The Truth About Tabata

Unfortunately there is a theme in the fitness industry that when something works, the natural tendency is for professionals to recommend people do more of it. This is a theme that many would agree is ingrained in America’s society. It’s just like what we’ve been brainwashed to believe regarding our food. If whole grains are “healthy” and low-fat foods are good for us then shouldn’t they make up the majority of our diet? If a little bit of money makes us happy, won’t more of it buy additional happiness? Well, we all know that’s far from the truth.

Since the late 90’s, the Tabata protocol has been twisted far from its original research. In 1996, Dr. Izumi Tabata tested moderate intensity exercise against high intensity intervals specifically to see if sixty minutes of seventy percent effort exercise was inferior to four maximal efforts of twenty seconds of work, ten seconds of rest (the Tabata Protocol). Initially discovering performance gains in Japanese speed skaters, he wanted to see if it could be applied to the every day person. The research didn’t lie and his controlled study found that high intensity intermittent training does improve both aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. What does this mean for the every day person trying to develop a sturdy fitness plan? Less can be more.

Where professionals have messed up with Tabata training is that the classes now expand out sometimes up to sixty minutes in duration with a multitude of different exercises. How Tabata Really Works, a great article written by Craig Maker, explains that intensity, not duration is the key ingredient to Tabata workouts. In his words, a person should not be able to go for longer than four minutes at a maximal effort. Tabata was never meant to be an hour workout.

How can someone do it properly? Before completing a Tabata workout there should be an extensive warm up (focusing on dynamic mobility) for at least ten minutes and upwards to twenty minutes for people who are just getting back into fitness. The idea is to pick rhythmic forms of exercise that allow individuals to work at their highest work rate (maximal effort). The best exercises for the beginners include bicycling, rowing, swimming, stair sprints, jumping rope and brisk walking. Just pick one and call it a day, eight rounds twenty seconds of all-out work (whatever 100% is for you) and ten seconds of complete rest.

Different classes will use common body weight exercises like squats and push-ups using this protocol (not all a bad thing), but the benefits are entirely different and stray from what was originally tested. For most people, completing a Tabata workout one or two times a week will be a nice addition to the plan. No one should go maximal everyday. The frequency needs to be dictated by an individual’s goals, limitations and fitness level.

Why should Tabata be in the routine? With less than ten percent of the US population without gym memberships we can conclude that most people don’t enjoy working out. For some it’s due to perceived lack of time, cost of traveling, or the ability to afford a gym membership. Interval protocols like Tabata make it possible to not only complete your workout in less time, but still reap the health benefits.

Folks implementing HIIT training will improve their body composition faster, impact their metabolic rate, increase their cardio-respiratory endurance, put less wear and tear on their bodies and see changes in their blood work. Consistency is critical.  It will also make those steady paced hikes and bike rides feel effortless because you are used to working out at a higher intensity. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your amount of time working out is a dictator of your overall fitness or how successful you will be. The quality of your workout will always be more important than the quantity.