Tabata mania has taken over the fitness industry. On social media sites, there are hundreds of posts every day from trainers and exercise enthusiasts about their latest Tabata torture. Trainers are blogging about their must-have, life-changing Tabata workout. There are even full classes dedicated to the method called Tabata Bootcamps.
I first came across the “Tabata Protocol” in an article Dan John wrote in 2004 for Testosterone Nation and decided to try it not only for myself but with some of my clients too. Since that time I have used front squats and thrusters as John recommends, but also experimented with trap bar deadlifts, jump squats, and even lunges. They are hard: brutal even.
But I didn’t realize I wasn’t doing anything that resembled what Tabata had studied. I didn’t even understand what the heck the study was about. I just knew it was difficult. How disappointing when I actually took the time to read through the research. I thought I was onto something too. I mean, I read John’s article. That should have been enough, right?
In his article, John mentions that a Japanese researcher named Izumi Tabata found a way to “increase both anaerobic and aerobic pathways at the same time” (John, 2004). Sounded pretty good so I kept reading. The method itself, as John describes, is as follows: in 20 seconds do as many repetitions as possible. Rest for 10 seconds. Repeat this 7 more times for a total of 8 efforts. It lasts 4 minutes total and you should be crushed when you’re done. It didn’t sound pretty good it sounded… uh very nice-uh.
Dan John does a great job in his 2004 article mentioning how the timing of intervals was structured and how he noticed it is simple and “seems to fit across disciplines” (John, 2004). Using some creativity, John simply applied the timing Tabata used to other forms of exercise.
Since then, I believe the fitness industry (myself included) has definitely missed his point and has leaned on the Tabata workout with misinterpreted claims. Instead of following the protocols from the research study, Tabata workouts have become a bit of a fish story. The workouts have gone from a way to train two different energy pathways to being billed as the best way to burn fat, increase strength, build muscle, grow hair, make others sterile whenever you walk past them, and reverse global warming.
All the while, not many people have bothered to actually read the original research and understand what it really means let alone recognize it’s limitations. What is more amazing is the Tabata research study that is most often referenced was published in 1996. It’s taken us seventeen years to discover the research and then drive it into the ground and lose sight of the findings and purpose.
Another interesting note is Tabata wasn’t even the first to use different training methodologies to study how best to develop different pathways. Six years before Tabata’s study, Medbo and Burgers (1990) determined that anaerobic capacity could be improved with a six-week training period of high intensity intervals. This led to Gaiga and Docherty (1995) who found that an interval-training program impacts not only high intensity efforts, but aerobic power and performance as well. There are countless others.
But it was the simplicity in which Tabata created his intervals and it was the creativity in which John applied them that has spurred on all the rage. Humorously, Dr. Tabata even describes that the protocol used in his now-famous study was actually pioneered by Irisawa Koichi, head coach of the Japanese speed skating team (Ritsumeikan University, n.d.).
The Actual Research
Which brings us to the original Tabata Study. The experiment was completed using two different exercise protocols with 7 different test subjects (Tabata, Nishimua, Kouzaki, Hirai, Ogita, Miyachi, & Yamamoto, 1996).
Protocol 1 – Moderate Intensity Training
The first training method was completed on a bicycle ergometer for 60-minute sessions, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. Subjects rode at 70rpm and an intensity level set at 70% of VO2max. Keep in mind that VO2max is the benchmark number representing maximal aerobic capacity.
Protocol 2 – High Intensity Training
The second training method was also completed on a bicycle ergometer 5 days a week for 6 weeks. But of these 5 days, 4 days included high intensity intermittent training while one day included a mix of steady state and intervals.
The high intensity days required subjects to ride at 170% of VO2max for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat for a total of 8 times. Sessions were terminated if cadence dropped below 85rpm and if more than 9 efforts were completed, wattage or resistance on the bike was increased. Essentially, the researchers were taking the subjects to exhaustion and failure with a maximum of 3 minutes of extremely hard exercise spread out over 4 minutes time.
The fifth day included mixed training of 30 minutes at 70% of VO2max followed by only 4 sets of high intensity intervals.
The purpose was to see which training method could improve both aerobic (moderate intensity) and anaerobic capacity (high intensity).
From the study, Moderate Intensity Training resulted in an increase of aerobic capacity (measured as VO2max). Interestingly, High Intensity Training also showed an increase in VO2max. Even more interesting is VO2max increased at a faster rate from High Intensity Training than from Moderate Intensity Training during the first 2 weeks.
Moderate Intensity Training, however, showed no significant increase in anaerobic capacity while High Intensity Training resulted in an increase in the first 2 weeks then a diminishing increase from weeks 4 to 6.
