The Tabata Delusion

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Anyone in the strength and conditioning realm, or general fitness for that matter, has at one time or another come across the name ‘Tabata’ during their various fitness related rendezvous.

Most common would be those interested in interval training for fat loss.  Back in 1996 Dr. Izumi Tabata and his colleagues submitted what is now a well renowned (and often misinterpreted) study that revolutionized the fitness industry.

In fact, as my good friend, Mark Young, noted a while ago, “this study created such a rage that now hundreds of thousands of trainees around the world now include “Tabatas” as part of their fat loss programming.”

You name it, people have Tabata the shit out of it.  You have your garden variety bike and sprint intervals, which most people equate Tabatas with and are most familiar with. And now it’s not uncommon to see people performing Tabatas with the Olympic lifts (borderline asinine), deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, push-ups, pick your poison and it’s been done.

Hell I wouldn’t be surprised if Tabata cow tipping has entered the foray somewhere.  Anything to feel the burn, right?

Well now it seems it’s gaining steam elsewhere, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before it happened.

My other good friend, Emily Socolinsky (which many who read this blog consistently should recognize), posted the following picture on Facebook wall yesterday:

After ungluing my face from my keyboard, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “poor Mr. Tabata.”

You see what many out there think is Tabata training is anything but, and jives AGAINST what the actual study demonstrated.

Rather than try to explain it myself, I’m just going to defer to Mark Young again who wrote THIS post a while ago on some common Tabata Myths:

Despite the widespread use of this system, most people have absolutely no idea what the actual Tabata protocol is.  In the often cited (but rarely actually read) study, one group performed moderate intensity (70% VO2 Max) steady state cardiovascular exercise for one hour on 5 days per week.  This would be along the lines of what most people would be accustomed to doing in the gym.

The other group used the Tabata protocol which consisted of a 10 minute steady state warm up followed by 7-8 sets of 20 seconds at 170% VO2 Max on a mechanically braked cycle ergometer.  Subjects were given 10 seconds of rest between each set.

One more interesting part?  On 4 days of the week the Tabata group performed this exact protocol.  On the fifth day they actually did 30 minutes of steady state exercise at 70% VO2 Max followed by 4 Tabata style intervals.

So over the course of a week the Tabata group also did a total of 70 minutes of steady state exercise as well!

But here is where most people mess up.  VO2 Max is determined (in this case) by having the person ride the ergometer while measuring their oxygen uptake and gradually increasing the wattage until the person’s oxygen uptake no longer continues to rise.  This is considered 100% of their VO2 Max and it is often associated with complete exhaustion and/or vomiting.

Now imagine increasing the resistance on the bicycle to increase the wattage to 170% of that value.  That is the intensity required for a true Tabata interval.  Each interval is completed with maximal effort.

Despite what you’ve been told, front squats, resistance bands, or any other bodyweight routine you might be doing may replicate the time sequence of the Tabata protocol, but it is NOT a Tabata interval.  If your first set is performed at a submaximal weight that becomes maximal by the final set this does not even come close.  It might be hard, but it isn’t a Tabata.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking:  “what the hay Tony…..why are you chastising people for wanting to work hard, and what’s more, why are you playing semantics?”

Listen I’ll never downplay anyone who wants to work hard and take steps to improve their health. Moreover, I don’t necessarily care how they go about doing it.  Sure I have my own biases as to what I feel are the most ideal, time efficient, and most important of all, SAFE, ways to go about things given one’s goals and ability level; but in all, if someone is taking steps to improve their health, I’m all for it.

Who am I to judge?

I just think it’s funny (and by funny, I mean the exact opposite of funny) that the word Tabata has grown to encapsulate what mounts to, well, everything.

Tabata burpees; Tabata apple picking; Tabata recycling; Tabata Dating………..I’ll keep going!  I’ll do it!

And I’ll just add as an afterthought my fingers are crossed that there’s some semblance of assessment (and regression/progression system) to ascertain one’s ability level before starting one of these classes.

The last thing Dick from accounting, who’s 40 lbs overweight and hasn’t exercised since Patrick Swayze made stone-washed jeans cool, needs is to jump into a 30 minute class of mountain-climbers and lunges on day one.

I’d argue that if most people placed a premium on getting stronger, were CONSISTENT, didn’t automatically feel that they have to resort to 30 minutes of “HIIT” training to the point where they can’t feel the left side of their face, stopped crushing Frappuccinos, and actually went to bed at a decent hour (and drank more water), they’d be surprised with their results.

But I digress…

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