Tabata intervals are popular. And just because something is popular doesn't mean its smart and leads to actual results. Especially in the world of training. Over 99% of people in the training world that do ab work and crunches have no abs, the same counts for amount of people that go to the gym and get no results, or do HIIT and still don't lose fat, and more. And the rise of popularity of the Tabata protocol is another example.
What is Tabata Training?
Tabata are a popular interval training protocol popularized by Professor Izumi Tabata who published a study in 1996 and did his initial work with elite level speedskaters of the Japanese Speedskating National Team that showed significant improvements in performance in aerobic and anaerobic capacity tests using this protocol, which was then named after him. The Tabata protocol asks for 20s work and 10s of rest for 8 rounds which is a total of 4 minutes at about 170% of VO 2 max. The first four of this variables is whats commonly known, and the last is not, and thats the one that makes Tabatas a waste of time for 99% of the population.
Is Tabata training bad?
No, it is not. It's great. It works as the main study has shown (1). Just not for over 99% of people. It's like saying that one has to run 100km a week to run a marathon. That's also quite correct. Yet, over 99% of people can't run 100km a week.
What's the problem with Tabata Training?
In one simple statement: The average output of work.
As the program design and periodization of interval training are highly neglected by almost everyone, lets apply the same protocol to strength training which most can visualize better. The Tabata protocol is 20s of work and 10s of rest for 8 intervals. That would be 4 repetitions at a 4010 tempo as 20s of work. Let's pick the squat as a full body exercise. Everyone 20s work are done with maximum effort, that means in strengthtraining is going to be RM. So 4 reps is a 4RM (repetition maximum), so a 4RM is weight where one cannot do more than 4 repetitions.
Set 1 – 4 reps at 100kg
Set 2 – 4 reps at 90kg
Set 3 – 4 reps at 80kg
Set 4 – 4 reps at 70kg
And so on, until one gets all 8 sets in.
What is going to be the weight on the 8th set? And whats going to be the average weight lifted over all 8 sets? One can assumed that the last set will be somewhere in between 40kg and the empty bar. Which leads to an average load of less than 60kg or from a percentage standpoint 60% of 1 RM. Which is not only from a training standpoint a waste of time with minimal adaptations and a very high level of subjective fatigue, its is also far from the required high average output determined in the Tabata protocol.
Some readers will now point out that this example is based on strength training and not interval training. A point that is invalid.
First , interval training will create higher levels of acute fatigue compared to strength training as its more concentric dominant. So the drop-off will be even greater with intervals compared to strengthtraining.
Second , all training is based on the same principle of adapting to a stimulus, if the quality of this stimulus is too low the adaptation is inferior. Running 100km a week at 3 m/s will not make you run a marathon at 6 m/s. Sprinting 1km a week at an average time of 11.0 seconds will not make one sprint 9.9 seconds. And back to the 400m Sprint example from this article running 400m in 120 seconds will not get one lean.
Still, I also like to give an example from interval training, a bike was used in the original study, here I like to give the example of the Air Bike, as most can relate to training on an Air Bike these days. The Tabata protocol is 20s of work and 10s of rest for 8 intervals. At the given intensity of 170% of your VO 2 max these intervals are all-out. An example performance will look like this in most cases.
Set 1 - 20s at average of 1000 watts
Set 2 - 20s at average of 900 watts
Set 3 - 20s at average of 800 watts
Set 4 - 20s at average of 700 watts
And so on, until one gets all 8 sets in.
What is going to be the average watt on the 8th round? And whats going to be the average watt pushed over all 8 rounds? One can assumed that the last set will be somewhere in between 200 and 400 watts. Which leads to an average demand of less than 60% of maximum output. Which is not only from a training standpoint a waste of time with minimal adaptations and a very high level of subjective fatigue, its also far from the required output of 170% of your VO 2 max determined in the Tabata protocol.
What most people will do, that diminishes these, is to decrease output in the beginning, so they start fairly easy in the first intervals to not "blow out". That makes sense. Yet, again going easy on the first intervals will not need lead to the required output of 170% of your VO 2 max determined. As going "easy" is not stressing the system, based on Hans Selye's principle of Supercompensation a system will only adapt and the training effect can only manifest if a system is stressed. One can also run 400m in 120 seconds, thats easy, and will definitely not lead to the same training effect as running 400m in 60 seconds.
Quality of stimulus if crucial. In any form of training. And that also exactly what Izumi Tabata pointed out in his protocol and also critiqued multiple times when the Tabata protocol gained popularity. Here is what he said:
What Izumi Tabata said that most miss
Following quotes by Izumi Tabata (2):
" While I am honored that people are doing it (the Tabata protocol), some are doing it wrong because they don't realize the intensity you need to work at ," says Tabata.
" All-out effort at 170% of your VO 2 max is the criterion of the protocol, " says Tabata, too.
How fast is 170% of the VO 2 max?
This is the question that will come up when considering the setup of the initial study and Tabata's statements above.
VO 2 max is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise; that is, exercise of increasing intensity. One of the most common tests is a ramp test or beep test where either watts on a bike or running are increased in increments. The longer an athlete can maintain the greater VO 2 max which can also be called maximal aerobic capacity.