What this tells us, according to Tabata et al. (1996), is that High Intensity Training can improve not only anaerobic capacity, but aerobic capacity as well. Basically, you get bigger bang for your buck and improve all-around work capacity by training with high intensity intervals.
This is what is now referred to as “The Tabata Protocol.” The method includes 20 seconds at high intensity followed by a 10-second rest and repeated for a total of 8 sets.
Some Things Worth Mentioning
Now before we all go off to exercise at high intensity, there are some things regarding the research and how it has been incorrectly utilized that need to be identified and explained.
It is important to note that both methods support the basic training principle of Specificity. In other words, if you train in a specific way, you develop a specific outcome: you get better doing the things you consistently do (Wathen, Baechle, & Earle, 2008). So there should be no surprise that if you train aerobically, you will change your aerobic capacity. If you train anaerobically, you will change your anaerobic capacity.
Some authors have concluded that the High Intensity Training protocol actually defies Specificity because it is anaerobic focused yet yields an aerobic change. However, it is extremely important to keep in mind the body is not binary. Meaning, it is never getting contributions from only one pathway but both aerobic and anaerobic pathways simultaneously. Levels of intensity and duration of activity determine which pathway is contributing more.
For instance for short events such as the 100-meter run, the anaerobic pathway accounts for nearly 100% of the energy production. Yet for a longer event like the 10,000-meter run, the aerobic pathway contributes nearly 100% of the energy production.
Specific to the Tabata intervals, the duration of time is roughly 2 to 4 minutes. At this duration (similar duration to 800- and 1,600-meter runs, round of boxing, 200- and 400-meter swims, 2,000-meter row, and 1,500-meter skate) there is nearly an even blend between aerobic and anaerobic pathways. Of these, shorter events (around 2 minutes) rely more on anaerobic contributions (60% anaerobic to 40% aerobic) while longer events (around 4 minutes) rely more on aerobic contributions (40% anaerobic to 60% aerobic) (Powers & Howley, 2009).
Now… wait for it… the High Intensity Training protocol consists of a total time of 4 minutes and a total work time of 2 minutes and 40 seconds, which puts it right in the middle of both anaerobic and aerobic pathways. In a Tabata interval set, contribution of energy production is roughly 50% anaerobic and 50% aerobic. There should be absolutely no surprise why the High Intensity Training protocol improves both aerobic and anaerobic capacity: it is specifically focused on developing both!
On the other hand, the Moderate Intensity Training sessions lasted for 60-minutes and at a much lower intensity. At this level of intensity and duration, contributions will be nearly 100% from aerobic pathways. So to say High Intensity is better for development of anaerobic capacity than Moderate Intensity is the most obvious and only answer based on the structure of the training protocols and the body’s natural energy pathways.
Both methods showed a significant increase in aerobic capacity. However, the difference between improvements is not significant. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that there is a best method for improving aerobic capacity.
Another important note as mentioned in Tabata et al. (1996), is that anaerobic exercise requires the body to produce lactate. But the Moderate Intensity Training in the first protocol “did not tax the lactate producing system much and therefore did not tax the whole anaerobic energy releasing system to any significant extent.” Because the Moderate Intensity Training did not tax the anaerobic system, measuring anaerobic capacity from this is a moot point. Of course it wouldn’t change.
Again, specific training will yield specific results.
Both training methods are also clear examples of Hans Seyle’s General Adaptation Syndrome. When we are first introduced to an exercise we go through the alarm phase, then we adapt in a resistance phase, and then we plateau in the exhaustion phase (Baechle & Earle, 2008). With General Adaptation Syndrome, if we persist with the same exercise for too long, we enter the exhaustion phase during which we no longer progress and are more apt to fatigue, soreness, and staleness (Baechle & Earle, 2008).
In the Tabata et al. (1996) study, as the subjects progressed over the course of six weeks, they continued to make improvements but at slower rates. In addition, the research actually shows that adaptation and exhaustion occurs faster when training under the High Intensity Training protocol than training with the Moderate Intensity Training protocol (Tabata et al., 1996).
So if someone is going to do nothing but High Intensity Training, they will plateau—and rather quickly. This is an important implication as we prescribe Tabata-type training for individuals. If done at the proper levels of intensity (170% of VO2max), shorter training cycles with scheduled rest periods are necessary to allow for adaptation while avoiding fatigue and staleness.
Another aspect of adaptation was seen from the Moderate Intensity Training. After this training method, subjects showed they were able to extend their duration of effort. In other words, subjects could last longer at the same level of intensity compared to their pre-training output. This adaptation is not a bad thing at all and is important when developing training progressions for individuals.
Along the lines of Specificity and General Adaptation an important point must be noted. The more a subject rides a bike, the better, more comfortable, and more efficient they become. In the research (Tabata et al. 1996), mechanical efficiency was assumed to be comparable before and after training.
