With the popularity and notoriety of the "Tabata study" published by Dr. Izumi Tabata and colleagues in 1996, there is considerable confusion and disagreement in the fitness industry about this style of training.
In the researcher by Tabata, et al., they used a protocol that consisted of seven to eight sets of 20 seconds at 170% VO2max followed by 10 seconds of rest (four minutes total). This resulted in significant increases to VO2max, even in the highly trained speed skaters who participated in the study. These results were comparable to VO2max increases achieved by those performing more traditional, longer-duration cardio training.
And just like that, a revolution in training was started. With the headlines touting that four minutes of exercise can get comparable results to an hour of exercise, the wildly ambitious claims started a frenzy of interest. Everyone began using Tabata’s timing of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest—with jumping jacks.
Let’s be clear. I’ve never done a true Tabata workout. And most likely, you haven’t either. It’s impossible to do true Tabata training with squat thrusts, push-ups, treadmills or barbells. The majority of humans will never do anything at 170% of VO2max. You can do intervals of 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest, but it is not considered a true Tabata training interval unless you are using the same impossible levels of intensity used in the original Tabata study.
Exercise time and intensity have an inverse relationship. The harder you go, the shorter you last. The longer you last, the less hard you work. Even if you could do a “true” Tabata intensity class, who would really show up for only a four-minute workout? Imagine health clubs paying instructors and trainers full fees for a four-minute class or training session.
Clearly, however, there is something valuable in this idea. For too long, people focused on how long they were exercising for, especially when it came to traditional cardio. The Tabata study blew apart the convention that more time equals better workout.
The Practical from the Impractical
Knowing that true Tabata interval training is impossible to perform in the real world, what can you take from the Tabata study and actually use? How can you use it to benefit your students and clients?
You can use Tabata-inspired interval training. What does this look like? Essentially, it is interval training that features work intervals that are twice as long as the recovery interval. This means creating high-intensity intervals where the intensity is still “high,” but relative to anyone’s fitness abilities. ACE studied Tabata-style training and the resulting article featured great workout options from leading fitness experts.
Mindy Mylrea, creator of a Tabata Boot camp program, had the Tabata-Inspired interval method put to the test to prove its effectiveness. In this study, subjects worked out for six minutes (one-minute warm-up; four minutes of interval training with 20:10 timing; one-minute cool down); subjects were kept sedentary for one day prior and for two days after. Their oxygen consumption was measured 48 hours after exercise and was found to produce an EPOC of five times the number of calories burned during the workout itself. The workout provided a boost over baseline levels of oxygen use at rest.
The Big Takeaway
With the elevation in baseline metabolic rate as far out as 48 hours post exercise, the implications for fat loss are huge. Interestingly, the calories burned during exercise become increasingly less important. Why? Because at higher intensity, more of the energy for exercise comes from carbohydrate. But at rest, the majority of the energy needs come from fat. If you kick up metabolism for 48 hours after exercise, and after exercise your body’s energy use comes more from fat than from carbohydrate, you are not only elevating metabolism for a significant duration of time, but a higher percentage of fuel is being burned from fat.