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.
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
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.