Why Tabata Fails

Why Tabata Fails
By Kate Vidulich

High intensity interval training (HIIT) has exploded onto the mainstream fitness scene, and is a prominent part of every intelligent person’s fat loss training program. With this increased exposure, it’s no wonder someone got a hold of the scientific research on interval training and spun it the wrong way.

Thousands of trainees are using one particular type of interval training – without a clue what they’re really doing.

Tabata

Professor Izumi Tabata and friends in Japan created this 4-minute ultra intense protocol and tested it on his Olympic speed skating guinea pigs in 1996.

Today’s version of Tabata in commercial gyms is far from the real deal. Tabata training requires “exhaustive intermittent training consisted of seven to eight sets of 20-s exercise at an intensity of about 170% of VO2max with a 10-s rest between each bout.” That quote is from the study itself (1).

It’s time to dispel the myths right now…

Can the real Tabata protocol please stand up? (Rap on).

Why Tabata Fails

Mistake #1: You’re NOT doing Tabata

Hands up if you’ve read the study? If you’re not a science fan, it’s like alien language. Despite the widespread use of this training protocol, no one actually has a clue what it really means.

Sure, so I’ll enlighten you now.

The control group of athletes did steady state (70% VO2max) training 5 times per week, similar to what most people consider cardio at the gym.

The Tabata group did a 10-minute steady state warm up followed by 7-8 continuous cycles of 20 seconds at 170% VO2 max, then 10 seconds of rest on a braked cycle ergometer.

In the original study, the athletes trained 4 times per week using Tabata, PLUS another day of steady-state training at 70% VO2 max with the other group.

That’s right, over a course of a week, the athletes did one day of steady state cardio as well.

Let go back for a moment.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to sprint at 170% VO2 max for 2 seconds, let alone 20 seconds?

That is where most people screw up. You measure VO2 max by getting someone to ride a cycle ergometer while measuring oxygen uptake, and increasing the wattage until oxygen uptake no longer continues to rise. That’s 100% VO2 max.

Think total exhaustion. I’ve been there. You feel dizzy, nauseous and want to go home. It’s not like a hill sprint in spinning class.

Now you increase the wattage to 170% of that value.

That’s 170% VO2 max. Go for 20 whole seconds. Imagine how fun that is (insert sarcasm).

You. Might. Die.

That is the intensity for a TRUE Tabata interval. Every single interval is truly an ultra-maximal effort. It feels more like an hour of exercise.

The thought of doing that myself, let alone my clients, makes my stomach churn. Listen. Nausea, vomiting and dizziness are not welcome in any of my training programs.

First of all it’s NOT enjoyable for one second, which means the likelihood of you sticking with the program is very slim. Plus, I’m really bad at cleaning up mess, especially bodily fluids.

So as you can see, the research is very difficult to apply to the real world.

Mistake #2: It’s Effective for Fat Loss

Nowhere in the Tabata study did they mention anything about its effectiveness for fat loss. They didn’t even study it.

So sure, maybe it does work for accelerating fat loss, or not. It’s unknown. I personally think Tabata would work for fat loss, (well it better right?) but it’s never been tested against any other interval training method.

The original Tabata protocol was created for performance base and tested aerobic and anaerobic output of the athletes.

Yes, you may lose fat doing Tabata training, but according to this research protocol, it’s unclear.

Mistake #3: Using the Wrong Equipment

From the research study, you can see they used a cycle ergometer. It’s a special, expensive bike found in University research labs. You can’t buy one from the sports shop down the road and ride it to work.

What type of exercises can you do at 170% VO2 max? Ah, not many. The treadmill becomes the deadmill. It’s really dangerous, because literally you can fall off and splatter yourself.

Some folks at the gym are doing “Tabata” squats, “Tabata” burpees, or God forbid, “Tabata” crunches. It’s NOT the real deal.

In fact, you don’t even come close to the intensity. Most of the sets are submaximal, and maybe by the final set you get close to a maximal effort. But as we determined in the first point, every single interval is more than a maximal effort.

This is not to say doing 4 minute intervals with 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest are completely worthless or wrong. The Canadian study conducted at the Queen’s University in 2012 proves otherwise (2). They showed doing 20-10 intervals of bodyweight exercises does work for increasing cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, but it’s not the same as true Tabata.

Keep on rocking the 20-10 intervals if it’s working for you. Just don’t call it Tabata when it’s not. Think of a more creative name, like “20-10 intervals”.

You can find out more about my unique replacement for interval training here at Fat Loss Accelerators.

Kate Vidulich, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer

References:
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 Exerc 28 (10): 1327–30.

2. McRae G, Payne A, et al. (2012). Extremely low volume, whole-body aerobic-resistance training improves aerobic fitness and muscular endurance in females. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 37(6):1124-31.

