Tabatas Everywhere

If there was one study that has influenced the fitness industry more than any other, it's gotta be the Tabata Study. Unfortunately, this study is also one of the most misunderstood (and blown out of proportion) studies that I am aware of. It seems that almost everyone caught up in the "high intensity rage" touts that all you need to do to improve both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity is tabata work. Tabata this, tabata that....These same people probably didn't actually read the study, which I'll explain in a bit.

For those of you who don't know, "Tabata" intervals are where you perform 20 seconds of work (ex. sprinting, cycling, burpees, squats, etc.) followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is done for 8 total rounds, (for a 4-minute routine).

Now, for the record, I think this work:rest protocol can be a great tool for fitness clients, or for people just looking to try something different in their daily workouts. Nick Tumminello, for example, has given some great ideas on how to properly progress someone with this protocol and also gave some cool ideas for how to use it. The point of this post isn't to tell you that you should never use a 20:10 work-to-rest ratio, but to clarify some very important points for trainers or strength coaches that read this site. Got it? Cool. Here we go...

Key Points to Understand About the Tabata Study

1) Less than 1% of those who claim to use tabatas are not actually doing tabatas. You may be using a 20:10 work-to-rest protocol, yes....but you're not anywhere close to doing an actual tabata. The test subjects in the study were working at 170% VO2max for each work interval. That's almost impossible to sustain. Unless you've performed a VO2 max test yourself, you can't come anywhere close to actually understanding how difficult it is to work this hard. Let me put it this way: you'd have to be chased by a Saber-Toothed Tiger to sustain this type of intensity, and even then you'd probably fall prey to natural selection due to your inability to hold out for even four minutes.

2) The protocol calls for eight rounds, but the test subjects didn't even always complete all eight. Some had to stop at seven rounds because they couldn't sustain the 170% VO2max output. Again: you're not working as hard as you think you are.

3) Some fitness gurus proclaim that all they need to do is perform tabata intervals to improve both theiranaerobic and aerobic capacity. Again, they couldn't have read the original study. The high-intensity group also performed a session of steady-state work each week. Does this not now befog the entire study by adding in a session of pure aerobic work each week to the high-intensity group?! You can't say that (based off the study) tabata intervals are superior at improving both anaerobic and aerobic qualities when the "tabata group" also performed aerobic work as part of their protocol.

4) The high-intensity group never even achieved the level of aerobic development that the endurance training group did! (See the graph below, which is taken from the original 1996 study). So, does this mean that all you need to do is a bunch of tabatas to improve your aerobic capacity?? Clearly - at least based on this particular study - this isn't optimal.5) Most of the improvements in the high intensity group flat plateaued at the 3-week mark (specifically, the gains dropped from a 20% improvement to only 5%, and it didn't get any better). The anaerobic energy system actually "taps out" very quickly (I say this not based on the Tabata Study alone, but on other research and personal experience), and you don't need to spend all year developing it. If you (or your athletes) are performing tabatas year round then you are wasting valuable time that could be spent improving the energy systems for your given sport.

6) The workload used (on the stationary bike) was supra-maximal. The bike is one of the only pieces of equipment you can use for this magnitude of intensity because of safety concerns (if you fatigue, you won't get hurt due to the fact that you can just stop pedaling). Just understand that if you're using front squats or thrusters or whatever (and using somewhere around 50-115lbs) you may be replicating the work:rest duration of tabata intervals but you're nowhere close to replicating the actual workload.

7) The interval training group didn't perform anything else throughout the course of this study. They weren't doing maximal strength training, power training, attending sports practice, etc. Imagine adding the true tabata protocol to a full schedule of strength and conditioning? Chances are (if you don't pass out from fatigue) you won't improve much at anything else.

Again, my main point is not to say that no one should perform the 20:10 interval ratio. You can certainly use it from time to time, just understand that you're not actually performing a tabata (honestly, as a strength coach, I think I just become a bit miffed when the semantics of it all is abused).

And I'm certainly not anti-high intensity training. It DEFINITELY has its uses, it's just very important to understand how to wield it appropriately.

If you're a strength coach, or train athletes in any way, you'd be unwise to regularly utilize the tabata protocol to prepare your athletes for competition. Could it be a tool to use for a friendly competition every now and then? Certainly. But not as a tool to optimally prepare your athletes for their respective sport.I'd also like to clarify that I'm not trying to be the pot calling the kettle black on this one. When I first started searching the internet for training methods I quickly came across the tabata protocol and handed it out like water to everyone I knew. I'm just glad that I eventually investigated the matter a bit further, and wanted to spread the word.