people consider cardio at the gym.
The Tabata group did a 10-minute steady state warm up followed by 7-8 continuous cycles of 20 seconds at 170% VO2 max, then 10 seconds of rest on a braked cycle ergometer.
In the original study, the athletes trained 4 times per week using Tabata, PLUS another day of steady-state training at 70% VO2 max with the other group.
That’s right, over a course of a week, the athletes did one day of steady state cardio as well.
Let go back for a moment.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to sprint at 170% VO2 max for 2 seconds, let alone 20 seconds?
That is where most people screw up. You measure VO2 max by getting someone to ride a cycle ergometer while measuring oxygen uptake, and increasing the wattage until oxygen uptake no longer continues to rise. That’s 100% VO2 max.
Think total exhaustion. I’ve been there. You feel dizzy, nauseous and want to go home. It’s not like a hill sprint in spinning class.
Now you increase the wattage to 170% of that value.
That’s 170% VO2 max. Go for 20 whole seconds. Imagine how fun that is (insert sarcasm).
You. Might. Die.
That is the intensity for a TRUE Tabata interval. Every single interval is truly an ultra-maximal effort. It feels more like an hour of exercise.
The thought of doing that myself, let alone my clients, makes my stomach churn. Listen. Nausea, vomiting and dizziness are not welcome in any of my training programs.
First of all it’s NOT enjoyable for one second, which means the likelihood of you sticking with the program is very slim. Plus, I’m really bad at cleaning up mess, especially bodily fluids.
So as you can see, the research is very difficult to apply to the real world.
Mistake #2: It’s Effective for Fat Loss
Nowhere in the Tabata study did they mention anything about its effectiveness for fat loss. They didn’t even study it.
So sure, maybe it does work for accelerating fat loss, or not. It’s unknown. I personally think Tabata would work for fat loss, (well it better right?) but it’s never been tested against any other interval training method.
The original Tabata protocol was created for performance base and tested aerobic and anaerobic output of the athletes.
Yes, you may lose fat doing Tabata training, but according to this research protocol, it’s unclear.
Mistake #3: Using the Wrong Equipment
From the research study, you can see they used a cycle ergometer. It’s a special, expensive bike found in University research labs. You can’t buy one from the sports shop down the road and ride it to work.
What type of exercises can you do at 170% VO2 max? Ah, not many. The treadmill becomes the deadmill. It’s really dangerous, because literally you can fall off and splatter yourself.
Some folks at the gym are doing “Tabata” squats, “Tabata” burpees, or God forbid, “Tabata” crunches. It’s NOT the real deal.
In fact, you don’t even come close to the intensity. Most of the sets are submaximal, and maybe by the final set you get close to a maximal effort. But as we determined in the first point, every single interval is more than a maximal effort.
This is not to say doing 4 minute intervals with 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest are completely worthless or wrong. The Canadian study conducted at the Queen’s University in 2012 proves otherwise (2). They showed doing 20-10 intervals of bodyweight exercises does work for increasing cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, but it’s not the same as true Tabata.
Keep on rocking the 20-10 intervals if it’s working for you. Just don’t call it Tabata when it’s not. Think of a more creative name, like “20-10 intervals”.
You can find out more about my unique replacement for interval training here at Fat Loss Accelerators.
Kate Vidulich, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer
1. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al.(1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc 28 (10): 1327–30.
2. McRae G, Payne A, et al. (2012). Extremely low volume, whole-body aerobic-resistance training improves aerobic fitness and muscular endurance in females. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 37(6):1124-31.
Craig Ballantyne is the author of The Perfect Day Formula: How to Own the Day and Control Your Life. Craig has been a contributor to Men's Health magazine for over 17 years. Today he teaches his gift high-performing entrepreneurs how to squeeze more out of their days, increase their income, and make more quality time for their families in his Perfect Life Workshop and Work-Life Mastery programs. Craig used his own advice to overcome crippling anxiety attacks in 2006, and he'll teach you his 5 Pillars of Success so you can increase your income, decrease your work time, and live the life of your dreams. Learn more about Craig at craigballantyne.com
The Tabata Method or Protocol is a form of High-Intensity Interval Training or HIIT, which alternates from short bursts of high intenisty anaerobic training followed by even shorter recovery and less intense recovery periods.
The high intensity interval should be performed at or near maximal effort and the low intensity period is typically at 50% of your maximum capacity. One of the earliest reported protocols for this method of training is the Tabata method.
The Tabata method is often accredited to Izumu Tabata, however this is not entirely true. Although the original method was published by Izumu Tabata in a peer reviewed journal (see the reference at the end of the page) the idea was originally pioneered by the head coach for the Japanese Olympic speed skating team, Irisawa Koichi.
Irisawa Koichi was the head coach of the Japanese Speed Skating team in the 1990s and was using an unusual training technique of short bursts with even shorter rest periods. It is reported that this method not only increased short term explosive strength but also long term endurance. Izumu Tabata, a coach under Koichi, was asked to analyse his rotation of short burst with maximum effort followed by a short rest. So if we are to be rigorously correct we should call it the Koichi method (pronounced as – k oh EE ch ee) although I am not sure this will take off.
The Tabata method is named after the coach who measured the effectiveness of the training method devised by Irisawa Koichi. He was a researcher at the National Institute for Health and Nutrition and is currently a professor in the Faculty of Sport and Health Science at Ritsumeikan University in Japan. His research page can be found here. According to his papers this technique has a “very fast increase in VO2 max”.
The Tabata method paper was published in 1996 in the journal “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.” entitled, “Effects of Moderate-Intensity Endurance and High-Intensity Intermittent Training on Anaerobic Capacity and VO2max.” (see below for the full reference).
The High Intensity work phase for the Tabata protocol was originally performed at approximately 170% of VO2 Max. The VO2 max is a measure of the maximum capacity of your body to transport and use oxygen during a period of exertion or work. In simple terms this is an extreme intensity workout, you are working at close to your maximum heart rate. According to Dr Tabata the session should be
“…An all out effort at 170% of your VO2 max. If you feel ok after the session you have not done it right! The first three sessions should be easy and the last two should feel impossibly hard…”
When this was repeated over a period of six weeks, four times a week, the athletes saw a 28% increase in their anaerobic capacity and 15% increase in their VO2 max which is considered a good measure of cardiovascular fitness. The control group performed a steady state cardiovascular workout lasting one hour, five times a week. Their VO2 max scores increased by just 10% and their routine had no significant effect on their anaerobic capacity. Over the six week period the Tabata group recorded 120 minutes of training compared with the control gourp that recorded 1,800 minutes!
How Should you feel after the workout?
hmmm…you really want to know….here is the sort of description I would put in a journal paper
- You should find it difficult to talk and breathe as you have oxygen debt.
- Significantly increased sweating.
- Elevated body temperature
- Increased lactic acid and the “muscle burning” sensation
In real terms you will feel shattered but if you like your endorphin rush this will give you your weekly hiit
Working at VO2 max
The higher the number, the more cardiovascular strength you have and is thought to be the gold standard for fitness testing.
Words of Caution
You may have noticed the original Tabata protocol research was performed on serious athletes with a professional sports scientist. If you have any doubts about operating at your maximum intensity, or if you have any medical concerns in particular a history of heart disease please contact a registered and qualified health professional. This type of exercise regime should be acceptable to most people of average fitness. Remember be strong and be safe!
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.
Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max.
Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Ogita F, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K.
Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Mar;29(3):390-5.
Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises.
Tabata I, Irisawa K, Kouzaki M, Nishimura K, Ogita F, Miyachi M.
Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kanoya City, Japan.