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The Tabata Myth

May 22, 2010 Category: Energy Systems, Fat Loss, Guest Posts Tags: , .

The Tabata Protocol

Note from MR: Mark Young is one of my favorite fitness guys.  He’s well-read, looks at everything with a critical eye, and perhaps most importantly, he’s willing to speak his mind.

I think you’re really going to enjoy the piece below.  Enjoy!

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With all of the talk about interval training for fat loss in recent years it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled across the 1996 study by Dr. Izumi Tabata and his colleagues.  In fact, 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.

Unfortunately, there are two fatal mistakes made by those using these protocols and I hope to identify and dispel the myth of the Tabatas once and for all.

Mistake #1: You’re NOT doing the Tabata protocol.

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.

Mistake #2: Tabatas have not been shown to be more effective for fat loss than any other type of circuit training.

In fact, the Tabata protocol has not even been tested for fat loss at all.  In neither of the studies done on this protocol was fat loss even measured.  This protocol was created for performance, and the primary outcome measures were predominantly looking at aerobic and anaerobic fitness.  Someone simply took these studies to mean something that they didn’t say.

Is it possible that the Tabata protocol is better than other fat loss protocols?  Sure.

Is it possible that it is equally effective?  Of course.

But with those two possibilities comes the other possibility that the Tabata protocol is not as effective as any other protocol whether it is circuit training or steady state exercise.  And that would be assuming that you are indeed performing the Tabata protocol as it was originally described which most people certainly aren’t.

In the end, if you’re looking for something different to throw into your routine go ahead and do a 20 second interval with 10 seconds rest, but DON’T call it a Tabata because it isn’t.

And don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Make sure you include other types of metabolic work as well.  Even the authors did that.

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Mark Young is an exercise and nutrition consultant from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  You can check out his website and subscribe to his newsletter at www.markyoungtrainingsystems.com

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  • Gregg Swanson

    WOW Mike! Thanks so much for speaking up about this! I’ve been frustrated with the same thing and people just weren’t getting it. When I first heard about Tabata’s I did look up and read the report. Sure it makes sense to use this protocol, but in reality all people are doing is HIIT.
    Thanks again for shining a light on this misperception.

  • Nick Tumminello

    Great article Mark – this was very eye opening for me and many others I'm sure!
    I still will continue to do Tabatas as I've done because it's a simple to understand, easy to follow and versatile method to get clients to perform high-intensity interval training.
    Plus, the positive effects I've seen in the gym from the Tabata protocols I use are undeniable!
    Keep up the great work Mark and Mike R!

  • Bryan Smith

    Mark,
    Interesting article. TABATA, HIIT, rest based interval training, whatever you want to call it, it is very effective. I started doing this style of training last year and had incredible results. I dropped down from 260 lbs to around 190 lbs. Now, I am sure diet had a lot to do with it as well, but I was burning somewhere between 800 to 1000 calories. I did most of mine on a treadmill and also sprinting outside. I preferred the treadmill because it pushed me harder than I could push myself. I would set the treadmill anywhere from 9 mph to 11 mph and sprint for the allotted time and then step to the side for the rest, because it was impossible to speed up and slow down the treadmill for the short rest intervals workouts. I did a few different types of intervals, a 6/9, 10/20, and the longest was a 20/40.
    Although, I will say that while I had huge success with this in the first part the results slowed and then eventually stopped, which is when I took a break from HIIT and switched to more steady state.
    Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how much fat loss actually occurred, because I did not know my BF% when I started. However, I can tell you I went through several clothes size changes and changed how my body composition looked drastically.
    Thanks,
    Bryan

  • tabata

    muito legal

  • John Dickey

    Here is a free timer for Android phones. You can save several timers to meet your needs.

    https://market.android.com/details?id=com.jpd0861.motivator&feature=search_result

    Enjoy.

  • http://www.tabatatimer.net Thrasheri

    Nice article. I do “tabatas” occasionally. After this article im not sure if i can call them tabatas anymore :) Anyhow i created software for all as tabata enthusiasts. check it out at Tabata timer for pc version. Android- version is located at :
    tabata timer android

  • Gary Davidson

    Great post! I generally just do all out sprints for my Tabata workouts. I added these about 4 months ago to my workout, without changing much else and I dropped 12 lbs. I like seeing improved distance during the sprint time. It’s motivating for me.

