One of the more popular exercise regimes over the last two decades has been the Tabata protocol. Originally tested by Izumi Tabata in 1996 it was immediately latched onto by many as superior to other training regimes for fitness and fat loss. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To begin with we should take a look at exactly what the Tabata regime consisted of. After having been out for so many years it has been well and truly bastardised like a game of Chinese whispers.
What Tabata was:
The original test had two groups. The first group performed a one-hour ride at moderate intensity (70%MHR) five days per week. The second group, the one performing the Tabata protocol, performed the interval sessions four days per week with an additional fifth day performing a thirty-minute 70%MHR ride too.
All work performed was on a cycle ergometer fitted with a power meter.
The warm up for the Tabata days was a ten minute 70%MHR ride.
The intervals were performed for between six and eight reps at an intensity of 170% of the power seen at 70%MHR. If the athlete failed to achieve that power output the training was stopped for the day. (Which is why it is six to eight reps as failure usually occurred before the eighth rep).
Training lasted for six weeks at this volume and intensity.
What Tabata isn’t:
The original test varied from three to four minutes in length depending on the athlete and the day. If they could no longer hold the required power the test was halted. If each work interval can’t be sustained at 170% of power at 70%MHR then it’s not Tabata.
As the original test was performed on a bike you could reasonably argue that if you try this at home with any other method that isn’t a bike you’re not doing Tabata. However, as both rowing and ski ergometers have power readings I believe it would be possible to perform the Tabata protocol on them too. However, running would be impossible as there is no reliable way yet to measure power running.
Given oxygen uptake is lower when performing loaded training (i.e. resistance training of any kind) you cannot perform Tabata with weights/ circuit training. You can be following the same interval format, however it is not Tabata. Perhaps a better phrase would be “Inspired by Tabata” but it certainly won’t be Tabata.
The original protocol was never intended as a fat loss study. In fact, I can’t find a single reference to a decent fat loss paper using Tabata as the training protocol.
Before I really get into the most important thing about the Tabata program, and the single thing that I have never seen anyone else realize, I want to bust a few myths.
Everyone always wants to claim that interval training is superior for fat loss compared to steady state efforts. It is, but not by as much as you think. The difference, as Lyle McDonald points out in this article here is only 7%. Aerobic training nets you a 7% EPOC (post exercise fat burn) of 7% and anaerobic/ interval training nets you 14%. So the difference is 7%.
To put that in perspective, at 70%MHR I burn roughly 30cal/ km on my bike. I know this because I have a power meter and it measures this among other things. Energy utilization is more about distance covered than speed. A thirty-minute ride will see me cover about 15km, which equates to 450cals. As anyone who rides will tell you a thirty-minute ride at that speed is a pretty easy session, so it’s no surprise that I don’t burn a huge amount of energy.
But my interval session – and it doesn’t matter what format that takes – isn’t going to burn substantially more. In fact, it’s only going to burn 31.5cals more. The downside, that everyone misses, is that it’s actually going to take longer too. To do an interval session that covers 15km I will need to do something like 1km hard followed by 1km easy, giving me 7-8km of hard riding from my 15km. But because I have to go so hard during the interval I will be crawling in my recoveries. Assuming I ride at roughly half of my normal aerobic pace in order to recover I would need to ride at 1.5 times my normal pace as a minimum during the work intervals to finish this workout in the same thirty minutes. Ask anyone who rides just how hard it is to ride solo at 45km/hr for a single kilometer and then see if you actually even know a single person who can ride seven or eight of them.
In other words, you may burn more calories – a paltry 31.5 of them – but you’re going to spend more time doing it anyway. Over a given week, when you had to destroy yourself to gain those extra 126cals of fat loss (assuming you are doing intervals four days per week as written of in the original Tabata research), how long do you think you can keep that up?
