Tabata Training and the Myth of the 4-Minute Workout

Matt Beecroft

Coach

Martial Arts, Kettlebells, Health, Fitness, Self-Defense

Fitness, HIIT, broscience, tabata, high intensity training, scientific study

In health and fitness, there is no free lunch, no shortcut, no magic pill or potion. Becoming fit and healthy, and staying fit and healthy, requires work. The fitness industry promises easy results in just minutes a day, and has tricked millions of people into wasting hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on supplements, cardio and ab machines, and 4-minute workouts.

 

None of these things are getting you healthy and fit, or muscular and ripped. And they are not going to.

 

 

Currently, most of the industry worships at the Church of High Intensity Training (HIT). You know, that “next thing” that is going to deliver all the same health and fitness benefits of moving a few hours a day, in just a few minutes a day, instead. It is an easy sell. Exercise for a fraction of the time and get the same results, right? Who doesn’t want that?

 

Like all things, there are positives to the surge in HIT’s popularity. If anything gets people off the couch and moving, even for just a few minutes per day with the aim to be healthier, as a trainer, I am all for it. If it makes someone’s goals of being healthier seem more achievable, then I am for that too. The bottom line is, if something is getting someone off the couch and moving more, hell, get doing it. Now. Even if it’s a shake weight. (Okay, maybe not; I have to draw the line somewhere.)

 

A huge number of HIT workouts are based on the famous 1996 study by Professor Izumi Tabata.1 And why not? A 4-minute workout that has both aerobic and anaerobic fitness benefits and is great for fat loss?

 

Done right, HIT can work, but not in 4 minutes. When we say that it will, we are setting people up for failure. Like all things that sound too good to be true, it actually is. And here is why.

 

The Theory of Specificity

Professor Tabata’s study was completed in 1996, using Olympic speed skaters as subjects. His study used 20 seconds of ultra-intense exercise (about 170% of VO2max) followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated continuously for 4 minutes (7-8 cycles). The exercise was performed on a mechanically-braked cycle ergometer. Tabata called this the IE1 protocol. This was done 4 days per week, with a day of steady-state training as well.

 

In other words, unless you are doing all these things…

  1. An Olympic or very high level athlete
  2. Using a mechanically-braked cycle ergometer
  3. Training at an intensity of 170% of VO2max
  4. Training 5 days a week (4 x IE1 + 1 steady-state)

 

…then you are not doing Tabata training. In fact, in the original study from 1996, participants were disqualified if they could not keep a steady cycling pace of 85RPM for the full 20 seconds of work.

 

The Steady-State Secrets

The steady-state group, who trained five days per week for one hour at 70% VO2max, had a higher VO2max at the end of the study (from 52 to 57 mL/(kg.min), and the results continued to climb over the study. The Tabata group started lower and improved more overall (from 48 to 55 mL/(kg.min) but then peaked. But you don’t hear about the results of the steady-state group, do you?

 

The group doing the IE1 Tabata protocol also did more steady-state work than HIT. You won’t find it mentioned anywhere in the dribble that is sold online, but the Olympians did a day of steady-state work for 30 minutes, and a 10-minute steady-state warm up on the four days that they completed the protocol. So at a minimum, that’s 70 minutes per week of steady-state cardio, plus cool down time. And the protocol itself was just 16 minutes for the 4 sessions. Seeing a problem yet?

 

The 4 minute Tabata isn’t looking like 4 minutes now, is it? And if the warm up, cool down, and steady-state day is actually longer in duration than the intervals, what does that say about the findings?

 

You Can’t Go That Hard

100% of someone’s VO2max is associated with exhaustion and vomiting. Think about what 170% of someone’s VO2max is like for a second. That is the intensity required for true Tabata protocol training.

 

Any sort of submaximal lift, band work, battle rope, sled, kettlebell, or callisthenic work won’t even come close to this sort of output. Usually, when testing VO2max, the wattage on the bike is turned up gradually until there is no further oxygen uptake measured. This is the point of exhaustion and vomiting. Now repeat that for 7-8 rounds with only 10 seconds’ rest.

 

Fat loss was never recorded

The biggest BS about the Tabata protocol are the claims of its efficacy for fat loss. Fat loss using the Tabata protocol has actually never been studied. There have been other studies on HIT and interval training with regard to fat loss, but not on the Tabata protocol itself.

 

Is it possible that it is effective for fat loss? Yes, since HIT in general has been proven to be effective as a tool for weight loss. Is it more or less effective than other types of training? We don’t know. Until comparative studies based on the exact IE1 protocol are done comparing it to other types of training, we won’t actually know. The study, as it was completed, tells us nothing about its usefulness in fat loss.

 

Cardio Isn’t a Sin

For some reason, the Church of High Intensity has embarked on a crusade against steady-state cardio. Steady-state training devotees are getting a slamming at the moment, and yet the benefits of it are well established:

 

  • Improved cardiovascular output
  • Improved recovery
  • Improved stroke volume and resting heart rate through adaptations to the left ventricle
  • Reduced stress through improved parasympathetic nervous system response
  • Greater aerobic base for anaerobic output

 

In fact, some studies2 even show that moderate intensity continuous training (MICT) led to greater reductions in body weight and heart rate than HIT, which is vitally important for cardiovascular disease prevention.

 

Four Minutes Will Not Get You Fit

Let’s be clear: you aren’t and never will be doing the Tabata protocol or true Tabata training. Training at this level was exhausting for Olympic-level athletes, let alone mere mortals, and carries with it an increased risk of injury, depending on the activity and skill of the participant. So let’s stop calling it Tabata training. Standards are important. Doing some interval work similar to the protocol, or other HIT is totally okay, but it is important to note that training other energy systems and doing other metabolic work like steady-state cardio are just as important.

 

Real Tabata training can be downright brutal. I don’t want to scare people back onto the couch because of the intensity that is required to train this way, especially if they are just getting back into health and fitness. Considering the overall health and comfort factor when training obese or very overweight clients, or those suffering from cardiovascular disease, steady-state cardio is my go-to. People need to get healthy before they get fit. And if we don’t terrify them, they might stick to it for longer.

 

Moving more doesn’t necessarily equate to “better,” but there will never be a substitute for putting the effort in that is required to stay healthy and gain real fitness. The cost is the cost.

 

The longest-living cultures, and those that suffer the least chronic preventable disease on the planet, engage in roughly 2-3 hours of low-to-moderate intensity physical activity most days. And here we are trying to kid ourselves we can get the same benefit in just four minutes.

 

But that’s a hard sell, isn’t it?

 

If you're looking for the easy way to get fit, you aren't going to find it:

There Are No Tricks in Fitness

 

References:

1. Tabata, Izumi, Kouji Nishimura, Motoki Kouzaki, Yuusuke Hirai, Futoshi Ogita, Motohiko Miyachi, and Kaoru Yamamoto. "Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 28, no. 10 (1996): 1327-1330.

2. Liou, Kevin, Suyen Ho, Jennifer Fildes, and Sze-Yuan Ooi. "High intensity interval versus moderate intensity continuous training in patients with coronary artery disease: a meta-analysis of physiological and clinical parameters." Heart, Lung and Circulation 25, no. 2 (2016): 166-174.

 

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