    I use music from TabataSongs.com. All their songs are on iTunes. Best stuff I have found yet.

  • http://www.dannymclarty.com Danny McLarty

    Good article Mark.

    Yep, people have been ripping on others for awhile now for using “Tabatas” as we now know (as Mark pointed out) that the vast majority are not doing true Tabatas. But here’s what annoys me; I’ve heard a lot of people say, ~ “those aren’t true Tabatas, so I’m no longer using the 20/10 protocol. This protocol has never been proven to be effective. Those that are still using 20/10 are dumb.” (or something like that :) )

    I hate that mind-set!!! Just because they aren’t true Tabatas it doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate 20 on 10 off from time to time! Sheesh!!!

    Danny

    • Kaz

      Sorry Buddy, TABATA lost me some fat without changing eating…soo you might be wrong too :(

  • http://www.dannymclarty.com Danny McLarty

    Oh, and BTW Mark, I’m NOT saying that you are in that category of people saying 20/10 is worthless. :)

    Danny

  • David Rapant

    Part of the problem is that you have people doing what people always do. You tell them that you can exercise for 20 sec and rest for ten. Than do it again a few times and your good. The truth is, people rarely do what is required, so you have people doing a few pushups in the time alloted and they call it good. The key to this type of training is maximal effort. You do as many pushups as you can possibly do in the 20 sec, then rest for 10, which if your doing this even close to the intensity required is no rest at all. Its just barely long enough to get ready to do it again, or get in position for the next exercise. I do these intervals and the 18 minutes required to get through an entire 8 rounds at maximal effort I can safely say that I’m am doing what is required. I have never increased my cardiovascular conditioning faster than with this protocol. Call it what you want to, it works, but it only works at maximal effort. I guess that may mean different things to different people. If your not completely spent and lying on the floor completely out of breath and sweating like slave, you probably aren’t doing this correctly. The beauty of it is that it never gets easier, because it each time you do it, your putting in maximal effort. If its getting any easier at all its time to switch up exercises. People will always try to over simplify or try to get something for nothing. If your doing this even close to right, most people will move on to something easier like walking on a treadmill while reading a book. Whatever. If you can read while your working out, why bother doing it at all. your fooling yourself. As for me, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing cause it’s helped me get in the best shape of my life. I also do crossfit, which is more than most people are willing to do either, but it also works, and its fun!

  • http://perform-tabata.blogspot.com/ cedric

    I do agree. One of the biggest problem is people keeping the Tabata part of 20/10s for 4mn, but forgetting the 170% of VO2max effort! Tell me how you can get such an intensity with push-ups or crunches…

  • Gary

    Tabata is a foundational study and one of the primary resources for considering and including HIIT as part of an athletic or fitness program. Here is a link to an update of additional benefits to interval training by Gibala MJ, Little JP, Macdonald MJ, and Hawley JA. who are also leading HIIT researchers.

  • Rich

    I don’t understand all these comments about people not doing Tabatas correctly. Twenty seconds at full-steam, 100% effort (i.e. gun-to-your-head effort), then ten seconds off. Repeat seven times. Why is this so difficult to follow? Not saying they are not hard–I’ve never been physically able to complete a full eight of these intervals in one session–but why don’t people understand this procedure?

  • Clay

    This is a good and well-informed article.
    However, it’s really just semantics here on whether or not to call 20/10 HIIT “Tabata”. At a certain point, when a certain percentage of a population assigns a name to something, that becomes the word for that something, regardless of how closely it may or may not adhere to the original understanding of that word. Inarguably, that’s where we are with Tabata. 20/10 HIIT is more accurately “Tabata-style” I suppose, but why argue what essentially becomes minutiae to people practicing 20/10 HIIT with success? The name is considerably less important than the results.
    Undoubtedly, 170% VO2 max is extremely difficult to impossible for most “Tabata” enthusiasts to achieve, and impossible to confirm under the usual conditions of most exercise sessions without the benefit of the necessary monitoring equipment. Nonetheless, being that it is a state that is physically achievable, it stands to reason that there are surely some folks out there who actually do hit 170% despite the lack of monitoring equipment.

