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Tabata training

Tabata training has become very famous these days. And why not? Imagine a workout program you can do at home in just a few minutes and delivers results. Who wouldn’t want it, right?

Tabata is an intense, fast-paced workout that consists of 7-8 cycles of 20-second intense exercise plus 10 seconds of rest. Tabata protocol requires maximal effort to optimize results. Nowadays, there’s a tendency to call pretty much any workout as Tabata just because it follows the 20 on/10 off protocol. What would be best is to call these workouts Tabata-inspired or Tabata-style as the original Tabata workout is not just about the number and length of the exercise cycles.

To fully understand what Tabata workout is, let’s go back to how, when and where it started.

The Father of Tabata Training.

Dr. Izumi Tabata is a Japanese researcher and professor credited for pioneering the Tabata protocol. For years, Dr. Tabata has been researching on the aerobic and anaerobic systems. In the early 1990’s he met Irisawa Koichi, the Olympic speed skater team’s coach, and collaborated with him to study the effects of Mr. Koichi’s workout program for his speed skaters.
In the initial research published in 1996, they examined 2 groups of amateur male athletes in their 20’s to see what type of workout produces the best results. The first group pedaled on an ergometer for one hour at moderate intensity. The second group pedaled on an ergometer with maximal effort for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. This was done for 4 minutes with the participants completing 7 to 8 cycles. Both groups performed the workout for 5 days a week, that’s a total of 5 hours for the first group and 20 minutes for the second group. The test lasted for 6 weeks.

The results of the 6-week program showed:

  1. Aerobic Process. Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise of increasing intensity. It determines how efficient a person is during aerobic exercises. Both groups improved their VO2max. The first group is expected to perform well since the training they did is specifically for this result. On the other hand, it was surprising for the second group to perform well as they were doing sprints instead of long-duration training.
  2. Anaerobic Process. As expected, the second group had significant improvement in their performance while the first group didn’t improve. This is due to sprint training requiring more anaerobic processes than long duration training.

The surprising results show that a 4-minute workout program can deliver the same aerobic results as that of long duration workouts and at the same time improve anaerobic process. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone and for only 4 minutes of your time!

With the stellar results of the research, it was only a matter of time before word spread and followers started falling in line. From athletes to celebrities to everyday people, Tabata steadily became popular and has now become one of the favorite core workouts out there.

But with its popularity came the unexpected. From a 4-minute workout on an ergometer, people started adding different exercises and labeled it Tabata-style or even Tabata. And they thought,” if you can get stellar results in just 4 minutes, imagine the results you’ll get if you do it for 20 minutes!” This is problematic because it takes away from the original research and misleads a lot of people thinking they will get the same results when they’re doing something completely different.

Somehow in all the excitement, the essence of Tabata protocol got lost in translation. The idea of a maximal effort, sprint-like exercise became less significant and the 20 on/10 off timing became the focus, without people realizing that Tabata training is not Tabata training without one or the other. And to do “Tabata” beyond 4 minutes means you’re not exercising with maximal effort.

Gibalas and Burgomasters.

If you want to do it differently, do it the way Martin Gibala and Kirsten Burgomaster. They conducted a separate research on slightly different maximal effort workouts and came up with similar results compared to other endurance training workouts. What they did differently in their version of the protocol is to allow longer rest. Instead of the 20-second maximal effort sprints, it was 30-second maximal effort sprints followed by 4 minutes of rest, 4-7 cycles and only 3 times a week.

The results are similar to Tabata’s original research. They found benefits on aerobic and anaerobic processes, and a link to fat loss. Their research presented a slightly different option for people without having to label it Tabata. A lot of people will find these variations preferable since it allows longer periods of rest and less frequent sessions per week.

Tips for Tabata Success.

  • For beginners, take it slow. Start with exercises with less intensity and once you’ve built your strength and endurance, move to a full Tabata intervals. It’s also best to pick exercises with less risk of injury. Forcing yourself to finish the full Tabata program might do more harm than good.
  • Intensity over intervals. Tabata training is all about maximal intensity for a short period of time. Doing more sets than the prescribed 4-8 sets won’t give you better results.
  • Not all exercises are fit for Tabata. Calf raises and bicep curls may sound good exercises but they won’t necessarily give you the same cardiovascular results.
  • Here are some of the best exercises for optimum results: cycling, swimming, rowing, jumping rope, sprinting and sled push. The key is to put maximal effort in the exercises.

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