If Your Tabata Workout Isn’t Doing This – Then It’s Not a Tabata
You might think improving your V02 max and anaerobic capacity in just a short four-minute workout might seem too good to be true. However, the research conducted by Dr. Izumi Tabata shows that not only is it possible, but it can also produce astonishing results.
Don’t let the short duration fool you. The Tabata exercise protocol is incredibly intense, and when done correctly, could be the most brutal four minutes of training you’ve ever experienced.
But with “Tabata style” exercises gaining mainstream popularity, many training circuits claiming to be Tabata training fall short of the physiological output from the original design of Dr. Tobata’s protocol and research. And likely, won’t deliver the same results.
This article covers everything you need to know about Tabata training, the original research and physiological mechanisms at play, and how to program your own training with these methods to maximize your results without falling victim to ‘fake Tabata’ workouts.
- What is Tabata Training?
- Dr. Izumi Tabata’s Original Study
- Guide to Tabata Training:
- Mobility Athlete’s Top Tool Choice For Tabata Training
- Final Thoughts: Who is Tabata Training Right For?
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What is Tabata Training?
Tabata training is defined as training at the intensity that exhausts the athlete during the 7th or 8th sets of 20-second exercise bouts followed by 10-seconds of rest.
The intensity required for each working set hovers around 170% of the athlete’s V02 max. However, the percentage can vary from athlete to athlete when the protocol is put into practice. The measure of determining the correct level of intensity is through successfully exhausting the athlete in the final one to two working sets – the criteria for exhaustion being when the athlete can no longer maintain their working effort at the end of the set.
The two crucial elements of effective Tabata training are the 2:1 work-to-rest ratio and exercise selection allowing for proper intensity levels that lead to exhaustion in the 7-8th set.
To outline what a properly structured Tabata protocol looks like, we’ll go right to the source and dive into the details of Dr. Izumi Tabata’s original study and the results the athletes experienced after six weeks of training.
Then, we can go over the best ways to properly design your Tabata training protocols and help you avoid some of the common mistakes keeping you from getting the desired results from your training.
Dr. Izumi Tabata’s Original Study
Throughout his extensive career, Dr. Izumi Tabata has been publishing research specializing in the aerobic and anaerobic systems of the body. This combination of expertise in these two crucial energy systems for athletic performance is what set the wheels in motion for groundbreaking discovery.
In 1996, Dr. Izumi Tabata set out to take his knowledge and observations of the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems from his years of research to develop the optimal training protocol to maximize both at the same time.
Tabata’s first success in training athletes with short bouts of high-intensity training was with a group of elite Japanese speed skaters. But for his new study, he wanted to test the protocol for improving the performance of athletes at all levels.
Dr. Izumi Tabata’s original study took amateur athletes across various sports disciplines and split them into two groups. One group would train with a traditional protocol of moderate-intensity over a long period of time. And the second would apply his 2:1 high-intensity training with short rest durations. We’ll call these two groups ‘Traditional Training’ and ‘Tabata Training.’
The traditional training group used an indoor cycle ergometer for 60-minutes while maintaining a V02 max of 70% throughout the duration of their training session.
The Tabata group also used an indoor cycle ergometer. But, instead of one long sustained effort, they would pedal at maximum effort (roughly 170% V02 max) for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated for eight sets.
To establish the differences in progress and results between the two groups, the participants’ aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and anaerobic capacity (MAOD) were measured and recorded throughout the study.
Results of the Study
After a period of six weeks of training five days per week the results from the two groups drastically different protocols were in.
Traditional Training Group:
- Increase in V02 Max
- No measured increase in MAOD
Tabata Training Group
- Increase in V02 Max
- MAOD increased by a total of 28%
The results of this study tell us two things. First, you can receive similar improvements in aerobic capacity with a four-minute high-intensity training session as you would with a 60-minute traditional moderate-intensity session. Second, Tabata-style training can improve both the aerobic and anaerobic systems dramatically, at the same time.
But what do VO2 Max and MAOD have to do with athletic performance?
To answer that question, let’s break them both down and then outline how it fits into the bigger picture of your athletic development.
VO2 Max: Maximal Oxygen Consumption
Your Maximal Oxygen Consumption (VO2 max) is the rate at which your body can use oxygen during exercise.
During any form of aerobic exercise (exercise that burns oxygen for energy), how well you use the oxygen, you’re breathing in dictates the upper limits of your athletic performance.
Luckily, your VO2 max isn’t something you’re born with and then stays that way forever. Through training, you can gradually improve how well your body uses oxygen, and as a result, improve your aerobic capacity over time.
However, different training styles have more effect than others on increasing V02 max. Training intervals at high intensity have long been known for their excellent ability to improve your V02 max.
While the Tabata protocol falls into the broader category of interval/intermittent training, it does something many other training methods do not. It improves both aerobic capacity as well as anaerobic capacity.
MAOD: Maximally Accumulated Oxygen Deficit
Maximally Accumulated Oxygen Deficit (MAOD) is a way to measure your body’s anaerobic capacity.
Unlike your aerobic capacity (which uses oxygen for fuel,) your anaerobic capacity is how well your body resynthesizes ATP for energy during periods of high output.
To use cycling as an example, when you’re pedaling on the long flats during a race, you’re primarily relying on your aerobic capacity. But when you’re climbing hills, passing other racers, or sprinting towards a photo-finish, you’re relying on your anaerobic capacity.
Many exercise protocols for improving V02 max aren’t suited for also improving your Anaerobic capacity (as Tabata’s original study outlined with the traditional training group’s MAOD remaining unchanged.)