    I don’t know if I’ve ever hit 170% myself, but I do know that for those 4 minutes, I push myself as hard as I possibly can, and results have been measurable both in inches and BF percentages. That’s obviously just anecdotal evidence, but I’m going to continue doing what works and frankly, I’m going to continue calling it Tabata because it’s a description of what I do that most people understand.

  • http://yunlargoetcetera.blogspot.com Fargok

    As a B.A. in Linguistics’ student, I will continue using the “Tabata” protocol and calling it Tabata because it’s actually a nice word to call it ;)

    It’s good to know the actual origin of the word, though.

    Regards.

  • Presli D

    I have just recently heard of Tabata training (shocking, I know). I have danced and cheered competitively my entire life. Now I cheer in college, and we are required to workout 3x week with our S&C coach. I am a workout guru, so i usually workout at least 5x week. Since I am always looking for something to give me an extremely competitive edge (not to mention the leanest body possible for those tiny college uniforms), I am wondering if anybody can give actual examples of true Tabata style moves to use for the 20/10 cycles. I understand i can incorporate virtually any moves i want and apply them to a 20/10 circuit, but I was wondering if there were other moves that are truly accepted as Tabata training or if there are certain moves that are more effective than others to use in a20/10 circuit.
    Thanks so much.

    Presli

    • kirkor

      The best bet would be to use a rowing machine like in the original study, or a VersaClimber.

  • Brent V

    I think trainers have taken this tabata idea and have implemented into their current training routines, for good reason. Yes, you’re right it’s not exactly the same but If you push yourself and try use maximum effort with a full body motion like burpees or sprints, you will get awesome results. So maybe we shouldn’t get caught up in what we call it but in how much effort we put into it.

  • http://www.i-bata.com Tabata Watch

    It’s the age old get fit quick scheme again although it looks like there isn’t much work to do there is. Tabata is great if done after a normal 30 minutes weight session or after a 30 minute cardio in my experience. Just by itself is only enough to use up your excess glycogen stores and not do any fat burning whatsoever.

  • E. Fit

    No arguments on the V02 max thing (crazy hard intensity), but I read the original study and don’t understand your comment, “So over the course of a week the Tabata group also did a total of 70 minutes of steady state exercise as well!”

    - The control case was 60 mins at 70% Vo2 max 5x per week. That’s a total of 300 minutes of steady state training per week, 0 minutes of exhaustive intermittent training.

    - The test case was 30 mins at 70% V02 max+ four 20 second intervals at 170% V02 1 x per week AND seven to eight 20 second intervals at 170% V02 4 x per week. My math adds up to 30 mins of steady state training per week, and 12 minutes of exhaustive intermittent training interspersed with 6 minutes of rest.

    Did I miss something?

    • Jason

      He’s including the 10′ steady state warmup each day.

    • E. Fit

      Ah, that makes more sense. Thanks.

  • Frederick Baptista

    The tabata protocol was performed 4 x a week. In each set, there was 10 minutes of moderate intensity exercise. 4 x 10 minutes = 40 minutes

    On the fifth day of each week, the test subjects performed an additional 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.

    40 minutes plus 30 minutes = 70 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.

  • http://www.livebetterfitness.com Rachel Eisenman

    Great article! I posted it on my Live Better Fitness Facebook page as “the blog I don’t have to post.” I had the exact same objections after reading the 1996 Tabata research article. Thanks for getting the facts straight! (And for the record, I love circuit training.)

  • http://www.livebetterfitness.com Rachel Eisenman

    I’ll add that it does matter what you call it because in naming the lead author of scientific research, the word “Tabata” implies specific research based principles. What we see in the gym is “Circuit Training” or “HiIT” and while beneficial and even fun (if you like high-intensity training), it’s not actually “Tabata” training. Those people lunging, burpee-ing and doing push-ups for 20/10 x 8 are not doing it for VO2 results. As a profession we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We’re not in marketing, our field is Human Performance or Exercise Science.

