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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
January 21, 2022 2 Comments
Tabata is one of the most groundbreaking training protocols to ever grace the gym. This little 4-minute workout is going to literally melt your fat off in front of your eye and produce a quantum-sized furnace inside your body with its massive EPOC effect. What this means is that even when you go home, you’re going to continue burning 10,000 calories an hour, meaning you never have to go to the gym again.
Well, that’s all bullshit but some people actually believe similar claims thanks to the ridiculous statements made by the fitness industry. And they say these things all in the name of fitness and money.
Now let’s be clear, Tabata training truly is a fantastic protocol to follow to enhance athletic performance in minimal time; it’s just not going to burn thousands of calories. Why? Because it’s only 4-minutes long! Further, burning calories and improving body composition was never the intent of the Tabata protocol in the first place!. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to even find a Tabata study that even measures things like caloric expenditure and changes in body composition.
Therefore, we want to set the record straight on Tabata training. In this article, you’re going to learn:
And to be clear…we love Tabata training. It’s brutal. There’s just a lot of nonsense that surrounds it. Now let’s explore the Tabata training protocol and how to really use it to take our athletic ability to the next level.
What would you say if we told you that Tabata training never had anything to do with burning calories, EPOC, or improving body composition? Well, that’s exactly what we’re telling you.
Back in 1996, there was a famous Olympic coach by the name of Irisawa Koichi. Coach Koichi was working on an extremely fast yet extremely efficient protocol to improve his athletes’ VO2max and anaerobic capacity. In comes Dr. Izumi Tabata. Dr. Tabata was a brilliant and successful researcher who was given the task to work with Coach Koichi to research the most efficient training protocol he could. And this is exactly what they did (check out the original study here).
Dr. Tabata set up a protocol to compare the effects of two protocols over the course of 6 weeks:
The 60-minute protocol simply had participants jog for 60-minutes at 70% VO2max 5 days a week for 6 weeks.
Now the 4-minute high-intensity intermittent protocol is what we’re interested in as it became what is known as Tabata. Also being performed 5 days a week for 6 weeks, the protocol consisted of 8 rounds of intense training using a work:rest ratio of 20 seconds to 10 seconds. Therefore, one round lasted 30 seconds, so when 8 rounds were done consecutively, the entire protocol lasted 4 minutes.
However, this is where most people stop with Tabata training and think that’s all there is. In reality, they’re missing the most crucial part of Tabata, which is INTENSITY (we’ll discuss common errors down below). Dr. Tabata chose to use cycle ergometers to perform the original Tabata due to the ease of use; allowing trainees to work at supramaximal efforts. For the work interval, the subjects worked at the brutal level of 170%VO2max! This is literally the hardest a person can push themselves and requires training just to be able to work at these levels.
As mentioned, this extremely high level of intensity is the real secret behind Tabata. You see, Dr. Tabata and coach Koichi were trying to see if they could create a 4-minute program that could improve performance variables more effectively than a 60-minute program. Therefore, they knew that trainees would need to bust their ass if they wanted to improve in 1/15 of the time! And, it worked. After 6 weeks, the Tabata protocol had produced more significant improvements in both V02max and anaerobic capacity.
All that being said, this is the original Tabata protocol:
Yes! Without a doubt! However, there are a couple minor caveats.
What do you mean when you say “work”?
As mentioned above, Tabata has been stolen by the fitness industry who has since completely transformed it over the years. Now, all that’s left is a shell of what used to be. It’s also been attributed with benefits that it was never intended to give, such as an extreme calorie burn (more on this later). Regardless, the entire purpose of Tabata is to improve VO2max and anaerobic capacity. Therefore, if you mean “does Tabata improve VO2max and anaerobic capacity” when you say “work”, the answer is a resounding YES!
If you mean “does Tabata actually burn calories?’, the answer is still yes; just not as profound as you might think.
