Yes, 20 seconds doing something challenging with only a 10 second rest before the next round, and repeating this about 8 times, seems like it is rooted in some serious groovy brain-tank science. And even if it isn’t, it’s still pretty effective, eh? This process, this procedure, this protocol, even has a cool name, like a hardcore brand of motorcycles…
Tabata. Damn that flows off the tongue. Say it… ta…ba…tahhhhhhh.
But you’re no stranger to the fact that all this 20/10 stuff isn’t actually THE Tabata protocol, right? If this is news, let me explain…
The year was 1996. “Macerena” toped the charts in Australia (among other places). Some guy named Kaczynski was arrested and his cabin packed up and moved. And in Japan, a man named Professor Izumi Tabata decided to upend the concept of steady-state heart rate training (what we’ve labeled “cardio” as if no other exercise uses your heart and lungs) by showing intensity, not duration, is the key to improvement. He was sort of the Mike Mentzer of the VO2 max world, being a major influence in what was often generalized as High Intensity Interval Training (yup, H.I.I.T, not to be mistaken for Mentzer’s H.I.T.).
Truth is, he was simply quantifying a protocol that a Mr. Irisawa Koichi created as head coach of the Japanese speed skating team. Yup, it was originally a drill for speed skaters, and the good coach wanted to hone its effectiveness, so he presented it to Professor Tabata (who, by the way, called it the IE1 protocol) to give it a thorough going over. Well, we know the outcome of that, don’t we? Hell yeah, it works.
Or does it?
Sure, the infamous 20 seconds of hell followed by 10 seconds of rest seems to kick our asses 6 ways to Friday, but although those time segments are an integral part of the protocol, there was something actually more important that we seem to have forgotten about.
VO2 intensity almost beyond conceivable limits.
The ENTIRE point of this concept is to rev the engine so hard that it couldn’t possibly run for any length of time before blowing a gasket. 20 seconds seemed to work. And after 10 seconds of ‘rest’ (read: not dying), ya rev it right back up. Now what kind of numbers are we talking here? After testing the figure skaters, and trying it on stationary bikes (at speeds I can only imagine), the magic zone seemed to be 170% of VO2 max.
Um… huh? How can something be more than the max? Well, here’s the quick version: Get the Watts you’re at during a VO2 max test, and then crank it quite a bit higher during the execution of the protocol. The goal is to aim for the equivalent of 170% of your max VO2.
For the record, that’s seriously intense. It was a drill used for world-class athletes. And even then often introduced for only 3-4 rounds before eventually ramping up to the ultimate goal of 8 rounds.
Now this is where the research was focused. The metabolic adaptations were as good (if not better) than the more traditional ‘aerobic’ stuff done for a much longer stretch at 70% VO2 max. So 4 minutes (well, 3:50) with off-the-chart effort in spurts was having the same outcome that folks were expecting from much longer sessions. That’s cool, right?
(By the way, it was NEVER tested for fat loss… as that was never a concern for Tabata. Keep that in mind next time ya read the hype).
So let’s recap. Was the goal of Tabata muscle exhaustion? No. And this is important, because for a VAST majority of movements being done in the name of Tabata will either beat the muscles into tapping out before the VO2 can get anywhere near that high (and making multiple consistent rounds a joke), or the range of motions in the movements are too big to get enough reps in to see much VO2 action (even super sloppy reps, which seems to be the NEW Tabata Protocol).
What can be done to truly hit that VO2 benchmark? Very few things. In fact, beyond stationary cycling (or the god-forsaken postural nightmare that is the airdyne), hill sprints and, if ya have the skill, skating… there ain’t much. Most everything else is a battle against gravity in a way that will still be challenging, but it simply won’t get that oxygen consumption and heart rate stratospherically high in that short period of time.
And another common misuse of the Tabata, in its pure form, is multiple cycles. After that 4 minutes (8 rounds), you’re done. And I mean you are done. You peel your body off the ground and go home (well, the original protocol had a small, lower intensity cool-down, but short and of no real exertion). You don’t do another intense 4 minutes… simply because you can’t.
In other words, if you CAN do more, it wasn’t what Tabata intended.
So, this trend of putting multiple ‘Tabata’ drills back to back into 12, 14 or 16 minute sweat fests, or simply using movement choices that can’t actually produce the desired intensity, prompts the question if these are allowed to use the name “Tabata.” These are fun workouts, and tough to be sure, but, and I’m just thinking out loud here, multiple “Tabatas” or sub-par VO2 “Tabatas” defeat the original purpose… and concept.
This isn’t saying that a new protocol can’t emerge, but calling anything more than a single 4 minute Tabata a ‘tabata’ is ignoring the concept of intensity. Remember, the whole point of the Tabata was to create an IMMENSE amount of intensity in a short period of time. So multiple 4-minute drills, or drills that elicit muscle exhaustion before crazy high VO2 numbers, might mean that, again, they’re not actually Tabatas. You wouldn’t hop on a leg press and call it a Squat, would ya? (please say no).
Sort of reminds me of the confusions of the hey-day of Mike Mentzer’s High Intensity Training. Although HIT has fallen out of favor for most folks pushing weights these days, his concepts of intensity should be considered. His sets were meant to be done to FAILURE, which means, simply, you COULDN’T DO ANOTHER REP, even if a gun were placed to your head and a knife at your throat (have I been watching too much Dexter?). Whether there is validity in this or not isn’t the point. The point is how this was mistakenly interpreted by many practitioners. They couldn’t push themselves that hard, so they started adding volume to achieve the wiped-out effect, completely nullifying his entire concept.
Not a Tabata?
That sort of seems to be what might be happening to the concept of Tabata. Now the 20 second/10 second concept does make for a lot of interesting possibilities, and can be utilized in more than just the arena of hardcore intensity, but can it be called Tabata if you’re not trashed after 4 minutes and your VO2 hasn’t flown to distant planets? Might that be like calling 2 sets of almost-failure sets HIT simply because they were the same set and rep scheme, without any real consideration of intensity.
A Shot o’ Tabata
Does it matter? Well, if it doesn’t taste, smell or look like a rose, instead it just has some petals sort of resembling a rose, then it ain’t a rose, by any other name or otherwise. There doesn’t seem to be any research supporting sub-crazy “Tabata” drills, so we simply have a new protocol on our hands, one that seems groovy, offers a decent challenge, but without any documented outcome resembling the effects the true Tabata, the IE1 protocol. Maybe we should consider another name… the Protocol Inspired By Tabata. Or, of course, the Protocol Formerly Named Tabata. Or just a symbol.
By the way… Tabata and Dan John have something in common. Dan has the 5 Truths of applying his Systems approach to training (as seen in our new DVD, available here.). Tabata confirmed number 2 and number 3 during his research…
Everything works… for about 6 weeks.
That’s (no surprise) how long a steady diet of Tabata kept the metabolic changes happening. After that… well, I bet you can guess what happened.
Now I know there’s a “coach” or two out there thinking right now “but we won’t use it consistently for 6 weeks… we’ll randomly throw it in a program, therefore never letting adaptation reduce the results.” Awesome. Track those results and let me know how that goes. A Bodytribe Principle (if ya wanna call it that) is that Random Attempts Produce Random Results. Tell me if you discover anything differently.
But no matter how you use it, let’s consider calling it something new.