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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  • PJ Striet

    If you do a true tabata workout (and I have), as laid out in the study, after 4 minutes, you will be physically incapable of doing anything else outside of possibly calling 911 (and that might be out of necessity).

    People who are primarily interested in strength and physique enhancement would be far better off ditching all the insane, drive yourself into the ground HIIT stuff, and focusing on lifting weights, walking or road biking for cardiac output work, and, most importantly, eating right. In strength and physique are your goals, I really don’t think much, if any, higher intensity cardio work is necessary and will likely do nothing more than drain you and impede recovery.

    If performance is your goal, you play a field sport, etc., then yes, you’ll need to develop certain energy systems-and maintain those systems-which requires some higher intensity conditioning work. But if you want to just get strong and jacked, you’d be better off walking, lifting and eating right.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Couldn’t agree more PJ. While I’m a bit biased more towards the strength side of things (as I know you are too), it still comes down to variety and hitting all our bases. And not relying on short-cuts, or fancy marketing….;o)

  • TheGordonCarrier

    So if a person is say 23% bf and is currently cutting, would your recommendation be to lift weights and only do low intensity cardio?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Nope, not at all. I’d say do what you enjoy doing and what you’ll be consistent with. I wasn’t trying ti imply that “Tabata” styled HIIT training doesn’t work, but it’s not the end all, be all. And, as Mark noted in his Tabata Myth article (which I linked to), there’s been no research to suggest that Tabatas are any more effective in fat loss than any other protocol.

      I will say that I feel most people should train with strength in mind and setting performance based goals. I feel that that is a better way to stay on point and not allowing the scale to dictate progress.

  • Jen Keck

    It drives me wild to hear people say that they “took a Tabata class”, or “did Tabata sit-ups”, etc etc

    • TonyGentilcore

      It drives me to drink. It really gets my goat. It drives me bonkers. Well, you get the idea…..;o)

  • http://thefitink.com/ Roland Denzel

    Do you even tabata?

    • TonyGentilcore

      LOL – good one Roland!

  • B Gorinski

    Tabada. Tabada. Tabada. When you keep reading/saying it the beginning and end of the word blend into each other and it starts sounding like “eh, too bad.” And that’s pretty much how I feel about Tabada Apple Picking.
    Nice entry Tony ; )

    • TonyGentilcore

      Tabata tomata…..;o) Thanks B – and lets not leave Mark out of the picture since I essentially snaked his original entry.

  • Chris Collins

    Tony great article as always. I think the fitness community is a little like a game of telephone where the system or training style starts out one way and ends up bastardized or watered down along the way. My suggestion get your goals in order read “program design for dummies” by TG and get it together.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Couldn’t agree more. And like I said, it’s not like I’m against people taking the class or working hard…….but as you noted, it’s essentially the worst game of telephone ever played.

  • janjamm

    I’m going to go have a Tabata Latte.

  • Barath

    Tabata Dating: Piss off your date for 20 seconds, apologize profusely for 10 seconds. Repeat. After seven rounds, you’re so exhausted it’ll be refreshing when she throws her drink in your face.

    • Chris

      I’m pretty sure thats just called marriage.

      • TonyGentilcore

        hahahahaahaha. Burn (on marriage).

  • Timbuktoofat

    The Tabata Delusion – sound like a perfect Robert Ludlum book title!!

    • TonyGentilcore

      YES! Nice call.

  • brent

    THIS RESPONSE WAS DONE TABATA STYLE!

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  • Nate Coogan

    Good one, Tony. Back in my middle distance running days (many years ago!) we did killer interval training and repetition training but only at prescribed and limited times in the training cycle. At some point there was an inevitable point of diminishing (and negative) returns, not to mention injury risk. Most of the other training was aerobic (I know, a bad word these days) base training.

  • Lauren L

    Just finished my tabata blog reading for the day.

    You’re totally right Tony. At Perform Better LB a couple weeks ago, Martin Rooney said it best: “When it becomes everything, it becomes nothing.”

    • TonyGentilcore

      Martin is a fantastic speaker, and one smart dude that’s for sure.

      • Lauren L

        Man I’m just seeing your reply now. I’m rereading what I said and am realizing that my stupid tabata joke made absolutely no sense *facepalm Nice going me

  • Jason Owings

    Pretty sure if they did a true tabata workout the disclaimer for the class would read…only for those extremely difficult to kill and wish to have a near death experience in the next 15 minutes

    • TonyGentilcore

      LOL – so true.

  • Evolution fitness Tucson

    Once the fitness industry gets a hold of something they destroy it. Tabatas as a training protocol are for the mindless.

