Tabata: what is it and are you really doing it?

Ray Profile

Each Friday on the blog, we are lucky to have a guest post from a leading expert in weight loss, exercise, diet and motivation. This weeks blog is written by leading exercise physiologist and PT to the stars, Ray Kelly ( Ray has worked for more than 20 years in the fitness industry and has trained 2 of the winners of Biggest Loser Australia. Ray continues to see clients for weight loss and also runs a specialist cardiac rehab training centre in Newcastle, Australia. Ray Profile

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Are You Really Doing Tabata?

If you’ve made any attempt at improving your fitness over the past few years utilising a fitness centre or personal trainer, there’s a fair chance you’ve heard of Tabata training. It’s been one of the buzz terms used in the fitness industry over the past 5 or so years, especially by the growing number of Crossfit style gyms and their evangelists. Most of these trainers don’t truly understand what Tabata training is but simply regurgitate what they’ve read or heard. Even many so-called fitness experts in the media have shown they truly have no idea what they are talking about in relation to this form of training.

So What is Tabata Training?

Well first let’s take a step back to how this whole exercise format began. In 1996 Izumi Tabata and his fellow researchers published their findings where they compared short high intensity intervals with steady state training. They wanted to see which method would provide the greatest improvements in anaerobic and aerobic capacity. The steady-state group exercised 5 days a week performing 60 minutes at 70% of VO2max. After 6 weeks of training the steady-state group showed no increase in anaerobic capacity but a 5ml increase in VO2max

The high intensity interval group completed a 10 minute steady state warm up at 50% VO2max, and then completed 7-8 sets of intervals at 20 seconds high intensity (170% VO2max) alternated with 10 seconds at a lower intensity. These sessions were done 4 days a week, with a fifth session consisting of 30 minutes of steady state aerobic training (70% VO2max) followed by 4 sets of the high intensity intervals. All exercise for both groups were performed on the cycle ergometer. At the end of the 6 week program the high intensity intervals group showed a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity, and 7ml increase in VO2max.

So this shows that working at a high intensity works better than a lower intensity right? So what’s the problem?

Trainers have taken this research and used it to support a form of training that has absolutely nothing to do with what Tabata was testing. You can walk into almost any gym in the country these days and you’ll find a trainer putting their clients through a ‘Tabata session’, where the client will be performing any range of bodyweight or resistance exercises sets at the intervals of 20 seconds exercising followed by 10 seconds recovery. Even many trainers in the media are advising on this and it’s obvious they’ve never actually read the research.

I have no problem for fit and healthy people training in Crossfit but they are probably one of the highest profile groups that have totally missed the boat with Tabata. Here is the definition found in the FAQ section of their website:

“o 2.1 What is Tabata

For twenty seconds do as many reps of the assigned exercise as you can – then rest for 10 seconds.
Repeat this seven times for a total of 8 intervals, 4 minutes total exercise”

The above Crossfit definition is totally incorrect as Tabata has absolutely nothing to do with weight training. They could be called ‘Tabata Inspired Intervals’ or even ‘High Intensity Intervals’, but they are not Tabata.

Tabata’s research was quite good but many people have missed what he actually tested, and what he found. Basically, as mentioned previously what he did was compare the results between performing 3-4 minutes of high intensity intervals set at 170% of VO2max, against 60 minutes of steady state exercise set at 70% VO2max, on the cycle ergometer. The only thing he tested for was the effect on aerobic and anaerobic performance. If the intervals are not completed at a comparable intensity it cannot be claimed to provide the same effect.

The misunderstanding/misinterpretation

· As stated above, if the subject’s heart rate does not achieve 170%VO2max then it cannot be claimed to be Tabata. Most Tabata sessions currently being done in gyms predominantly consist of weight training exercises so this intensity level cannot possibly be achieved. They may be tough sessions but they are not Tabata.

