The Tale of Tabata
By Nick Barringer MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (EIEIO)
If you are a fitness enthusiast you may have heard the term “Tabata” thrown around referring to 20 second activity with 10 seconds of rest style workout. What many may not know is where that term comes from and why it should change how you train.
Dr. Izumi Tabata is a Japanese Exercise Physiologist most famous for his research on interval training.
Dr. Tabata and his colleagues published a paper in 1996 that drastically changed the way many athletes train. Dr. Tabata was working with elite speed skaters and conducted an experiment where participants rode a cycle ergometer at 70% of their maximal oxygen uptake (VO2), 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. This is pretty standard endurance training and probably equates to the long slow Monday morning unit runs many of the Rhino Den readers are all too familiar with, minus the strong smell of ethanol from the festivities of the weekend. As expected, aerobic capacity increased a respectable 9.4% over the six weeks of training; which is not too shabby. However, anaerobic capacity did not improve at all. So essentially they got better at going long and slow but did not get better and going hard and fast.
Now things get interesting. Dr. Tabata then took a group and had them ride the same cycle ergometer, but this time at 170% of their VO2 max for 20 seconds followed by a 10 second rest for seven to eight sets. The subjects completed this protocol just as the previous group had for 5 days a week for 6 weeks total. When this group was tested they had aerobic capacity gains along the same lines at the first group but increased their anaerobic capacity by 28%.
Just in case your coffee has not kicked in yet; I just told you that a group working out a mere 4 minutes per day got significantly better results than a group working out 60 minutes per day. Holy exercise efficiency Batman!
Now this is how to make the good Dr. Tabata’s research work for you:
1. No more “I don’t have time” excuse when it comes to your workout. You don’t have 4 minutes; really?!?! Feel free to use this as a weapon the next time your friend tries to get out of a scheduled workout.
2. It has to be an exercise that causes significant metabolic demand. Train movements not muscles; that means no muscle isolation movements should be used in the protocol. So leave the Tabata “curls for the girls” plan for the cast of the Jersey Shore. Oh and speaking of curls; don’t forget The Damn Few’s valuable lesson on what not to do in a squat rack.
3. Remember, it is all about intensity. The biggest mistake I have seen athlete’s making during a Tabata protocol make is they pace themselves. The protocol is all about red lining. If at the end of 4 minutes you feel like you could go another round, you did not go hard enough regardless of your fitness level. But if after the first 20 second round you go into the 10 second rest thinking you are going to die and there is no way you will make it 7 more rounds; you are doing it correctly.
Now if at any point during the protocol you reach a level of exhaustion you deem worthy of quitting just remember there are two types of pain.