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When is “Tabata” not Tabata?
The fitness world is always full of trends that have grown in popularity, to a position of almost universal acceptance. Often, these trends are rarely questioned and few of the people following them truly understand the foundation of the trend.
According to Gavin Aquilina, founder of the Fitness Professionals Global Summit, Tabata fits into this category. It’s widely misunderstood and much of what is presented as Tabata training isn’t really true Tabata at all.
To help clarify some of the misconceptions around Tabata, Gavin has written this in-depth review for the Escape Fitness blog. Read on for insights into the following:
- What Tabata actually is – as defined in the original study.
- What we need to understand about the Tabata standard of 170% VO2 max.
- The difference between ‘true’ Tabata and training using Tabata timings.
- Does it matter if the workout is a form of HIIT, rather than ‘pure’ Tabata?
Izumi Tabata’s 1996 research
I admit it - I am a nerd for research. I believe it’s essential that trainers really understand the research that leads to training approaches. But sometimes, people follow a trend or concept when they haven’t really looked at the research behind it. So let’s go right back to the famous research Izumi Tabata carried out in 1996.
There were two groups participating in the six-week study:
- Group one did moderate intensity training over long duration: a daily 60-minute session, five days a week, at 70% of their VO2 max. So that’s five hours of training in a week.
- Group two - the Tabata group - did high intensity intermittent training, also for five days per week. They did four days of sessions mixing 20 seconds at 170% of VO2 max with ten seconds of recovery, repeated eight times. On the fifth day, they did 30 minutes at 70% plus four Tabata repeats. That adds up to 48 minutes of training per week.
After six weeks of training, the results seemed pretty clear:
- Average aerobic capacity rose by 10% (from 52.9 mlO2/Kg/Min to 57.9 mlO2/Kg/Min). That’s pretty much what you’d expect when doing moderate intensity training for five hours per week.
- Average anaerobic capacity (a measure of oxygen deficit) saw no change, staying at 69 mlO2/Kg/Min.
Group two (Tabata group):
- Average aerobic capacity rose by 15% (from 48.2 mlO2/Kg/Min to 55.6 mlO2/Kg/Min). So that’s a 50% greater increase in aerobic capacity than the moderate intensity, long duration group.
- Average anaerobic capacity rose by 23% (from 60.9 mlO2/Kg/Min to 77.9 mlO2/Kg/Min).
Where did the amazing Tabata results come from?
It’s absolutely amazing that a group doing just 48 minutes of training per week achieved greater aerobic fitness results than a group doing five hours per week. I think the main reason for this is that the Tabata timings are similar to the classic approach of working out in three minute intervals.
Three minutes is a great interval time because it elicits both aerobic and anaerobic enzyme production - and produces both aerobic and anaerobic results. The Tabata interval borders on that three minute interval period, with recoveries throughout the process.
One of the major reasons people get fitter from Tabata training - partly due to the interval times - is the metabolic response at a muscular level. It challenges the mitochondria, but it really stresses those enzymes. There are also neural and CV responses as well.
Let’s talk about 170% VO2 max
The most striking thing about Tabata’s study is that the ‘20 seconds of exercise’ repeated eight times was done at an intensity of about 170% of VO2 max. This raises two big questions that I am asked frequently, so here are my answers:
Question one: How can you measure VO2 max?
If sophisticated static bikes and monitoring equipment is available to you, it is possible to accurately measure VO2 max. But even without this equipment you can measure it in terms of the pace, wattage, speed, level of effort and so on.
In simple terms, 100% VO2 max is whatever the individual can maintain at a steady pace to exhaustion for approximately ten minutes. For a fit individual, this might mean running for 2.5 kilometres at a pace of 15 km/hr for ten mins.
Once you establish the individual’s ‘100%’ performance you can then work out the 170% level. So for the example above, ‘Tabata speed’ would be 15km/hr x 170%, which equals 25.5km/hr. This would mean running 100 metres in 14 seconds, which is really quick. And of course, it would mean maintaining that pace for 20 seconds.
However, Tabata training usually doesn’t involve cycling or running. It is instead based around things such as burpees, push-ups, squats and planks. To determine or measure if you are working at 170% VO2 max for these is near impossible.
Question two: Can people really work at 170% of VO2 max?
So for certain training methods you can calculate 170% of VO2 max. And it is possible to work out at that level for the 20-second bursts that Tabata training requires. But even when achieving 170% is possible, do most clients really want to do it?
My experience is that most people don’t. Yes, for this supra maximal training a trainer might start the client at 130-140% and gradually work up. But in reality, I suspect that few people would be likely to stick to a training regime that demands the intensity of 170% VO2 max.
When is ‘Tabata’ not Tabata?
What we have to ask is, are most people involved in what is being called Tabata training actually doing Tabata? Perhaps the answer is that they are doing a workout based around Tabata timing. Unless their actual performance has been measured at 170%, it is likely they are in fact doing a HIIT-style workout with Tabata timing.
People are doing Tabata out there in the parks, bootcamps and clubs. But usually, they are doing four minutes of Tabata, taking a break and then doing another block of Tabata. There might be four or five blocks of Tabata in each session.
In reality, however, what’s being done isn’t Tabata. If you’ve ever done true Tabata at 170% VO2 max, you know that you are doing well if you complete the eight 20-second repeats. On a bike, your legs are burning, you're sweating and you feel like you're riding through mud. It's that challenging to do.
You might get to the eight repeats. But if you recover for around five minutes and then do another eight repeats, it’s very unlikely you’ll still be working at 170% of VO2 max. If you do, the intensity that you've calculated was probably wrong.
What’s actually happening is that after five or six repeats (or after about three minutes) you just cannot keep that wattage up. You might, after five minutes of rest, get another six repeats or three minutes of work. But if you have another five minutes of easy active recovery to flush out the muscles, and then start again, you might just about manage four repeats or two minutes of work. It's a descending aspect because you can't get rid of all the waste products, and that will inhibit your ability.
Does it matter if the workout is a form of HIIT, rather than ‘pure’ Tabata?
So does it matter that most workouts branded as ‘Tabata’ have actually moved away from true Tabata training? First and foremost, with anything in our industry when it comes to training, it is about the client. It's not about us. What would work for them, their personality and their level of readiness? What are they physically suited towards being able to do? These are some of the most important things for us to consider.
Think of it this way. How many clients would say: "I'd like to train so hard that my legs burn and my heart aches and I almost throw up. And it would be great if someone can scream at me whilst I'm doing it." This isn’t what people usually ask for, and it’s important to always take a step back and think: “Why is this client training with me? What are their needs emotionally, physically, mentally, the whole gamut.”
Yes, some people do want to take part in a true Tabata training programme. The format works for those who want to participate five days a week, and that’s possible because you can do a four-minute Tabata workout that often. It’s also right for certain profiles of client, such as those training for endurance events and the athletes I work with. For them, Tabata sessions can add that extra edge.
But lots of people wouldn’t want to go to the hassle of getting to the gym just for a four-minute workout. The option of longer HIIT sessions might be more attractive. The research and position papers indicate that two or three HIIT sessions per week is right for most people. That’s a frequency that suits many people’s lifestyles and schedules, possibly combined with a couple of cardio sessions during the week.
More on Tabata from Gavin soon…
Thanks to Gavin for writing such a detailed examination of the core principles of Tabata for the Escape blog. He’ll be back soon with more on Tabata; this time covering issues including the effectiveness of Tabata for weight loss and whether Tabata really is better than moderate intensity for increasing VO2.
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