So 100% of the VO 2 max is where the aerobic energy system works at full capacity. Beyond that the anaerobic system takes over. Which means efforts past 200% of VO 2 max are possible.
A great real life example is the marathon a discipline that highly taxes the aerobic system compared to the 100m Sprint a discipline that highly taxes the anaerobic system. The marathon world record is run at about 6 m/s compared to about 12 m/s of the 100m sprint world record. And for most elite marathon runners these 6 m/s are roughly 85% of their Top Speed. Which means they can maintain 85% of their Top Speed for over 2 hours. Consider that a Sprinter will have a VO 2 max that is even much lower the Sprinter will go easily at above 200% of VO 2 max during a 200m Sprint which would be about 20 seconds of work.
What did 170% of the VO 2 max mean in the Tabata study?
In the main study published by Tabata, the percentages of VO 2 max were determined. A 30 minute effort on a bike was considered 70% of VO 2 max. And then the Tabat protocol was done at 170% VO 2 max.
Using a bike for this example, most athletic males, such as used in the study can maintain 250 watts for 30 minutes, that calculates up to an average watt of 607 watts for the Tabata protocol. Go to the gym and try it yourself.
Can someone repeat and maintain a power output that high?
For some the criteria of 8 times 20 seconds effort at 170% of VO 2 max sounds slightly absurd, still its definitely not. Do the following experiment, go to the gym, get on a treadmill, start running, and increase the speed to 20 km/h. Then see how long you can maintain that speed. The current marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and hundreds of other runners who ran the marathon in under 2 hours and 10 minutes basically maintain these 20 km/h for a full marathon.
So 170% of the VO 2 max for a 4 minute Tabata protocol is definitely possible, just not for over 99% of the population.
Most likely the one person that be most commonly found in gyms all over the world are high-level Crossfit Regionals competitors. Get them on an Air Bike for a Tabata protocol, take the numbers, do the math and you will be most likely surprised at how well conditioned they are, which means how good they can maintain their power output even with the high-density demand of a Tabata protocol. So, for them a Tabata protocol actually makes sense from a general training perspective.
Has there been research done with non-elite athletes on the Tabata protocol?
Yes, there have been. And they also showed some results based on aerobic and anaerobic tests. Yes, its exercise so it will have an effect. There is a study that showed that 200 reps three times per week of curls with the big toe will increase the vertical jump. Which begs the question: Results in who?
The Tabata protocol is not a bad protocol. Its just misplaced and misinterpreted. And will not lead to significant results in fat loss which is the number one reason why people train and go to the gym.
Its similar to " The 400m Sprint Myth ", it works well if you can do it. And being able to do a program is not defined as surviving it. Training means progressive performance. Everything else is technically a waste of time.
So in what scenarios does Tabata Training make sense?
The simple answer: In the case of an athlete being conditioned enough to maintain a high average output during the 4 minutes of a Tabata protocol. Coming back to the initial study group of the Japanese Speedskating National Team, these athletes have outstanding aerobic and anaerobic capacity. If have worked myself with Hungarian Shorttrack Speedskating Nationalteam including a Jr. World Record Holder and six Olympic Finalists as well as many high-level Speedskaters with senior from countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Lativa, and juniors from over 15 countries, and all of they had "cardio" for days. Its common to reach lactic acid levels of 25 mmol/dl in training and its common for them to get in 15 to 25 hours of training per week. They are highly conditioned athletes. The protocol was designed for them. They can do it with minimal fatigue. They can do it with minimal fatigue between the first and the eight interval.
If you are conditioned to do that, you can use the Tabata protocol as a very time-efficient training option, too.
If you are NOT conditioned to do that, you can NOT use the Tabata protocol. It will make you tired. But not necessarily better. Especially when it comes improving conditioning and increasing fat loss.
The efficiency of the Tabata protocol is a common misconduct. Primarily based on one factor, the lack of measuring and structuring interval training programs. If people would track their interval training 99% would have figured out that the Tabata protocol is a waste of time for time, because they don't make progress.
Interval training needs to be programmed and periodized as every other form of training. Or one will waste time. Interval training is not about getting tired and hurt. Doing barefoot downhill 400m sprint will make one tired and hurt, too. It won't make one better though. Which makes it a waste of time.
Do Tabatas if you are conditioned to do them. 99% of the population are not. If one is part of that 99%, one needs different protools to make progress with intervals. Especially when it comes to using intervals to increase the rate of fat loss.
Don't just follow trends blindly. Program and periodize interval training wisely. To get actual results.
Trainers and coaches need to start to respect interval training. And trainers and coaches need to start to program and periodize interval training much better. This is why I have designed the YPSI Interval Training Program Design & Periodization Seminar , which will be held for the first time in english on February 23th/24th in Hasselt, Belgium.
Here another article on “2 Things I Know For Sure About Conditioning”
And another article on “Conditioning through Strength Training for Athletes”
And another important article on “Endurance & Conditioning”
(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 Exercise 28(10): 1327-30.
Picture: Rowing machines are a common option for Tabata Training.