I was in a cycling class the other day and the instructor called out, “Next, we’ll do a Tabata drill.” You’ll see Tabata classes on studio schedules or hear the phrase used as a way to label a set of intervals. But, is this really right? Is this what Tabatas really are…or has this researcher’s name been co-opted as just another way to describe hard interval training?

What is a Tabata?


sprintingThe whole Tabata thing comes from one Japanese physician and researcher, Dr. Izumi Tabata. In 1996, he published a study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise comparing a traditional 6-week workout protocol that involved exercising at about 70 percent of VO2Max for an hour, five times per week to a high-intensity interval challenge that consisted of eight sets of 20 seconds at 170 percent (yes 170%)  of VO2 Max followed by 10 seconds of rest. The intervals took just 4 minutes to complete.

The seven (yes, only seven in the original study) participants who did these crazy intervals five days of the week for six weeks, did demonstrate slightly greater improvements in their aerobic capacity as compared to the aerobic exercisers. But, their anaerobic capacity increased by 28 percent – far more than the statistically insignificant improvements in the first group’s anaerobic capacities.

But, What Does This Mean?

“Eureka!” Says the exercise world – we’ve got the golden ticket to extraordinary fitness. Just implement these intervals that Tabata used in the study and watch people improve their fitness – in just minutes!

But, there are some problems with the initial Tabata prescription:

  • It’s flipping hard to reach 170% of your VO2Max
  • 4 minutes, even at this crazy intensity, doesn’t burn a lot of calories
  • Untrained people, or those who’ve taken a long fitness break, might struggle to maintain the intensity necessary to get the benefits
  • The original Tabata drill is designed for 4 minutes of work, not to be inserted along with other drills in an hour-long workout consisting of cycling, running or other aggressive cardio
  • The original Tabata drill used a cycling ergometer – a piece of equipment that’s not common to gyms; not barbells, burpees, treadmills or spin bikes — what you find used for so-called “Tabatas” out in the gym world

Tabata has simply become synonymous with interval training that involves 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. A lot of time that work in a class (or your own workout) doesn’t come close to 170% of your VO2Max – it’s nearly impossible to keep up more than eight rounds at this intensity. Tabatas are also inserted as “just another” drill along with other cardio pushes in a cycling or other “class” – so again, the Tabatas are watered down. Yes, you may go 20 seconds faster or harder – but are you really pushing to the point that’s going to create the dramatic results of the original study?

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but I guess my beef is with calling a workout or drill a “Tabata” when it really isn’t. Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics, but it’s just plain inaccurate and misrepresenting. I know we live in a world of alternative facts, but if you’re looking for the particular results the workout promises – you may be disappointed when they don’t come. Alternative facts don’t change reality.

Burn Some Calories

To solve the calorie-burning problem with Tabata, researchers tried to increase the number of rounds of “Tabatas” untrained participants did to burn more calories. The research, published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, had 16 participants do four rounds of Tabata intervals (meaning they did eight intervals of 20 seconds at 170% of VO2Max followed by 10 seconds of rest, took a minute to recover, then repeated  three more times.) The participants burned between 240 and 260 calories in the 20 minutes – much more than the estimated 54 calories burned in the original 4-minute protocol.

From that perspective, the study successfully showed you could incorporate Tabata-style drills and burn calories. The participants labeled the workouts as feeling “hard” – no kidding. But, they did “tolerate” them well, according to researchers – although by the end an increase in lactic acid was starting to accumulate, indicating that they couldn’t have kept up the intensity for much longer. The Tabatas in this study used challenging body-weight exercises, not the ergometer.

Note that the study participants were already trained – so no telling how beginners would feel with such an intense workout. Plus, since the study measured just two workouts, so it’s also not clear if the participants would have the same long-term positive affect on anaerobic abilities. But, it does indicate that you could theoretically apply the interval pattern of Tabatas to a longer workout and burn calories.

Is the Pain of Tabata Worth It?

The question also becomes: Is a Tabata workout superior to classic approaches in training? A study published in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that it’s not. Researchers compared steady state training at 90 percent of VO2Max for 20 minutes, a 4-minute Tabata protocol and 13 sets of 30 second 100% VO2Max intervals followed by 60 seconds of recovery.

They found that while all the drills increased VO2 Max and peak power output after 8 weeks of training, participants found the Tabata workouts unpleasant and the other ones far more tolerable. The researchers concluded that Tabata training may be effective, but it’s not necessarily better than other more traditional forms of high-intensity workouts.

Parting Thoughts

  • Next time your instructor throws a Tabata into the MIDDLE of a workout know, it’s not a Tabata.
  • The true 4-minute Tabata protocol is effective in increasing your anaerobic capacity, but doesn’t burn a lot of calories. So if you’re short on time, but want to get stronger – it’s a go!
  • Fit folks can pile together three or four Tabata 4-minute protocols into a short, effective calorie-burning workout. But it won’t be easy.
  • You can get nearly the same effects of Tabatas by working at a high intensity or doing alternative interval workouts. They may take 20 minutes, rather than 4 minutes, but will feel a lot more pleasant.

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