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Sometime before HIIT became a thing, another form of workout reigned the fitness universe – Tabata training. Technically, HIIT is an umbrella term which includes the Tabata regimen, but it only became popular more than a decade after Tabata protocol gained notoriety in the fitness and scientific communities alike. With a promise of faster fat-burning compared to the traditional steady-state cardio, all in 20 minutes or less, trying out the Tabata protocol is tempting, to say the least. Nevertheless, some people are left disappointed, not because Tabata doesn’t work, but because they don’t know what it actually entails and they end up doing it wrong.  


A brief history

The Tabata protocol was named after Izumi Tabata, who is now a dean at Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Sport and Health Science, although Dr Tabata himself claims that the same kind of technique was first used by Irisawa Koichi, an Olympic speed skating coach. On October 1st, 1996, Dr Tabata published (together with his colleagues, Ouji Nishimura, Motoki Kouzaki, Yuusuke Hirai, Futoshi Ogita, Motohiko Miyachi and Kaoru Yamamoto) an article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise titled ’Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and ˙VO2max’. 


The study

The study included two types of training, both performed on the same device – a mechanically braked cycle ergometer. Dr Tabata tried to quantify the effects that 6 weeks of moderate-intensity endurance training had on anaerobic capacity, versus 6 weeks of high-intensity intermittent training. Anaerobic capacity is the ability of the body to function without using oxygen. Naturally, you’re supposed to function without oxygen for shorter time intervals – while you lift heavy weights or sprint. During those few seconds, the body essentially doesn’t have time to bring oxygen to the muscles, so what it does instead is it functions solely by using up the ATP molecules (the so-called ’energy’ molecules) that are fuel obtained from the food we eat. The higher your anaerobic capacity, the more capable you are of effectively using ATP as fuel for the muscles – thus burning greater amounts of fat during those high-intensity intervals.

During the moderate-intensity endurance training, seven subjects trained with 70% VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake), 60 minutes per day, 5 days a week. Upon the completion of the training, their VO2max had increased, but the anaerobic capacity hadn’t increased significantly. 

However, after the subjects performed high-intensity interval training 5 days per week, for 6 weeks, their VO2max increased almost the same as with endurance training (the difference was slight), but their anaerobic capacity also increased by a whopping 28%! This study proved that high-intensity intervals were better for the body overall than the traditional endurance cardio. But how exactly did the subjects achieve this amazing result?.


How to do it right

In order for the Tabata protocol to have the same effects on your body and overall health, we need to get one thing straight. Most people that do ’interval training’ are doing basic cardio. What that means is they do 10 minutes on a stationary bike with maybe 40-50% VO2max and during the ’high-intensity’ intervals, they increase their VO2max to perhaps 70 or 80%. That’s when things quickly go downhill and people fail to see results. The problem is, they don’t have a realistic idea of how hard they’re pushing themselves.  

The right way to do the Tabata protocol is to do a 10-minute warm-up at the intensity of about 70% VO2max, followed by 7 or 8 intervals of high-intensity cycling. One interval should consist of 20-second exercise done at about 170% VO2max, followed by a 10-second rest. Yeah, we know, you’re probably asking yourself, How the heck can I know at what VO2max intensity am I doing my exercise? And you’re right. Without doing it in a controlled environment while being monitored by experts in the field, it’s virtually impossible to estimate that on your regular Thursday night at the gym. While you can’t really know your VO2max, it’s worth noting that any subject who was unable to perform the whole high-intensity interval at 90% maximum heart rate, was disqualified from Dr Tabata’s study. So this piece of information clarifies what should be done in order to reap all the benefits Tabata training can offer.

In short, to truly replicate (modify) Tabata in your local gym – do 10 minute warm-up of steady-state cardio (at about 70% - 80% MHR), followed by eight 20 seconds ON-10 seconds OFF intervals of ultra-high-intensity exercises performed at 90%-100% MHR (use a spin bike or bodyweight cardio movement e.g sprints). After you finish your HIIT intervals, follow it up by 5 more minutes of steady-state cardio as a cool down, and you’re done! You’ve just had a complete, 19-minute HIIT workout that not only substitutes 1 whole hour of endurance training but is also much better for your body! But remember the magic is in the 4-minute Tabata interval and your intensity.


Tabata protocol vs. other HIIT routines

Dr Tabata and his colleagues did a subsequent study, in which they quantified the benefits of the regular Tabata protocol, compared to a HIIT format that consisted of 4-5 sets of 30-second high-intensity exercises followed by a 2-minute rest. While that type of workout has its benefits, the study concluded that the 20s-10-s Tabata protocol is more effective. As it turns out, the devil is in the details – the shorter rest time, intensity and workout duration is what significantly increases our body’s anaerobic capacity.

The findings of the original Tabata study are somewhat intuitive: 22 years later, it comes as no surprise that jogging for 10 miles likely won’t increase your ability to do a 0.3-mile sprint, while including sprints in your regular run will make you more capable of sprinting as well as running long distances. The study proved what basketball and football coaches had been saying to the kids they trained for decades: “Change the pace while running, you’ll be faster!”.