For many years Personal Trainers, sports teams and gym goers alike have all, at least at one point in time, used Tabata training. The recipient on the end of a Tabata workout knows exactly what’s in store for him/her: 4 minutes of ‘unpleasantness’, in the form of high intensity exercise with the well-established arrangement of 20 seconds work and 10 seconds of rest. Many variations of the Tabata workout have been performed over the years, some using equipment such as kettlebells, some running multiple rounds of the 4 minute protocol and some using traditional loaded resistance exercises like squats and presses. But what really is Tabata?

Tabata, is actually the second name of the Japanese Sport Scientist who first researched and published findings on the effectiveness of the protocol. Interestingly, it was actually devised by a gentleman named Irisawa Koichi, the Japanese Speed-Skating Coach of the Olympic Squad. He had been contemplating the best ways to condition his athletes and presented Professor Tabata with two fitness protocols for which he was interested in knowing the effectiveness of. Professor Tabata duly responded, tested the protocols scientifically in the lab and consequently published the results- the rest, as they say, is history! In 1996, ‘Tabata training’ become one of the most well-known and widely-used training protocols, once published in the prominent Sports Science Journal, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Below is a summary of what the research actually discovered:

Tabata: HIIT’s Most Well-known Training Protocol
Tabata: HIIT’s Most Well-known Training Protocol

Here are some important considerations:

  • The protocol was an ‘all-out’ cardiovascular cycling session which stressed maximally the aerobic and anaerobic capacity of the test subjects
  • The Tababa protocol was compared against a ‘traditional’ endurance protocol
  • The intensity of the Tabata protocol was set at an equivalent power output to work participants at 170% of their VO2max capacity i.e. way greater than that required to maximally stress the aerobic capacity of the body
  • After 6 weeks, the aerobic and anaerobic capacities were re-assessed against baseline (starting) fitness levels
  • Aerobic fitness improvements were similar between both groups, whilst anaerobic capacity was much greatly improved in the Tabata group
  • These results were pretty impressive when you do the math:

Endurance group total training time (6 weeks): approx. 30 hours Tabata group total training time (6 weeks): approx. 12.3 hours (one day per week the Tabata group performed a 30 min lighter cycle session too).

When we consider the actual original Tabata protocol and what it achieved it is possible to reflect on the way the Tabata protocol is often seen to be used and how this impacts both the intensity and likely results to be expected. Here are some common deviations from the ‘real’ Tabata protocol:

  • Multiple rounds of the 4 minute protocol leading to submaximal intensity
  • Selection of exercises, such as squats, kettlebell swings, core exercises which do not raise energy demands greatly in order to maximally stress energy system capacity
  • ‘Tweaks’ to the timings of the protocol e.g. longer work periods (30 seconds : 10 seconds)

In personal communications with Professor Tabata, he has expressed his satisfaction that so many people use his training protocol to exercise with and is happy that this helps many participants to develop their health and conditioning, BUT, being a research scientist, he is also very quick to state that claims cannot be made against the effectiveness of Tabata training when using an intensity any less than employed in his research (i.e. 170% VO2max). So with this in mind it can be concluded that effective Tabata workouts require:

  • An exercise modality which allows for maximal stress to be placed upon the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems (e.g. cycle, treadmill, bodyweight)
  • Exercises which recruit large muscles groups
  • Exercises which require high amounts of sustained power output within the 20 seconds work bout i.e. do not cause a ‘loss of seconds’ having to change positions or transition on/off equipment etc.
  • Exercises which have a low skill demand or exercises in which the participant has practiced and knows well the movements i.e. seconds are not lost attempting to ‘work out’ what to do.

Keeping it real….

Tabata training is challenging from a physical and psychological perspective. Physically, pushing your body to reach a work rate of 170% VO2max is a big ask; and hurts! Psychologically, you’ll have to overcome some serious inhibitory signals from within to slow down and stop- do you have enough steel to override those signals and keep going?!

Tabata is also fun and time efficient and has the potential to yield some great results. If you perform your Tabata workout as Professor Tabata first did back in 1996, you can expect great cardiovascular fitness gains. If you choose to modify the protocol and use the ‘Tabata timings’, but maybe run the 4 minutes through three times for example, using a larger variety of exercises, then fine; but this does of course alter the training stress (if you train for longer, you can’t train as hard). However, in this example, a larger volume of work generates a greater energy cost and thus likely has more positive effects when it comes to body composition improvements.

The long and short of it all? Understanding precisely what Tabata training really is allows you to select a great workout, enjoyed by many for years, and tailor it to meet your needs and goals- enjoy!