Yet in my experience working with highly trained cyclists who specialize in the time trial, even in 4 weeks of training, speed can improve without the same needed increase in power output or energy requirement simply because of efficiency and adaptation to the bike itself. This was not accounted for in the Tabata study.
In addition, it was never clear if the same subjects were used for both protocols and if so, did they perform Protocol 1 before Protocol 2? Without being prepared for training effect, there is no way of knowing if just performing high intensity intervals is that much better than moderate intensity exercise for improving aerobic capacity.
Changes to Protocols
The Tabata et al. (1996) study has a questionable structural issue. Prior to the training methods being completed, subjects were tested at 90rpm. In the High Intensity Training method, they also rode at 90rpm. But in the Moderate Intensity Training, they rode at 70rpm.
This is a significant difference since energy output will be impacted at various pedal speeds and it is therefore not known if the subjects were actually performing at 70% of the VO2max during the Moderate Intensity Training.
The Truth is Out There
The original Tabata et al. (1996) study intended to provide an alternative exercise protocol that could impact both aerobic and anaerobic pathways. Since that study, Tabata has had his name plastered all over workouts around the World. But this marketing frenzy has just provided us with another buzzword. The workouts themselves are highlighted on magazine stands and countless web-sites and make the same claims as the study, but do not follow the structure used in the study.
The latest fad Tabata workouts:
- Include multiple 4-minute rounds. But the research just included one round per session.
- Are not pushing at 170% of VO2max. Just because the name of the first author, number of sets, and length of interval is the same as the study, does not mean the intensity is.
- Are not taking people to exhaustion. The study results were based on subjects pushing to exhaustion or failing completely. If this is not adhered to, the intensity and therefore the results are not reliable. As an example, Medbo & Burgers (1990) did not go as hard in their study and were not able to show the same impact that Tabata et al. (1996) did.
- Are not set from baseline numbers to ensure proper intensity levels and in nearly all cases level of intensity is not quantified at all, just referred to as “hard” or “high intensity.”
- Are using weights while the research was completed on bike ergometers.
- Only include hard intervals and only take one session into consideration. The research covered an exercise regimen that included an entire week of training and also included one day with moderate intensity steady state.
Some other claims about the protocol have become exaggerated. Some bloggers will tout Tabata workouts as the best way to burn the most calories and boost metabolism. It is true that more calories are burned at a higher intensity than at a lower intensity and variable efforts will burn more calories than steady state exercise.
However, keep in mind the High Intensity Training in Tabata et al. (1996) was performed at 170% of VO2max and only lasted for 4 minutes. Not many calories can be burned in 4 minutes even at the highest burn rate (intensity) possible. This just isn’t long enough to create a metabolic effect. So if the Tabata training method is followed as presented in the research, it won’t burn nearly enough calories. Besides, caloric burn was not the intention of the study (Tabata et al., 1996) and was not even stumbled upon as a benefit of high intensity training.
Hey, It’s Something, Right?
My intent here was to point out the realities of the study and what the results really show. It was to highlight the current fad claims against insights the research provided. I certainly don’t want to tell you to stop doing Tabata intervals unless they are causing pain or injury, are dangerous, do not meet the demands of your sport, or do not help you meet your goals.
I can sit here and hide behind my computer and pick apart a research study that was written seventeen years ago. Sure, I am confident that 99% of the trainers and coaches using the “Tabata Protocol” are not following the same approach used in the original study. Sure, the latest Tabata craze is actually just interval training with a cool name even if they aren’t properly set up, adhered to, or monitored.
But at least people are doing something. At least coaches, trainers, athletes, and exercisers are trying new creative ways to get people moving and at (hopefully) new levels of intensity they most likely never did before. At least by going at hard levels for this duration, people will be impacting their aerobic and anaerobic capacities positively and simultaneously.
Besides, the name just seems to roll off the tongue. Tabata: one of the coolest named exercises from one of the coolest last names on Earth. Well, coolest last name after Jak, of course!
Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (2008). Anaerobic exercise prescription. In Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (Ed.), Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd edition, p. 379). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Gaiga, M. & Docherty, D. (1995). The effect of an aerobic interval training program on intermittent anaerobic performance. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 20(4), 452-464.
John, Dan (August 24, 2004). The Tabata method: Fat loss in four minutes.
Medbo, J. & Burgers, S. (1990). Effect of training on the anaerobic capacity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 22(4), 501-507.
Powers, S. & Howley, E. (2009). Exercise physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ritsumeikan University (n.d.). Featured Researchers: Professor Izumi Tabata. Retrieved from http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/eng/html/research/areas/feat-researchers/interview/izumi_t.html/
Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28(10), 1327-1330.
Wathen, D. Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (2008). Periodization. In Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (Ed.), Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd edition, p. 508). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.