· Most ‘Tabata’ sessions being completed in gyms last 40-60 minutes. If they were true Tabata and the clients were working at 170%VO2max then there is no way they could physically sustain that intensity. Even though these classes aren’t true Tabata and they may be great for fitness and will burn calories, this level of intensity (and the exercises used) are not ideal for those that mostly need to lose weight. It may be fine for athletic types but it’s just not safe for most people who are overweight or obese.

· Tabata tested for effect of Aerobic vs Anaerobic, not fat loss. Whilst high intensity training is efficient at burning fat, Tabata sessions cannot be claimed to be the best format as this was not tested. What Tabata’s research actually showed was the harder you train the more anaerobically fitter you become (not necessarily the leaner)

· All testing done was on young athletic males so these same results may not be safe or achievable for obese clients


So as you can see there has been a lot of confusion on this topic. Whilst this research has provided some great information there are many questions that were still raised from it:

· The intervals lasted 3-4 minutes in total for each training session. What would results be if duration was longer as promoted in many current sessions? Would there be more injuries? Would the client’s fitness increase even further and at what point would more intervals not equate to improved performance? How would these longer sessions affect attendance or completion rates due to fatigue and injury, and how would this affect the end results?

· There were only 7 subjects in each group, average age 23 years, average weight 68.5kg, VO2max around 50 ml/kg/min, all male, and all physical education majors. This is a very specific population so would the same results be achieved if performed by obese subjects who were from a older demographic? The testing was also performed on very small groups so how would the results change if there were 50-100 subjects in each group?

· As stated above testing was performed on small groups. If even 3-4 subject from the one group had either a strong cycling background then this could heavily skew the results. They were all athletic so the chances of some or all being experienced in cycling could be very strong.

· Even though the Tabata protocol compared aerobic steady-state training with high intensity intervals, the high intensity group still did 70 minutes a week of steady state training. What effect did that have?

· Would longer intervals be better for performance, across longer sessions? Tabata didn’t test across varying interval times just simply 20 seconds of high intensity followed by 10 seconds of lower intensity. Improved performance may have been found for say 20 seconds of high intensity and 30 seconds of lower intensity, with more sets being performed.

· What would the results have been if the testing was completed on a treadmill (weight bearing), rather than the cycle (non-weight bearing)

· If this form of training is best for improving performance, and it isn’t ideal for those starting out with exercise, how do we take those people from inactivity to being able to tolerate this form of exercise?

About the author

Ray ProfileRay Kelly

BA (Hmn Mvmnt) ESSAM AEP MTeach

Ray Kelly is one of Australia’s leading health professionals, with over 22 years experience in the health and sports industries. He is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and has a Masters in Teaching.

Within the fitness industry he has had a great deal of success in the area of weight loss. He was employed as a trainer in the first 2 seasons of The Biggest Loser Australia, where he was given 1 contestant each year. He achieved a perfect record with both contestants winning the competition in consecutive years (Adro Sarnelli, 2006; Chris Garling, 2007). Ray Also has his own accredited course for personal trainers where they can learn his ‘real-world’ strategies for stripping the weight off clients.

He has also written a book on weight loss, titled “Winners Do What Losers Don’t” (New Holland, 2008), and has a new book out in September 2014 (Full Plate, Less Weight). He has also had input into publications including Good Medicine, Woman’s Day, Slimming and Health, Health Digest, That’s Life, and The Fist.

Ray’s true passion is chronic disease, and he travels the world each year attending the major obesity and chronic disease conferences in a bid to improve his knowledge. Over the years he has made friends with some of the world’s leading researchers and often uses these trips to pick their brain.

Currently Ray has a number of weight loss clinics that focus on improving diabetes and heart disease within his patients. Ray also provides education seminars for doctors, nurses, personal trainers, and other health professionals.

Ray’s other passion is sport and he has been involved in athlete development within Institute of Sport programs for World Championship and Olympic competition, and lectured at Level 1 and 2 coaching courses. He has worked with most of Australia’s top professional boxers, including many World Champions (including Anthony Mundine, Daniel Geale, Michael Katsidis, Chris John, Will Tomlinson, and Lenny Zappavigna). He has also worked on Fox8′s boxing reality TV show ‘The Contender’.



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