You must perform Tabata correctly
This should go without saying, but for Tabata to work, you must do it correctly. What this means is giving 100% effort during the work sessions AND using the correct exercises (again, more on this below). For a guideline, you should ideally be aiming for a heart rate of 90-95%max. However, for untrained and general populations, 85% would probably suffice, with some suggesting even 80%. Regardless, more intense is better.
If you’re having fun, you’re not doing Tabata properly.
One of the many claims that big box gyms use to promote their group classes is the insane caloric burn and EPOC effect you (supposedly) get from Tabata. You then have new trainees going in and thinking they have found this secret to fat loss, and that Tabata will take care of everything. Unfortunately, it won’t. In fact, a similar claim is made about any type of various HIIT style workout.
For example, one study that examined changes in body composition from a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) did so by comparing it to a moderate-intensity group. They actually did find significant improvements in body composition, except that it only occurred in the moderate group. Yes, the moderate-intensity group improved their body composition more so than the HIIT style. Check this article we wrote for a more in depth breakdown of HIIT vs steady state cardio for improving body composition.
Another study used Tabata with underweight, normal weight, and overweight students in high school (average age being about 16). They found that Tabata only improved the body composition of overweight students. That’s awesome, but in reality, anything will work for a previously sedentary, overweight person.
One of the few studies that did look at caloric burn was published by ACE. However, their version had 4 Tabatas put together with 1-minute rest in between each Tabata, totaling 20 minutes. Further, the exercises were seemingly random and included 16 different movements.
Regardless, their trainees burned between 240-360 calories, the difference likely being due to the size differences in trainees.
That’s awesome, but you also need to consider that a 160lb person will burn around 175 calories running 20 minutes. Already you see this stops becoming so impressive. If you burn an extra 150 calories a day, it will take you about 25 days to lose an extra pound of fat. We don’t want to downplay a pound of fat, but that’s hardly the burning furnace some trainers would have you believe. PLUS, Tabata is 4 minutes! It’s not 20 minutes! So now we start reaching into a situation where we’re using something that’s not even Tabata and calling it Tabata.
Similar results were found in another Tabata session using squat jumps. In this study, participants burned an average of 54 calories in 4-minutes. If you were to stack 4 or 5 together, you’d reach 210-270 calories.
The point being is, yes, you’ll burn calories with Tabata. But keep in mind that’s not it’s intent. Still, it’s 4-minutes long, so you can’t really expect much. A more interesting argument would be that Tabata can increase your total work capacity, which allows you to do more work which translates into more calories; that’s an exciting idea. Tabata is a great form of exercise for certain somatotypes, like the endomorph body type, who want to burn as many calories as quickly as possible to support their weight loss goals.
At the end of the day, no form of exercise should be your main tool in a fat loss journey; your diet should be. If you don’t know where to start, check out these awesome articles we have that will tell you all you need to know:
So far you have gotten the idea that there are some issues with the way Tabata has been portrayed to the general public. Here are the top problems that are usually seen when the general public performs Tabata.
1) Not Enough Emphasis On Intensity Levels
This is huge. Too many trainers let their clients “just do their best” and then act like they’re going to get the same results. To be very clear, we are not saying to not do your best. Showing up and trying is the most important thing because we can then work to improve from there. However, everyone can work at max effort; it just may look differently for different people. Still, we can always place heavy emphasis on using max attempts. Saying, “just do your best,” does a disservice to Tabata and your health.
Instead, think, “This is going to suck hard, but it’s only 4-minutes. I’m going to crush it.”
2) Using Too Complicated of Movements
The other huge mistake is that trainers try to use many movements to look flashy. Remember, the original Tabata used a basic cycle ergometer for the entire session. In fact, ergometers are the primary piece of equipment used in studies. Why? Because they’re so simple and allow you to push yourself hard. With cycling, you are really only executing one continuous rep by rotating your feet which can then be made to be more challenging by increasing the tension. Simple and effective. Perfect.