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  • Eduardo

    hi Kate,

    Very nice post, thank you. You said that the Tabata et al did not study the impact of such particular kind of interval on fat loss, right? And about the Canadian study? What is the relationship between “cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance” and fat loss? (sorry, I’m only an economist)

    Best,

    • Kate

      Hi Eduardo,
      Thanks for the reply! Yes, the Tabata research did not study the effectiveness of this style interval on fat loss. Neither did the Canadian study, so it’s unclear if the 20-10 interval works for fat loss.
      However, the Canadian study did show you can do Turbulence Training bodyweight exercises in 20-10 intervals and get the same cardiovascular fitness benefit as doing 30mins treadmill running at 85%VO2 max, plus muscular endurance benefits.
      Other scientific research has proven the effectiveness of interval training for fat loss, but not this particular study. Hope that helps!
      Kate

      • Eduardo

        Hi Kate,

        Thank you for your reply! I was just wondering whether or not best cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance imply more fat loss. I just got the TT HWR for my wife and try some of the 20-10 workouts myself!!

        Kind regards,

      • Eduardo

        ** Edit: I just got the TT HWR for my wife and will try some of the 20-10 workouts myself!!

      • Kate

        Awesome Eduardo!

        Keep us posted on your progress and enjoy the workouts.

        Kate

  • Chin Eng

    I will correct myself for calling it Tabata from now onwards. It will be 20-10 intervals. Great article you have written there. Thanks!

    • Kate

      Happy to help Chin!

  • Marc

    Thanks for the article. I’ve been hearing about and reading articles on Tabata for a while now, but I’ve never heard the details you mentioned here.

    20 – 10 Intervals it is!

    • Kate

      Thanks Marc.

      Keep on rocking the 20-10 intervals!

  • Craig Ross

    This article is absolutely spot on. There doesn’t seem any end to the slack talk around exercise. I did one Tabata session – 15 kph up a 15% slope, twenty on ten off until collapse. It was horrific. I tasted metal for a week and never did it again. At 5 liters of oxygen consumption 170% is 8.5 liters. The only slight error in the above article is the account given of what VO2 max is. It isn’t the maximum you can do on a bike, it’s the maximum you can do as you go anaerobic. Very few people would be able to go up to their anaerobic threshold just using their legs on a bike. Their legs would be exhausted long before they were anywhere near their VO2 max. Many athletes struggle to hit VO2 max using their whole body and running up the slope of a treadmill. Tabata was dealing with speed skaters, it seems. Well, yes…….they (and maybe cyclists) would be the only people able to produce the 900 watts for 20 seconds (or whatever) required to reach 170% of their VO2 max.

  • Pe-on

    It is not true that the 170% vo2 max is an absolute all out. Top level hill climbers could put out 400-500w max sustained for 10min+(roughly equiv to 90%+ vo2 max), and the top level road sprinters (who’s vo2 max is much lower than the 400-500w) can pump out 1600w, they they are putting out much more than 400% vo2 max.

    Think of going up a pretty hard hill at 60rpm and you are breathing pretty hard (around 85% vo2 max), then double the leg speed for 20 seconds (not uncommon when you are making a break from the pack or doing mid race sprints). You are not likely going to die on the first few, but the short recovery period is what catches up with you.

    It is probably true that 99% of the people doing tabata in the gym are not close to doing it at all, but that’s because the instructors are not teaching it right.

  • starskeptic

    Thank you for this; the only thing I’d add is to give credit where credit is due – Kouichi Irisawa is the Japanese speed-skating coach who introduced the interval, which had been used for several years before Tabata studied it.

  • RedPlumpTomato

    When we first learned about this at the gym, I couldn’t remember the name of the guy who invented this method of training so now, we just call it: Sushi… So in a sense, we aren’t doing Tabata, we are doing a modified form, Sushi.. Some days we have full order Sushi 20 seconds, 10 second rest x 8, and other days we do half order, extra wasabi… 🙂
    Everyone, do the Sushi!!!

    • Ha, that’s amazing.

  • bernardo martins

    I read the original paper, you are complete right. Tabata protocol is a lab think, potentially risky. But it provedor that some cardio benefits may be reached with short duration routine.

  • SquawPeakHiker

    Thank you for stating this so succinctly. With great frustration, I have been reviewing what every bro-scientist and his sister has been saying about the Tabata Protocol, only to find that apparently NOBODY can apply academic discipline to the topic…until now.

  • Boos Myller

    Don’t listen to that liberal website Cracked next time. They talked about Izumi-San, but I knew it was a bunch of bull.

  • Jeroen P.

    THANK YOU. Getting sick of people calling things tabata while they still talk while doing an “effort”. If you are not very close to vomiting at the end of the 8th interval, not seeing stars and not feeling horrible, you did it wrong.

  • Zarko Juraga

    So what type of exrcises would you recommend to an average amateur willing to get close to tabata protocol? i used to do burpees, Jumpin jacks ,low skip ,M. climber .
    I found that lot of exercises is hard to get to maximum effort and it’s very hard to get to that VO2 170%.

  • Marko Juraga

    So what type of exrcises would you recommend to an average amateur
    willing to get close to tabata protocol? i used to do burpees, Jumpin
    jacks ,low skip ,M. climber .
    I found that lot of exercises is hard to get to maximum effort and it’s very hard to get to that VO2 170%.
    that before was my dad’s profile ,i’m reposting from mine anyway the same issue is in question.
    what can i do to get to that tabata protocol