This makes the Tabata protocol a fascinating training modality for athletes whose sports require both aerobic and anaerobic energy production for maximal performance.
Guide to Tabata Training:
You may have heard the common saying, “All Scotch is Whisky, but not all Whisky is Scotch.”
Similarly, all Tabata training is a form of high-intensity interval training, but not all high-intensity interval training is Tabata training.
With the popularization of the term ‘Tabata’ in modern workout programs, many people have begun to use it synonymously with all forms of intermittent or interval training. Or worse, any exercise following a 2:1 ratio regardless of intensity level.
To guide you in the right direction of programming Tabata-style workouts (and getting Tabata-style results,) we’ll outline both the wrong way and right way to approach Tabata training.
The WRONG Way to Do Tabata Workouts
After reading this article and then reading a few “Top Tabata Workout” articles, you might be surprised by how many of them fall short of the definition of a Tabata protocol.
You might come across instructions to “Jog for 20-seconds and walk for 10-seconds” or “Jump rope for 20-seconds then rest for 10-seconds.” Or perhaps even perform circuits of resistance training for the same 2:1 interval.
While it may appear to follow the structure of Tabata training at first glance, one of the crucial elements is still missing: Intensity.
Aside from the work/rest ratio, a Tabata protocol relies on creating supramaximal (above your maximum capacity) to initiate exhaustion by the 7th-8th round. Without it, it’s unlikely you will experience results similar to the original study.
Additionally, you need an exercise that quickly ramps up to high intensity. For example, an indoor rowing machine (or the cycling ergometers used in Tabata’s original study) allows you to quickly reach supramaximal levels of aerobic and anaerobic energy production.
In contrast, an exercise like jumping rope takes time to tax your energy systems, which may even be longer than the 20-second interval, or perhaps even never reach supramaximal levels at all.
Safety is another crucial element to exercise selection. If the goal is to reach levels of exhaustion by the final two rounds of training, you need to ensure the exercise can be safely performed once your form begins to deteriorate.
While sprints or hills outside might work well for supramaximal effort, sprints or high-incline training on a treadmill could end in disaster if the goal is aerobic and muscular exhaustion.
Similarly, it might be best to avoid trendy workout challenges like “deadlift Tabatas” or other compound movements under load. Exercises like deadlifts require perfect technique to mitigate the risk of injury. If your training goal is exhaustion, a likely side effect is technique degradation, and degraded technique for a deadlift can quickly put you in dangerous territory.
The RIGHT Way to Do Tabata Workouts
The right way to approach Tabata training is to select exercises and equipment that allows you to effectively (and safely) fulfill both criteria for the protocol:
- Work/Rest ratio of 2:1 (20sec : 10sec)
- Proper intensity levels that lead to exhaustion in the 7-8th set
A heart rate monitor is also an excellent addition to ensure you are maintaining adequate intensity levels. Since measuring VO2 max consistently is challenging outside of a lab, an old-fashioned heart rate monitor is a straightforward option for measuring exertion throughout your training.
There’s a good reason why Dr. Izumi Tabata used an indoor stationary bike for his original study:
- It allowed the athlete to ramp up to supramaximal intensity quickly.
- You can measure consistency and output through RPMs and Watts.
- When exhaustion sets in, the athlete simply reduces pedaling frequency – instead of getting launched off the back of a treadmill.
With that in mind, the tools and exercises you select for Tabata training should have the same features to maximize your success with the training protocol.
Here are a few excellent options to consider:
Best Tools and Exercises for Tabata Levels of Max-Effort
- Stationary Bike
- Indoor Rowing Machine
- Assault Bike
- Weighted Sled
- Battle Ropes
- Some Bodyweight and Resistance Exercises
Mobility Athlete’s Top Tool Choice For Tabata Training
After plenty of trial and error, the “Misery Machine” itself proved to be our favorite tool for Tabata training.
The Assault Bike has a lot in common with the stationary cycle-ergometers used in Dr. Izumi Tabata’s original study: It allows you to ramp up to max effort quickly, and you can safely perform the exercise once exhaustion begins to creep up in the final rounds.
But there is something about the upper body and lower body combination and the flywheel resistance that makes using the Assault Bike in a Tabata protocol incredibly effective at triggering the anaerobic components of the training right along with the aerobic.
It’s almost as if the Assault Bike was built for Tabata-style training. And we’re not alone in thinking that. When entering “Interval Mode,” the default setting is a 20sec-10sec 2:1 interval.
The interval mode is excellent for maximizing your session. A simple interface that counts down your working set, signals you to begin your rest period, and tracks your Watts, speed, and RPM. Ensuring you’re not being inconsistent with your ratio or effort each round.
Overall, the Assault Bike is an excellent choice for this training style. It’s one of the few tools you can add to your gym that you will love just as much as you hate. And you’ll find yourself coming back to it often for its unique ability to produce lung-bursting, muscle-burning workouts.
Final Thoughts: Who is Tabata Training Right For?
Tabata training is an incredibly effective tool for developing both the body’s aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.
But, like many other forms of interval training, it’s also incredibly intense. And by design, it places large quantities of stress on your cardiovascular and anaerobic systems.
For that reason, it’s a good idea to have a decent base level of fitness before jumping straight into it.
If you’re a beginner, you should always first consult your doctor or preferred healthcare provider before starting any new exercise protocol- especially high-intensity training.
Lastly, before starting your Tabata session, it is crucial to have a solid warm-up routine. If you’re looking for one that covers all the bases, check out our article on the Ultimate Dynamic Warm-Up.