  • Baresark

    I used to do true Tabata Protocols with sprints, jumping rope, strait punches the heavy bag and shovel hooks on the heavy bag. You basically can’t stand when you are done. It was some of the hardest work you can do. That is why any other work I wanted to get in was done before that, not after. I knew a guy who thought Tabata would make an awesome warmup. I agree with this article, the term is used far far far to haphazardly to be represented accurately today in the gym environment.

    I was talking to this girl at the gym who is very nice and very driven. She was trying to compete in figure competitions and she obviously has worked very hard to get there. But she is also young and doesn’t diet well. She basically burned her metabolism out by doing far far too much cardio and under eating by far too much. I was giving her some friendly advice about gradually bringing her calories up and advised she change her training style. I told her about the Tabata Protocol and the rest of the discourse went something like this:

    “I already do HIIT training, but I go for longer rounds than 20 seconds, I will do a three minute round and then take a 30 second break.” I paused a bit and I told her it’s not the same thing.. at all. To which she responded with, “It sounds like what you are talking about but your rounds are too short.”

    I knew the smart thing to do at this point was to walk away and wish her luck. But I can’t do that stuff. She was giving pushback in the sense that what she was doing was not trying to learn more, but trying justify that she knew what I was talking about, but better than I was talking about. So I dug my feelers a bit deeper. I asked her how the rest of her workout is after that. She told me it’s hard, but she is strong enough to push through to weights and do another 15-20 minutes of lower intense cardio after she was done. That is kind of where I stopped her. I explained that if it’s done correctly, you are not spending another 1-1.5 hours at the gym. She called it HIIT, but MIIT (Maximum Intensity Interval Training) would be more apropos. I really worked to maker her understand the difference.

    I completely lost her at that point though. She didn’t think that the all out intense work with nothing much left to burn after the fact was beneficial. She was so thoroughly convinced the only way she was going to reach her goal was to spend hours a day at the gym doing cardio and eating 1100 calories a day.

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  • Christopher

    I work in the fitness field and follow many publications and I have a bit of a different take on this. Yes you are correct, the protocol is never used properly but I think most of the fitness professionals know this. What makes more sense for attracting new group exercise clients, having a class that is called High Intensity Interval Training or Tabata. One is much less intimidating in my opinion. I think you have to give the industry a bit more credit for being smarter than you think it is. Using the name Tabata is a great way to market a class.

  • Christopher

    There is a lot of crap in the industry that is incorrect or misinterpreted that drives me crazy like “muscle confusion” if I hear someone say this pseudo-science phrase again I’ll flip. You could say the same for “fat burning zone”. Although there is good scientific reasoning for the existence of these terms they are misleading and people are ill-informed.

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  • Julia Drescher

    No i don’t agree with his comments,If someone really wants to increase his fitness levels he must workout some physical activities at their home and join the gym where you should get down all the fitness machines like ergometer etc.

    Ergometer Test

  • Martin Brilliant

    Tabata didn’t study fat burning. His subjects were athletes who didn’t have any fat to burn. He studied VO2max and aerobic capacity. Recent studies show that tabata workouts can also burn fat.

    I wouldn’t worry about the “Tabata myth.” We don’t complain about a “Marathon myth” because our marathon events are not solo runs with a battle at Marathon for a warmup. Language changes, and by the time you see the change it’s too late to bring it back.

    The myth to watch our for is the “myth of the max.” Tabata’s subjects exercised at a rate above their VO2max. How could they do that? VO2max is measured under conditions of sustained effort, but you can work harder for brief intervals.

    Similarly, if you do a tabata workout the way Tabata’s subjects did, you’re likely to see your heart rate peak above your HRmax, for two reasons. First, if you calculate HRmax as 220 minus your age, that doesn’t apply to you as an individual. It’s a formula derived from a population average. Second, if you use your personal HRmax, it was measured under conditions of sustained effort, and you can work harder for brief intervals.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I love when people smarter than myself chime in on a post and offer their points of wisdom.

      MIT? Holla!

      • Martin Brilliant

        Credit my wife for the remarks about language. The rest is on the web.

  • RoosterRedux

    Tony:

    Very insightful article. I really like the Tabata Protocol but it has been completely taken out of context, as you mention. Crossfit has even been amended by the SEAL’s because it doesn’t include long periods of high intensity running or swimming, etc.

    Makes sense to me that all types of workouts are needed (including long intense cardio workouts).

    The Protocol was originally meant as a means for helping already Olympic quality athletes improve their conditioning. It may or may not help as a core fitness program. There is no evidence either way as to the efficacy of this.

    I ride (bike) and row (Concept 2) for 30 minutes to an hour a day (just getting back after a very lazy period). And I am going to use Tabata as the icing on the cake.

    Of course, I might be wrong…but what the heck.

    Jon

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