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What Is This ‘Tabata’ That Everyone at the Gym Is Talking About?

And why is it making me move so fast that I feel like I want to puke?

It’s the New Year, and you’ve decided to scrap together just enough cash to temporarily hire a trainer at the local outpost of a popular chain of gyms. “I’m going to have you try some Tabata training today,” he announces.

“That’s… fine… I guess,” you reply, having absolutely no earthly idea what he’s talking about. 

Your trainer leads you over to the circuit training room, and instructs you to get down on the mat. “I’m going to have you do burpees for 20 seconds,” he declares. “Then you’re going to rest for 10 seconds, and then you’re going to do 20 more seconds of burpees. We’ll continue until I say stop.”

You nod to signal your understanding, and when your trainer yells, “Go!” you struggle through eight burpees, and then stand there with your arms akimbo, panting mightily.

“Go!” your trainer screams again, much earlier than you expected. You produce five more burpees until the next intermission. Three minutes later, you’ve followed up those rounds with tallies of three, three, two, two, one and one burpees. As you lie prone on the training mat, your trainer says, “Great job! You’re done for the day!”

It’s not as though you could have trained more if you wanted to, but there are 35 more minutes left in your scheduled training session, and you can’t help but feel like you’ve been scammed.

Is “Tabata training” a reference to stealing a client’s money?

Far from it, actually. Your trainer just didn’t have any clue what he was doing with his Tabata regimen — and this has nothing to do with the fact that the inventor of the burpee never intended anyone to do more than four of them in a row.

Tabata training is based on an original study conducted by Izumi Tabata at Ritsumeikan University in Japan. During the study, Tabata had one group of Olympic speedskaters engage in 60 minutes of steady-state aerobic training at about 70 percent of their VO₂ max (the maximum amount of oxygen the body can take in during exercise) for five days per week. He asked a second group to engage in four days of 20-second cycling sprints followed by 10 seconds of rest for eight total cycles amounting to a maximum of four minutes per workout. Following these four days of four-minute workouts, the group participated in a single one-hour aerobic session at 70 percent of their VO₂ max.

At the culmination of six training weeks, the steady-state aerobic group had achieved a higher VO₂ max, but the sprinting group had achieved a VO₂ max that was nearly identical and made up considerable ground on the steady-state group in the process. To put this into perspective, the two groups had nearly identical aerobic tolerances after six weeks, but one group had exercised for 300 minutes, and the other had exercised for only 76 minutes. 

Moreover, the group that exercised for only 76 minutes had greater anaerobic capacity, meaning it had made improvements with respect to maintaining and extending its durations of explosive exercise.

Cool! So what does this mean for me?

Probably nothing, but we’ll take it one item at a time.

Are you hoping to compete in a 5K but you have very limited time to train, and you can only dedicate one full hour’s worth of time to train for it on the weekend? This creates a perfect one-to-one scenario for making the most of Tabata’s methodology if you want to be a tiny bit more competitive with the rest of the 5K field. You can drive over to the high school track, or better yet, a specially mapped-out course in your neighborhood. That way, you can sprint for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then sprint 20 seconds back the other way and rest for another 10 seconds. 

After only eight grueling sprints and four minutes worth of expended energy, you can hit the showers and mosey on off to work. Then you can subject yourself to a far lengthier, but less taxing running day on Saturday and still feel like you’ve adequately trained to be competitive in your upcoming race. As a bonus, you’ve also trained yourself to be competitive in the 200-meter run in your region’s Masters Track and Field Championship.

What would be a scenario where the Tabata Protocol wouldn’t be all that helpful to me?

Here’s a scenario where Tabata’s program won’t align with your goals: You’ve agreed to stand up as a groomsman in your buddy’s wedding, but the pants and jacket to your 1962 James Bond Thunderball tuxedo are both a couple sizes too small. You’ve only got two weeks to go before you’ll be required to fit into the prescribed attire, and if you tried to squeeze into it now, the fit would be so tight that you’d be belting out sounds higher than Tom Jones in his prime every time you spoke. As such, you opt to take a few pointers from this “Tabata Protocol” you’ve heard something about and decide to exercise for 76 minutes per week.

“I pity those suckers who do cardio for 30 minutes or more each day!” you snicker to yourself.

When the two weeks have concluded, don’t be shocked to discover that the tuxedo fits worse than ever. Think about it this way: When you did steady-state cardio, you were in constant motion for 60 minutes. That much is obvious. Now, when you opted into the Tabata Protocol, you didn’t trade 60 minutes of motion for 4 minutes; you traded 60 minutes for two minutes and 40 seconds of motion, because only 40 seconds out of each minute are dedicated to movement. There hasn’t been a workout devised by man that can burn anywhere near as many calories in under three minutes of explosive movement as someone else can burn in 60 minutes of walking, and this remains true even if you’re the scientifically engineered offspring of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. 

What’s the takeaway? Don’t assume that an improvement in performance will automatically be accompanied by an improvement in appearance, or more specifically, by a decrease in body fat. Conditioning your body to endure anaerobic stress may help you to make up ground on the people who’ve only been training aerobically, but you’re never going to trick your body into replicating the fat burn that accompanies entire hours of aerobic training.