Tabata intervals are popular. And just because something is popular doesn't mean it's smart and produces actual results. Especially in the fitness world. Over 99% of those who train their abs don't have six pack abs. Ditto for the number of people who go to the gym and don't get results, or do HIIT and still don't lose fat. The increasing popularity of Tabata training is another example of this phenomenon.
What is Tabata Training?
Tabata is a popular interval training protocol popularized by Professor Izumi Tabata, who published a study on it in 1996. In this, the protocol was carried out with elite speed skaters of the Japan Speed Skating National Team, in which significant increases in performance were shown in aerobic and anaerobic capacity tests. The Tabata protocol calls for 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest for 8 rounds, totaling 4 minutes at around 170% VO2 max. The first four of these variables are what is commonly known and the last is not, and this is the variable that makes Tabata training a waste of time for most.
Is Tabata Training Bad?
No it is not. Tabata training is very good. And it produces results, as demonstrated by the most popular of the Tabata studies (1). Just not for over 99% of people. It's like saying you have to run 100km a week to run a marathon. That is correctly. Still, over 99% of people cannot run 100km a week.
What's the problem with Tabata training?
In a simple statement: The average work output.
Since the programming and periodization of interval training is sorely neglected by almost everyone, we apply the Tabata protocol to strength training in the following example so that most can visualize it better. The Tabata protocol consists of 20 seconds work and 10 seconds rest in 8 intervals. That would be 4 reps at a 4010 tempo for a 20 second load. I choose the LH squat as a full body exercise for this example. Every 20 seconds load will be performed with maximum effort, that is, in strength training will be RM. So 4 reps is a 4RM (RM = rep maximum), so a 4RM is a weight where you can't do more than 4 reps.
Set 1 - 4 reps with 100kg
10 second break
Set 2 - 4 reps with 90kg
10 second break
Set 3 - 4 reps with 80kg
10 second break
Set 4 - 4 reps with 70kg
10 second break
And so on until you've completed all 8 sets
What will the weight of the 8th set be? And what will be the average weight used across all 8 sets? The last set can be expected to be somewhere between 40kg and the empty bar. This results in an average load of less than 60kg or 60% of 1RM. Which is not only a waste of time from a training perspective with minimal adjustments and a very high level of subjective fatigue, but also a far cry from the required high average power set out 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 largely irrelevant.
First , interval training will result in higher levels of acute fatigue than strength training because it is more concentrically dominant. So the drop-off in intervals is even bigger compared to strength training.
Second , all training is based on the same principle of adaptation to a stimulus, if the quality of that stimulus is too low, the adaptation is inferior. If you run 100km a week at 3m/s, you will not run a marathon at 6m/s. A total sprint distance of 1 km per week with an average 11.0 seconds 100m time does not result in a 9.9 second 100m sprint lead. And going back to the 400m sprint example from this article, running 400m in 120 seconds is not going to accelerate fat loss.
To further illustrate this point, here is also an example from interval training using a bicycle as in Izumi Tabata's original work. The bike used in the example is an air bike, as most these days can refer to training on an air bike. The Tabata protocol consists of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest in 8 intervals. At the advertised intensity of 170% of your VO2 max, these intervals are always very close to max effort. A sample workout will look like this in most cases:
Lap 1 - 20 seconds at an average of 1000 watts
10 second break
Lap 2 - 20 seconds at an average of 900 watts
10 second break
Round 3 - 20 seconds at an average of 800 watts
10 second break
Round 4 - 20 seconds at an average of 700 watts
10 second break
And so on until you have completed all 8 rounds
What will the average wattage be in the 8th round? And what will be the average wattage over 8 laps? One can assume that the last set will be between 200 and 400 watts. This leads to an average performance of less than 60% of the maximum performance. Which is not only a waste of time from a training perspective with minimal adjustments and a very high level of subjective fatigue, but also far from the performance of 170% of VO2 max specified in the Tabata protocol.
What most will do to avoid this fatigue and dropoff over the course of intervals is to slow down in the beginning so that they start off pretty easy in the first few intervals so as not to be completely "flat" right away. That makes sense. However, will not lead to the required performance of 170% of your VO2 max and thus the training effect and positive adjustments of the Tabata protocol. Since "relax" does not stress the system, a system will only adapt. The training effect can only manifest itself when the system is really stressed. This is the principle of supercompensation established by Hans Selyes. You can also run 400m in 120 seconds, that's easy, but it definitely doesn't have the same training effect as running 400m in 60 seconds.
The quality of a stimulus is crucial. In any form of training. And that's exactly what Izumi Tabata mentioned in his protocol and also publicly criticized several times when the Tabata protocol gained popularity. Here's what he said:
What Izumi Tabata said most don't know
Below are quotes from Izumi Tabata:
"While I'm honored that people train this way (the Tabata protocol), some get it wrong because they don't know the intensity they need to work at," says Tabata.
"A maximum load of 170% of VO2 max is the criterion of the protocol," says Tabata too.
How fast is 170% of VO2 max?
That's the question everyone will be asking given the design of the first study and Tabata's statements above.
VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen that can be absorbed by the body during maximum exertion. The determination of the oxygen absorption capacity is usually carried out by means of a breath gas analysis or the copper or beep test, in each case during a gradually increasing endurance exercise. The VO2 max is thus an indicator of the capacity of aerobic energy supply.
