Tabata Training-The Ultimate 4-Minute Workout

HFE Tutor with student
Tutor with student

Tabata Training is said by many to be the ‘ultimate’ 4-minute workout that challenges both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways in a way like no other. Based on the original work conducted by the Japanese scientist ‘Izumi Tabata’ in 1996 (published in 1997), this approach is fundamentally high-intensity, or shall we say ‘maximal’ intensity interval training.

The purpose of Tabata’s research was to compare the level of stress, and subsequent training adaptations on both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems during high-intensity cycling intervals. The subjects consisted of an all male group of University students who each competed in a wide-range of additional sporting activities. 

The techniques employed by Tabata and his colleagues during his 6-week research programme required exercisers to perform 20 seconds of ‘all out’ exercise on a mechanically braked ergometer, followed by 10 seconds of rest –this was defined as the ‘IE1 protocol’. The work phase of the interval was estimated to be around 170% of the subject’s maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max). The intervals were repeated until a total of 8 full intervals had been completed. Participants performed this gruelling regime on 5 days per week, and on the 5th day they also performed 30-minutes of steady state exercise before their interval session.

The study concluded that high-intensity intermittent exercise, as defined by the IE1 protocol, taxes both the anaerobic and aerobic pathways causing them to release energy maximally. Furthermore those using this protocol also demonstrated greater improvements in VO2 max (7 comparison to steady state exercise performed at approximately 70% of VO2 max. Finally, IE1 participants also exhibited a 28% improvement in their anaerobic power, even though their anaerobic capacity did not change.

In recent years many fitness professionals and enthusiasts have advocated this approach as the ‘ultimate 4-minute workout’ that has the potential to deliver superior gains in fitness, and in such a short space of time. Promoted as ‘Tabata training’, the replication of this protocol invariably involves some form of resistance or bodyweight exercises being performed ‘all out’ for 20 seconds, followed by a 10 second rest before the exercises are repeated. Some proponents of the modified protocol also recommend alternating the exercises used on a set-by set basis to prevent the onset of fatigue, creating an almost circuit style session.

There is no doubt that the Tabata protocol, or even a modified version of it is challenging and may therefore be appropriate for some exercise participants seeking to promote their anaerobic power. It is imperative however that any fitness professional promoting this technique, or even a variation of it, ensures that their participants are medically fit to undertake exercise at this intensity. A full health and fitness appraisal should be conducted before exercise commences, and participants should score ‘above average’ in all relevant assessments. This protocol is not for the faint hearted and should not be performed by those who could not be classified as ‘conditioned’. Furthermore, under no circumstances should participants with ‘primary’ cardiovascular risk factors (smoking, hypertension etc.) be encouraged to perform exercise at or near this intensity.

The reality of using this approach is such that most exercise participants, irrespective of their fitness status will be ill prepared for such exercise extremes, and will probably feel nauseous and/or vomit before they complete the full 8 sets. This begs the question, is this is the sort of experience a fitness instructor or personal trainer would want their participant(s) to have?

Fitness professionals should also consider the appropriateness of this method in the context of a participant’s health and fitness goals and aspirations, and evaluate whether there is truly a need to perform exercise at this intensity. 4-minutes of exercise, irrespective of the intensity, will be insufficient for achieving any significant weight/fat loss on the basis of calorie expenditure, or lack thereof.

Based on the principle of specificity, the biomechanical and physiological demands of bodyweight or resistance exercises are considerably different than those created by an ergometer. It is near impossible to achieve the same level of intensity using these exercises in the same time frame, and it is extremely unlikely that participants would achieve ‘true’ failure, or near failure on each work set performed. While a ‘modified IE1 protocol’ may replicate the work-to-rest ratio of the Tabata research of 1996, this is really where the similarities end.

Finally, the original research did not seek to promote this protocol as a training method/approach, and those prescribing it as such should question how appropriate it is to do so. Advocates of the protocol should also question the appropriateness of even calling it Tabata training –because it most likely is not! 

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