    • Jezz

      Great comment Rachel

  • Tom

    Tabata did research on egsisting hiit vs slower exercise, so what! If his one study had been on 25/10 cycle would every one be doing that. Why isn’t their another study to determine which intervals are best. I agree with anyone who knows that just because someone hasn’t yet written a paper on on what your doing doesn’t mean it isn’t great. It doesn’t mean it is either but people need to keep it real, do the study then push forward and break new ground. U are the best coach u will ever have so start listening.

    • Ernest

      Tabata did have a study comparing protocols; the authors concluded that the 20s/10s protocol was a more effective approach than the 30s/2min protocol they compared it to.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9139179

  • Pete Neumann

    I am confused. You cleared up some mistakes, but what myth were you seeking to dispel? What is the Tabata Myth?

  • Daniel Day

    I disagree partially with what you’ve stated. I respect your background and accreditation, but in all reality, the term “Tabata”, nowadays, is used to reference a “style” of High Intensity Interval Training.

    I use a method derived and designed off the “Tabata” style. It suits me as well as many people just fine in both, fat-loss/reduction and increasing aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Many of my clients have continued using my “Tabata” inspired methods and witnessed amazing results.

    Of course, if you are an athlete or play a lot of sports, or even frequent the gym daily; the “Tabata” style is may not be for you. Why? Because you’ve already conditioned yourself into being able to achieve the maximum effort possible for a “Tabata” routine. A typical “Tabata” routine usually last’s four minutes right? Well there are only so many push-ups that you can do in 20 seconds.

    I think the “Fad” originally targeted people who were short on time and needed to lose weight. After learning “Tabata” interval methods (maybe not the actual protocol) and when to do the right exercise; a trainee (or prospective athlete) can further condition themselves into what they need or desire.

    What matters is how our trainees feel about themselves after they’ve completed the training. It doesn’t matter what you call it and it has nothing to do with standards. This research was conducted and found to have significant gains against the opposing “state” training the other group was conducting.

    I think the bottom-line I’m getting to is that, it doesn’t matter what you call it. People call it “Tabata” because the style most resembles that of the research.

    It may not be for everyone, but I see many happy people after three-four weeks.

    • Chris Lutz

      I’d disagree. It has everything to do with standards. We can’t advance an entire field of knowledge and deliver it to the general public based on individual trainers’ anecdotal evidence. A MAJOR problem we have a is a lack of exacting terms and definitions. Calling things what they aren’t muddys the waters further and makes communication between professionals who are trying to learn something difficult. The same can be said for anything “functional” or “core”, etc. We can certainly have derivatives of certain programming, but be more specific in what we are talking about.

  • http://marykaa.com Mary-Lou Szoka

    Yeah.. I’ve been feeling bad about using the Tabata name.. for what I do.. though others at the gym use it.. but it still describes it well.. so from now on I’ll say/write “pseudo-Tabata”.. or “Tabata-à-la-Marykaa” (marykaa being my nick)

  • kiran

    Rachel einsmen before slating the marketing profession you should consider what you are using to tell people of your training. Using your witter account and website is marketing!

  • http://www.livebetterfitness.com Rachel Eisenman

    That is true Kiran. My objection is in suggesting Tabata’s scientific research supports the “Tabata Training” methods being employed.

  • jordan

    The reality is that almost no one can perform Tabata correctly or effectively without assistance (ie, a trainer, instructor, etc.). Tabata training is really only effective if someone is timing you and pushing you.

    • Alicia

      Try it on a treadmill…you don’t need a trainer to push you. Setting the speed on a treadmill is like having your own trainer – if you don’t keep up with the speed, well, you end-up falling off!

  • http://www.OhFitnessLLC.com Octavia Henderson

    Good article. I understand that technically the average person isn’t/can’t do “true” Tabatas. I think the main take away is to give your best max effort for a given set time and then rest for a given set period. Do we really have to be so literal? lol Most people will never be able to do a true Tabata, because they don’t have access to a state of the art laboratory at the Nike or Gatorade facility. They won’t be hooked up to any equipment that will constantly test their VO2 levels and ensure they’re in their zone. The training room temperature won’t be controlled…bla bla bla. Come on….just get out there! Do your best! Go hard! Have fun!