Thus, 100% of VO2 max is the point at which the aerobic energy system is operating at full capacity. Furthermore, it is primarily the anaerobic system that performs this function, which means that loads in excess of 200% of VO2 max are possible.
A great example from the training world is the marathon, a discipline that puts a heavy strain on the aerobic system, versus the 100m sprint, a discipline that puts a heavy strain on the anaerobic system. The marathon world record is run at around 6 m/s, compared to around 12 m/s for the 100m sprint world record. And for most elite marathoners, that 6m/s is about 85% of their top speed. This means they can maintain 85% of their top speed for over 2 hours. This means that you can exert about 95% of your VO2 max for 2 hours. Considering that a sprinter has a VO2 max that is much lower, the sprinter easily goes above 200% of his VO2 max during a 200m sprint, which is about 20 seconds of exertion.
What does 170% of VO2 max mean in the Tabata study?
In the study published by Tabata, the percentages of VO2 max were determined. A 30 minute effort on a bike was considered to be 70% of maximum VO2 max. And then the Tabata protocol was done at 170% VO2 max.
With a bicycle, most athletic men used in the study can sustain 250 watts for 30 minutes, which equates to an average wattage of 607 watts for the Tabata protocol. Go to the gym and test it yourself.
Can anyone repeat and sustain such high performance?
For some, the criterion of 8 times 20 seconds of exertion at 170% of VO2 max sounds a bit absurd, which it definitely isn't. Do the following experiment: go to the gym, get on a treadmill, start running and increase the speed to 20 km/h. Then test how long you can maintain this 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, complete those ~12 mph for a full marathon.
So 170% of VO2 max for a 4 minute Tabata protocol is perfectly possible, just not for over 99% of the population.
Most likely, the one person who has the necessary physical condition for the Tabata protocol is a good Crossfit Regionals athlete. Put him/her on an air bike for the Tabata protocol, measure the numbers, do the math and you'll be surprised at how good his/her condition will be, which means how good he/she's performing in watts at the high density of loading of a Tabata protocol. So, for a good Crossfit Regionals athlete, the Tabata protocol makes sense from a general training perspective.
Has the Tabata Protocol been researched with non-elite athletes?
Yes, these studies exist. And they also showed some results based on aerobic and anaerobic testing. However, not nearly at the level of the original study. This means that even the untrained can make progress through the Tabata protocol. There's also a study that showed that doing 200 reps of big toe curls three times a week increased bounce. Which begs the question: by whom and to what extent?
The Tabata protocol is not a bad protocol. It's just often out of place and misinterpreted. And will not produce significant fat loss results, which is the main reason people exercise and go to the gym.
Tabata Intervals are like " The 400m Sprint Myth ", it only leads to success if you can do it at high power. And being able to carry out a program is not defined as just doing the program. By definition, training means a progressive adaptation of performance. Anything else is actually a waste of time.
In which scenarios does Tabata training make sense?
The simple answer: An athlete needs to be in very good condition to maintain the high average power during the 4 minutes of a Tabata protocol. Going back to the first study group of the Japan National Speed Skating Team, these athletes have outstanding aerobic and anaerobic capacity. I myself have worked with the Hungarian national speed skating team from 2010 to 2013, including a junior world record holder and six Olympic finalists, as well as many high-level speed skaters from countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Lativa and juniors from over 15 countries, and all were in outstanding physical condition and perseverance. It has happened that the lactate level rose up to 25 mmol/dl during training, which is normal for a 15 to 25 hour training workload per week. The protocol was designed for them. In Genoa, it was the head coach of the speed skating national team who developed the protocol, Izumi Tabata was then only the sports scientist who qualified the results, which Tabata himself made public.
If you are in very good condition, you can use the Tabata protocol as a very time-efficient training option.
Unless you are in very good physical condition, DO NOT use the Tabata protocol. It will be very tiring and the performance increase will not be very large. Especially when it comes to improving stamina and accelerating fat loss.
The efficiency of the Tabata protocol is a common myth. Mainly based on the factor that there is no measurement and no structuring of the interval training program. If more exercisers measured and logged their efforts for each session of interval training, 99% of them would have found the Tabata protocol to be a waste of time because they're not making significant progress.
Interval training, like any other form of training, needs to be programmed and periodized. Or you're wasting your time. Interval training isn't about getting tired or feeling the "pain." Running barefoot 400m sprints downhill is also tiring and painful. However, it does not lead to an increase in performance. Which makes it a waste of time.
Do tabatas if you have the stamina to do them. 99% of the population does not have the condition. If you're in the 99%, you'll need different protocols and programs to get ahead with interval training. Especially when it comes to accelerating fat loss.
Don't follow trends blindly. Program and periodize the interval training in a meaningful, progressive and goal-oriented manner. For actual progress & success in training.
Trainers and coaches need to start respecting interval training. And trainers and coaches need to start paying more attention to program design and interval training periodization. For this reason I have developed the YPSI Interval Training Program Design & Periodization Seminar , which will be held next on 11./12. May will take place at the YPSI in Stuttgart.
Here's another article on " Why Classic Cardio for Fat Loss Is a Waste of Time ".
And an article in English that explains the difference between " endurance and condition ".
(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.
Image: Rowing machines are a popular option for Tabata training.