The Birth of Tabata Training

Training while travelling has always been a pain for me. While I try my best to find hotels close to gyms or with some adequate facilities, chances are I’ll get caught out every once and a while. Though not boasting the largest lifting numbers, certainly much lower than much of the site’s readership, there are times when even I’m confronted with weights too light for a decent workout. This has been the case at several points this summer when travel to remote locations has brought me into the domain of cheap, ill equipped and frankly strange hotel gyms. On the latter point, one gym boasted solely lime green dumbbells weighing no more than 25 pounds. That such devices ever seemed like a great idea is…quite frankly…mind boggling.

Once my panic attacks/anger passes, I get to work as best I can and in this regard tabata training, especially when it comes to training with a short amount of time, has been a godsend. For those unaware, Tabata training is a relatively straightforward concept. Exercise for twenty seconds at a high intensity, rest for ten seconds and then repeat for 8 rounds. While the initial research concerned itself primarily with cardiovascular forms of training such as bike riding, subsequent proponents have used Tabata style training for a range of bodyweight and free weight systems. So in today’s post we’re going to examine the history of Tabata training. Who invented it? How did it become so popular and how can it best be used in the average gym.

The Birth of Tabata

Why tell you when I can use snazzy Hollywood razzle-dazzle to wow you!

So yes that is a real video and no I don’t know why more training programmes don’t have videos like this. My wishlist for sexy movie style trailers include bicep curls, back squats and the bench press. Sadly I think I’ll have to wait a while longer.

Snazzy videos aside, the astute amongst you will perhaps object and say that interval style training has long existed within the health and fitness industry. Heck even the founder of Tabata, Izumi Tabata noted the existence of interval training in the 1930s with the Swedish running coach Gösta Holmér’s Fartlek training and the training protocols of Dr. Woldemar Gerschler in Germany during the same period. Dr. Tabata was not unique in this regard as within the running community, as interval style training is typically dated to the 1930s if not earlier in some cases. What was so special then about his form of training? Heck what exactly was his form of training?

Well typically when people refer to Tabata’s work they’re referring to the following 1996 study conducted alongside K. Nishimura, M. Kouzaki, Y. Hirai, F. Ogita, M. Miyachi and K. Yamamoto. As an aside you can perhaps understand why Tabata became the shorthand nickname because the time needed to credit everyone is a workout in and of itself! Anyway back to the study. Done using two groups of elite athletes on stationery bikes, the team divided the groups into two training protocols to examine the effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. It was not, and I repeat, NOT, concerned with fat loss or muscle building. Instead its focus was on anaerobic capacity and V02 max (here’s a cheat sheet explaining all). So group one, those blessed with the moderate form of training were asked to cycle at an intensity not exceeding 70% of their V02 max. Think of this as steady state cardio five times a week. Group number two, and undoubtedly the unlucky ones of the bunch, were trialled with a far more intense protocol. Using the Tabata method, that is 20 seconds on and 10 seconds rest, the group were required to exercise in excess of 170% of their V02 max. In effect they were asked to produce maximum effort 8 times in a short duration. Now while many of us believe we train hard, 170% of your V02 max on any form of anaerobic exercise is enough to make you heart feel likes its pumping out of your chest, your ears ring and your mind to question why you hate yourself. In short, it was tough…very tough.

At the end of the study, the results appeared promising

adequate high-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supplying systems significantly, probably through imposing intensive stimuli on both systems

So that brings us to a Japanese lab in the early 1990s. Tabata and his team’s findings were published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal in 1996 and then somehow exploded into the popular training sphere. What happened?

The Problematic Rise of Tabata 

Amazingly Tabata’s findings were brought to the attention of the muscle building community in a remarkably short space of time. In 1997 Clarence Bass was commenting on Tabata Training for Ripped magazine. In a balanced piece Bass concluded that

Progress by this method, of course, comes at a price. Tabata’s 1E1 protocol is physically and psychologically taxing. It requires considerable motivation. Dr. Tabata, in a personal communication, warned Dick Winett: “This protocol [was] invented to stress the cardiovascular systems of top Japanese [speed] skaters who got medals in the Olympic games. Therefore, the protocol is very tough. The subjects lay down on the floor after the training.” Tabata wondered how many people would “feel eager to do this type of exercise.”

Still, for those who are fit and healthy (if you have questions about your health by all means check with your doctor) and up to the challenge, Tabata offered this encouragement: “From the theoretical point of view, the higher the oxygen uptake obtained in a specific training protocol, the higher the improvement of VO2max.”

Good luck.

While Bass was not the first to comment on Tabata’s appeal, his was an influential voice. Similarly important for weight lifters at least was Dan John’s 2004 article on the topic for T-Nation. By 2007 the system was being used in Crossfit workouts, which one suspects helped to broaden its appeal even further. In North America, Tabata became part of the official training curriculum for personal trainers from 2010. Such was Tabata’s rise that Forbes magazine could confidently state that Tabata training had changed the fitness industry as early as 2013. There was just one problem…  few people were actually doing Tabata training.

What?

You read it right. In one of my favourite articles on the subject, Early to Rise made a compelling case that few exercisers are actually doing Tabata workouts. Returning to Tabata’s study, the exercisers worked at 170% of their V02 max, a level of intensity rarely seen in individual exercise programmes utilising 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off. Put another way, people rarely exercise at the intensity needed to truly replicate a Tabata workout. Those using barbells or dumbbells are training hard but the intensity needed to reach 170% of your V02 max would require a level of intensity bordering on reckless. Instead people have fallen into using good old fashioned intervals and calling them something else.

So What Does this Mean?

Truth be told, very little. If you truly want to experience a Tabata workout, you need an all out intensity and not just a simple work set. From my own trials things like the stationery bike or at a push the cross trainer are easiest on the joints. Having done this a few times myself, I’ll be honest, I quit after four rounds. 170% of your V02 max is no joke.

Now for those iron addicts out there, feel free to keep calling your interval training tabata workouts. There’s a lot to be gained from using a 20/10 protocol and as demonstrated by Ben Bruno’s experiments with the Front Squat, it can be one hell of a workout..

So for the average gym goer lets keep it simple. If you want to truly do Tabata think cardio. For a killer leg workout, do interval training.

Conclusions

Returning to the Early to Rise article, the author expressed their confusion at Tabata’s rise. At no point did Dr. Tabata’s work relate to fat loss but, somewhere along the way the bastardisation of Tabata’s experiment led trainers to promise all things to all people. Like so much else in the fitness industry, it pays to know the history of what you’re doing.

But hey, that training video shown at the beginning of the article was pretty cool right?

As always…Happy Lifting!

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