Tabata – a bit of history
What we know as tabata is due to a Japanese scientist who was looking for a method to increase the maximal oxygen uptake in professional athletes. Dr Izumi Tabata – then an employee of the National Institute for Health and Nutrition in Tokyo and a member of the coaching staff of Japanese speed skaters – developed, in 1996, the research findings that underpinned the training formally known since 2013 as the “Tabata Protocol”. Tabata, like its creator, has become hugely popular around the world. Today, you will find this type of class in every fitness club, although it differs significantly from its prototype.
Tabata – what is it about?
Technically speaking, tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Short, maximally intense training units are designed to improve the athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic capacity. The original Tabata Protocol is based on significantly shortened training units, performed at extreme intensity – at 170% of the maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max). It lasts for six weeks and the plan is as follows:
- 4 interval workouts consisting of 20 seconds work and 10 seconds rest with an intensity of 170% VO2max – you repeat the training block 7-8 times;
- 1 workout – 30 minutes at 70% VO2max, followed by 4 blocks of 20/10 s intervals at 170% intensity.
Sounds frightening? Don’t forget that the original Tabata Protocol was developed with professional athletes in mind. For this reason, the fitness version of tabata does not involve as extreme an effort, but instead the training session lasts longer – consisting, for example, of several four-minute rounds plus a warm-up and stretching. There is a good reason for this – longer running time allows more calories to be burned, and the intensity, lowered to around 115% VO2max, makes the workout accessible and feasible for more people.
What does tabata give you?
The primary aim of tabata is to increase your aerobic and anaerobic capacity. This workout improves overall fitness and endurance, increases the strength of the muscles exercised, and has health effects on the heart and circulatory system. But after all, that’s not why you’re reading this article, is it? You want to find out if tabata is really a miracle way to combat excess weight. And we are here to tell you the whole truth and separate it from popular myths.
Tabata has been (and is) promoted as a wonder weapon in the fight against body fat. Four minutes of extremely intense exercise has been said to produce better results than long hours of lower-intensity activities and other types of HIIT training. The secret of tabata was supposed to be EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) – the phenomenon of “oxygen debt” that occurs after a period of intense exercise and causes the body to burn more calories during rest and recovery. The original Tabata Protocol, due to its extreme intensity, actually triggered the process very quickly compared to other HIIT workouts – even though 4 minutes of exercise only equates to around 60 calories burned.
The problem is that the original Tabata Protocol was prepared with professional athletes in mind, who were unlikely to need to slim down, but to increase their performance under extreme strain. Tabata-style training done in a fitness club is unlikely to approach this level – the EPOC effect will therefore come later and not be as strong and long-lasting. Stories that 4 minutes of tabata burns as many calories as 45 minutes of classic cardio should therefore be treated as fairy tales.
Nevertheless, a fitness tabata is a good choice if you want to lose weight. The training session lasts 45-50 minutes (with warm-up and stretching) and consists of several rounds, during which you will burn up to approximately 500 calories and benefit from the EPOC effect during recovery. In short, a fitness tabata will help you lose weight faster than the original version, which you probably won’t be able to do anyway. Of course, no amount of training can compensate for an inadequate diet. So if you want to have the figure of your dreams – start in the kitchen.
If you maintain a constant calorie deficit and exercise regularly, you will notice the effects of tabata after about a month. Weight loss and fat reduction will be accompanied by a rise in your maximal oxygen uptake – your body will become accustomed to intense effort. You will find it easier to exercise, but the effectiveness of tabata (like other HIIT workouts) will gradually decrease.
Is tabata for everyone?
Tabata has the same advantages and disadvantages that you will find in other types of high-intensity interval training. First of all, it is easily accessible. You can do this type of workout on your own or under the guidance of a trainer, at home or at the gym, or in organised classes at a fitness club. Tabata intervals are also easily scalable – you can perform them both based on simple and familiar exercises (e.g. push-ups, squats, burpees, boxing run), with the help of machines (rowing ergometer, exercise bike), as well as using more advanced movement patterns with or without a weight. The key is to control exercise time using a stopwatch, crossfit timer or any of the available apps dedicated to tabata.
The athletic pedigree and consequently the high intensity of the exercise means that tabata is not a workout that can be recommended to beginners. Doing tabata – even in the milder version – requires a certain level of fitness. If you don’t have it, you will lose your breath, get cramps, fail to complete your workout and become discouraged from this form of exercise.
The same goes for technique – a lack of mastery of the basics and control of the movements performed, combined with killer pace of the interval, can lead to muscle cramps, pain and injury.
Tabata is also not recommended for people who are clearly overweight, have cardiovascular diseases or joint injuries – if the high intensity of the exercise could put your health at risk, it is better to choose a different type of workout.
Bottom line: everyone can practice tabata, but not everyone should do it.
Tabata – how to exercise?
The easiest way to start is to visit your local fitness club and take a class under the guidance of a trainer. This will allow you to assess what level of technique and fitness you are coming in with, familiarise yourself with the intensity of tabata in a controlled manner and select a level of training suited to your capabilities. However, if you want to exercise on your own – at home, outdoors or in a gym – bear the following in mind:
- warm-up is a must – start the high-intensity training with 10 minutes of warm-up. Get your body moving, increase your temperature a little and get your heart rate up before moving on to doing intervals.
- don’t bite off more than you can chew – choose the type and level of exercise to suit your ability, start with simpler movements whose technique you have mastered well.
- control the time – without this, no interval training can be successful. Use a stopwatch, crossfit timer or one of the tabata apps.
- it’s supposed to be intense – the effectiveness of tabata depends on whether you perform the intervals scrupulously – that is whether you enter the anaerobic zone within 20 seconds of work. Heart rate measurement is a useful, though not necessarily accurate, guide here – use a heart rate monitor.
- be careful with food – don’t exercise on an empty stomach or immediately after a meal! Nausea, fainting, exercise-related transient abdominal pain and other such sensations are not conducive to successful workouts.
- water and a towel are your friends – you will sweat, and sweat a lot! You’d better have them at hand.
- don’t forget to stretch – it’s always better to stretch than to get cramps.
Read also: “12 Stretching Exercises to Prevent Injury”.
We wish you many successful training sessions and rewarding results!
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