What exactly is Tabata training?
Over the past few years Tabata and other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts have become all the rage. This type of cardio training which relies upon short bursts of all out exertion followed by rest periods has largely usurped the previous practice of steady state cardio. Tabata and HIIT programs promise improved cardio fitness and better fat burning than slow and steady cardio, and all within a much shorter workout time. When all you need is about 15 mins to see results, not having enough time is not much of an issue.
With all the Tabata and HIIT talk and classes going on, it’s surprising that so few people understand what the a real Tabata workout is.
It’s a form of HIIT, but not all HIIT workouts are Tabata workouts. The real Tabata workout has actually been licensed and trademarked by NBC Universal in the US, but the concept and training method is in the public domain so there is nothing stopping anyone from doing a Tabata workout.
The history of the Tabata workout goes back to an academic paper published by Izumi Tabata and colleagues back in 1996. The workout itself had earlier been introduced by Kouichi Irisawa, head coach of the Japanese National Speed Skating Team to improve skaters’ performance - when thinking about speed skaters think big powerful quads with lungs that that don’t quit.
In the research study they were basically trying to get scientific evidence that this workout that the skaters had been doing was useful in increasing their performance. Specifically it was investigating both aerobic capacity (ability to perform with enough oxygen in the body- think a long run) and anaerobic capacity (ability to perform with an oxygen shortage in the body- think sprints).
For the research study itself, Professor Tabata used 14 young fit males, many of whom were on varsity teams, and divided them into two groups of seven. Each of these groups followed a six week exercise protocol in which they worked out on a high tech exercise bike five days per week. One group did steady state cardio for an hour at a time. They set the level of difficulty at 70 percent of maximal oxygen consumption which would be considered moderate intensity, and the RPMs were maintained at 70 throughout the hour.
The other group did exhaustive HIIT of 20 seconds at a time followed by 10 second rest periods for a total of seven to eight sets with each session preceded by a 10 minute warm-up. The level of difficulty for the 20 seconds was set to 170% maximal oxygen consumption which would be considered nearly all out, and the RPMs had to be kept above 85. They did this only four times per week and on the fifth day they did a 30 minute moderate intensity steady state ride followed by four sets of the HIIT. This fifth day was not done to exhaustion like their other full HIIT workouts. For both groups, as the participants improved or were able to ride harder or faster, the difficulty was increased so that they worked within the desired ranges. In terms of total time working out per week, there was a big difference in that the slow and steady group did 300 minutes and the HIIT group only did 88 minutes.
While many workouts are now called Tabata, the real Tabata experience needs to take the hard 20 seconds to near exhaustion and by the end of the 4 minutes, the athlete should not be able to do another 20 seconds at that level. If they can, then the resistance on the bike needs to be increased. The intensity of the workout is to such a level that many of the so-called Tabata workouts that can be found online or at gyms, aren’t true Tabata workouts. They may be 20-10 HIIT workouts or similar timed workouts, but they aren’t Tabata. In order to reach the required level of Tabata intensity, you need to be doing the right exercises that will push the body sufficiently. A circuit with jumping jacks, reverse lunges, skipping rope or the plank, just won’t be able to get you to the level of intensity desired. You need exercises like sprints, cycling, or burpees, to be considered true Tabata. This doesn’t mean that these aren’t great workouts, they just aren’t actual Tabata workouts.
By now it should be obvious that Tabata is not for the faint-of-heart because of its high intensity and very short recovery periods. In fact, 10 seconds aren’t really enough time to recover, which is a key to the success of Tabata training. We know this because in 1997, Tabata and colleagues did a follow up study examining the existing Tabata workout at 20 and 10 and compared it to a HIIT program of four to five sets of 30 seconds all out with two minutes of rest. This study was done in a very similar manner with fit young males, and on stationary bikes. They found that the existing 20 and 10 was more effective and concluded that it was the short rest periods that made the difference.
So what did they learn from these studies? The original 1996 study that started all of this taught us that Tabata training produced superior results when compared to the steady state cardio. While the steady state cardio did produce meaningful improvements in V02 max, remember participants were only working the aerobic (with oxygen) system through this type of training, they saw no improvement in their anaerobic performance.
Where it gets interesting is that the seven participants doing the Tabata workout saw meaningful improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic capacity. In fact they had a 28% increase in their ability to train anaerobically (without oxygen) and all of this was achieved in a fraction of the training time. These findings have been one of the major sources of research behind the HIIT craze, but it’s important to remember that the 1997 study showed the importance of minimal rest between hard sets. This means that there is something special to the 20 and 10 when compared to HIIT sessions with longer rest periods. What this tells us is that Tabata or perhaps HIIT with short rest periods produces far greater results than steady state cardio, and it does this in a fraction of the time. A fear of Tabata training is that it is hard and a serious commitment, but the good news is that it only lasts a few minutes.
You may be wondering where’s the evidence for fat burning or the after burn, but Tabata didn’t originally investigate that facet of HIIT. Fortunately, there is a lot of recent research that has investigated this aspect of HIIT and most of the findings are quite positive.
Dr. Kevin Schoepp is an educator and life-long fitness enthusiast.