In fact, one of the points the researchers actually noted in the original paper was that those performing Tabata style training found it incredibly unpleasant making it unlikely to be a long term solution. And, for the record, that 126cals is the equivalent of burning an extra 45g of fat each week – the same as half an apple.
So given the extreme levels of discomfort and the fact that most stated they couldn’t handle following the protocol for extended periods of time, and that any extra potential fat loss is limited, can we finally put to rest the notion that Tabata is a potent fat burning workout?
In the original research both the steady state control group and the Tabata group trained for a total of six weeks. Here’s where it gets interesting…
Over the first three weeks the Tabata group saw far more improvement than the control group did. But then they saw almost no further improvement for the last three weeks. That resulted in a net difference between the Tabata group and the control group of… nothing.
VO2max in both groups increased the same amount. What the Tabata group did find was that they saw improvements in their anaerobic capacity because of the SAID principle.
Here’s the Two Things Everyone Misses
I’ll cover the easy bit first. When it comes to peaking for an event what the Tabata study showed is that you don’t need much. The Tabata group tailed off their improvements around the three-week mark. Because we’re all slightly different let’s say we need between two and four weeks for individual variances. In other words, you only need to kill yourself with this style of training if you’ve got an event within the next two to four weeks. Otherwise you’re better off just sticking with mostly base building with maybe a single interval session per week to keep the anaerobic endurance at a decent level. I’d even suggest that if your sport is highly anaerobic in nature such as BJJ, wrestling, Judo, soccer, etc. that as long as you’re training regularly you’ll be getting all the anaerobic training you need and you can spend your other training time on recovery/ base building methods.
Now we get to the really important bit. My last blog – 70% at 80/ 20 – talked about how the training load should be spread out so that the vast majority of sessions are designed to boost the system.
Think of the easy sessions as pushing your fitness up fro underneath while the harder sessions pull it up. To gain as much fitness as possible we need a combination of pushing sessions as well as pulling sessions. Research and practice both point to the ideal make up being far more easy pushing sessions than harder pulling sessions. Seiler showed in a long term study that an 80/ 20 mix was ideal for long-term gains.
Let’s do some math…
The Tabata program consisted of four days per week doing ten minutes of easy warm up, plus an additional thirty minutes on day five. That’s seventy minutes of easy work each week.
The daily interval structure, and let’s use eight reps to give the maximum value, was a total of four minutes. But it really wasn’t because the athletes only worked for twenty seconds out of every thirty. That means that total work time in the hard zone is 160 seconds per day, or three minutes and ten seconds. Over four days that equals twelve minutes and forty seconds.
Now when you divide 70mins of total aerobic/ easy work by 12mins and 40secs, do you know what it equals? It’s 18%. The total amount of hard work completed in a given week was 18% versus the total amount of aerobic work. That seems remarkably close to the magical 80/ 20 I spoke of in the last blog.
The missing bit of information is not that Tabata is better for fat loss. Because it isn’t. It’s not that Tabata is better for fitness gains. Because it isn’t.
The missing concept is that without the 82% of easy work being done the Tabata intervals will not be as effective. You need the accompanying easy work to pull your fitness up gently while the Tabata intervals pull it up painfully.
Despite claims to the contrary the Tabata method probably isn’t any better for fat loss than any other type of hard workout. In the long term it may be worse because compliance will suffer the longer you use this training method for. If you really want to see your abs don’t look for the workout will nearly kill you while only burning a few extra calories. Instead get your meals squared away and stop eating shit and trying to out train your poor choices.
While the Tabata method may be a great peaking tool to increase you to maximum fitness quickly you will only need it for a few weeks – two to four, depending on individual make up. Having said that, there are plenty of other interval methods, which may be superior in the short term.
If you do decide to run a hard interval scheme for a period make sure to do enough easy work to buffer it out. That magic 80/ 20 formula pops its head up again and again when you start to look at how the fittest people on the planet got to be that way and the Tabata protocol shares that same make up. Ignoring it because you think you don’t need it is foolhardy and likely counter productive.