    • bláblá

      Well, when we give our best doing this tabata thing, we are actually doing a tabata workout. Difficult for some people may be not difficult to others. If you doing your best, giving everything, you’re definitely doing tabata, it depends on each person. That’s what i think…

  • Netherlands

    You can say that the actual Tabata word is not what the resaerch was about, but you can definatley not say it is less or evenley effective then normal circuit training!!!!!

    You and Mark Young are so wrong and should do youre homework!

    There are more then one studies about interval training. And they all spell out the same thing…..
    Please watch BBC Horizon documentary the truth about excersise….

    You don’t know shit

  • Netherlands

    You dont need a timer or a personal trainer, just download tabata interval training music, that will tell you excatley when to stop when to go you can downlaod it online everywhere…

  • Netherlands

    And you have to punish yourself you can do anything for 12 minutes….JORDAN

  • Netherlands

    Ok and finally )

    If you are looking for good not (tabata) routines and excersises…

    Just go to youtube there are many trainers that have clips on there for the best and diverse routines…..in realtime so you can excersise with them for free…

    Type tabata routines….enjoy

  • Brooke

    I think what most people do at the gym could accurately be called “tabata-based training” because that’s what it really is. That way, you could safely get around the semantics of it and still get across your point when talking to others.

  • JT Fiore

    You’re confusing the Tabata’s 1996 study with the work of Angelo Trembly – Impact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism at the Division of Kinesiology, Laval University, Québec March 8, 1993.

    Tabata documented VO2 Max changes.
    Trembly pioneered the HIIT protocol for fat loss and VO2 improvement over three years earlier.

  • joshua macri

    The problem is that you are talking about cardiovascular training as a means of weight loss. Cardiovascular trianing is for your energy systems.

  • llLeoll

    Not so certain that exact adherence matters. I’ve substituted Tabata timing for a pretty intense HIIT plyo-routine I used to do with longer times and longer recovery.I love the short timing, since you can give it your all. And the short rest leaves you barely able to catch your breath before you move on.

    May not be a by-Hoyle Tabata. But it is a convenient way to time. And it will get you sucking air as your O2 deficit builds.

    That said, it would be nice to see a real study of the way most of us use Tabatas. They do seem to work better than most HIIT timings I’ve used. And the short time investment per exercise allows more exercise diversity. Which can only be good for you, avoiding repetitive stress injuries.

  • Jason

    What I know is that when I do Tabata squats, I am breathing as hard as I possibly can on the last three sets. I think the real point behind Tabata is the idea of HIIT. So-called Mistake #2 should be asking whether HIIT works for fat loss and/or performance.

  • Adam

    #1 is very misleading…having done cycle Tabatas based on 170% of my measured VO2 max power, I can attest that the first few are actual surprisingly easy, but the last few are very difficult. 170% of VO2 max sounds like a lot, but it’s well below the power of an actual sprint (less than half for most) and still less than you can probably put out for a minute. It is not “all out.” The trick is the repeated efforts.

    • Andrew

      Correct, Adam. In cycling 170% of VO2 max falls in between TT pace and all out sprinting. I was doing 170% Tabata efforts and found it only seriously uncomfortable from the 4th rep to completion. The intent of the 10 second rest is only to partially recover so that in the final reps you are really redlining and stimulating VO2max. Indoor cycling with a power meter has the huge advantage of consistency as you know the watts to hold to be at and maintain the target of 170%.

  • Teagan Read

    I agree on your main point. It’s very similar to the Illiotibial Band Syndrome debate. Most knee-related issues are referred to as ITB syndrome, with the band being tight. Reality is, the ITB is designed to be tight, with most dysfunctions relating to the Vastus Lateralis, Rectus Femoris or Hip imbalance dysfunction. It could be related to the ITB yes, but that doesn’t make it ITB syndrome, no matter what your trainer said.

  • xuniltoor

    Call them tabatas, it is still hiit.

  • ddw1959

    This was very helpful! all the other sites left these details out. Thanks!

  • Lulu

    For those of you who do not understand the issue of incorrectly naming a program, see the following link for an explanation why Professor Imuzi Tabata felt it necessary to create http://www.tabataofficial.com