However, many classes will have their clients perform squats, jump rope, pushups, and kettlebells. While jump rope and kettlebells might seem like a good idea, what if you get out of rhythm? And have you ever actually tried to go harder with a kettlebell? It doesn’t work. Therefore, you want to use exercises that are easy to perform and can ideally be done doing a “continuous rep”.
3) Trying To Work In “Strength” Training
“Our Tabata class will build muscle, burn fat, and make you sweat!”
No, it won’t. For Tabata to work, you need to use movements that allow you to move quickly. By its very nature, this eliminates proper strength training. While Tabata will improve your anaerobic capacity, you’ll need to use heavy loads (>85%) to really improve your strength. Further, this leads to the problem where people will use inappropriate movements as they’re trying to get their strength training in. Now, you can still use exercises like pushups and pullups with a :20/:10 ratio, but it’s not Tabata; it’s just a style of circuit training, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Remember, your number one goal for Tabata is getting your heart rate up.
So we’ve told you that people use improper exercises; so what are proper exercises? Just like the original study, stationary bikes are likely your best bet due to their low impact and easy to use. In fact, Tabata is an awesome exercise to do on recumbent bikes as you can work out at a high intensity using a low-impact piece of equipment. If you don’t have access to a bike, here are the best exercises to use to get your heart rate up.
Yes. We know burpees suck, but that’s because of how awesome they are. In fact, one study found that examined the use of burpees and sprinting in HIIT style sessions, like in these fat-burning HIIT workouts, found that burpees could elevate the heart rate to the exact same level of sprinting.
2. Sprinting/Banded Runs
Sprinting is sprinting. They use 100% max effort, which is exactly what you need to perform Tabata. The only downside is that they can stress the lower body, so keep this in mind. A good option would be to simply alternate sprinting with another exercise.
Another option is to run against a stationary band. This is a good option if you’re in a gym where you can’t sprint for 20 full seconds.
3. Shadow Boxing
A study found that boxers reach the highest heart rate on average than any other intermittent sport at 197BPM! While not complicated, there probably will be a learning curve to train your neurological system to be able to move quickly enough, but even when first beginning, you should be able to get a nice high heart rate.
4. Sled Work
Sled work is an excellent option because it’s relatively low impact (compared to sprinting) and very easy to get your heart rate up. If you have limited space, you could use more weight to move slower yet still achieve a high heart rate.
5. Squat Jumps
Remember above we talked about a study that had participants burn 54 calories? Well, the only exercise they used were squat jumps. The key to squat jumps is using fast transitions and max power when jumping.
That’s 5 exercises which should be more than enough. Why only 5? Because that’s all you need! In fact, that’s 4 more than you need! Remember, your only goal with Tabata is to elevate your heart rate using max effort. If you find that there is one exercise that is comfortable and easy for you to push hard on, you can just use that. There’s no need to use a revolving door. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!
One great workout would be to alternate between sprinting and shadow boxing. This is because the two exercises use different muscle groups allowing you to continue working hard. Get a watch and sprint as hard as you can for 20 seconds. Rest 10 seconds and then shadow box for another 20 seconds. Repeat this 3 more times and you just had an awesome Tabata workout.
Remember to ALWAYS before performing Tabata. While this is always a must when you train, warming up before Tabata may even be more critical. This is because the minute the whistle blows, you’re giving 100% effort. There’s no easing into it.
After your dynamic warm-up, we actually recommend running through the Tabata once at a lower intensity, just to really get your body ready for the movements.
So there you have it. We at SET FOR SET believe that if you’re going to do something, you should do it right. This includes performing Tabata training the way it was designed. We just showed you the common issues seen with Tabata training AND how to quickly fix it. As you can see, it basically comes down to people losing sight of the required intensity and mixing in inappropriate exercises. Tabata is beautiful due to its simplicity so don’t go and try to make it fancy thinking it will be better; it won’t be.
For other awesome HIIT-style workouts, check out these articles:
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