Why You’re Not Actually Doing Tabata Training

Hey friends, welcome to this piece all about Tabata Training!  In the next 6 minutes, I’m going to explain to you what the “Tabata Protocol” is, and why the 20/10 intervals you may be using likely aren’t doing what you think they are. My goal in sharing this information is to help differentiate you between fitness branding and exercise science so you can achieve realistic results.  Let’s dive in!

Okay, a show of hands if you’ve heard the word “Tabata”. Perhaps you’ve done a workout that’s called a “Tabata” workout, or that word makes you think of interval training that is 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. If you’re familiar with this, you’re off to a great start.  But, did you know this:

Tabata isn’t just about a 20/10 workout, it’s actually someone’s name.  Dr. Izumi Tabata is a Japanese exercise physiologist who’s research became a darling of the fitness industry in 1996 after he published a study detailing the IE1 protocol. I’m going to explain the protocol to you, because it’s very important:

In the original study, athletes from the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating Team were required to ride 8 rounds, or intervals, of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. Those 8 work sets took place at an intensity of 170% of their VO2max, so while the workouts were short, they were incredibly intense. They did this workout 4 times per week, plus another day of steady-state training. After 6 weeks, they had obtained gains similar to a group of athletes who did lower intensity steady-state training 5 times per week, at 70% of their VO2max 5 times per week. The interval training group made similar aerobic improvements in 4 minutes of work that the aerobic training group made in 60 minutes of work.

News of this study spread like wildfire. Dr. Tabata has authored or co-authored over 100 other scholarly articles, but according to Google Scholar this single study has been cited over 800 times. As the information has spread from academic journals to fitness magazines to social media, it’s transformed from useful science to flat out disinformation.

What started as a peer-reviewed scientific study has turned into a pop-fitness lie where it seems that everything that’s done with a 20/10 timer gets the name “Tabata” slapped on it and everyone carries on their merry little way until they aren’t seeing the results that they want.

I’ve seen workouts that focus on fat-burning to muscle building, from core work to cardio. Every time, regardless of the metabolic demand of the workout, it’s a 20/10 timer with the name “Tabata” attached to it. Don’t get me wrong, a timer that alternates between 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest can provide for a fantastic workout, and we’ve been using iterations of this at MFF for the last 4 months. But 20 on and 10 off doesn’t make it the IE1 Protocol, and that means that most of us are using the good doctor’s name in vain.

The IE1 Protocol is one of many approaches to high-intensity interval training, and Dr. Tabata actually credits the idea to Olympic speed skating coach Irisawa Koichi. Speed skating is one of the most metabolically demanding sports out there, and the intensity of this training style matched the physical and psychological experience of these athletes. What well-structured high-intensity interval training gains in efficiency it trades in emotional endurance: Most people just don’t have the extreme motivation and discipline to do workouts this hard.

I say this from experience: I’ve tried to recreate the IE1 Protocol in the non-clinical setting of using an Airdyne at MFF and I pulled the plug after 2 ½ minutes because it’s absolutely miserable. My fitness level isn’t anywhere close to that of an Olympic athlete and I might not be the best at suffering, but I’d like to think I’m decent at dealing with interval training.

Or maybe not.

Again, in no way am I saying that there’s anything wrong with following a timer that alternates intervals of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest. I actually really like this format for metabolic resistance training, or cardio-with-weights, because it allows for high-quality work sets and for safe transitions between exercises. But again, 20/10 isn’t the only thing that makes something as effective as the program in Dr. Tabata’s research. Most of us don’t even know what it feels like to exercise at 170% of our VO2max, let alone to do that 8 times in a row, and then repeat it 4x per week for 6 weeks.

This is truly some of the most progressive and aggressive exercise programming possible and in co-opting the name of Dr. Tabata, we only propagate the myths that all exercise is about finding the most efficient training methods possible. When we put efficiency on a pedestal we set ourselves up for excuses about why a program didn’t work, rather than owning the fact that we didn’t do the work. My guess is that the person searching for a 4-minute maximum efficiency workout won’t be the person exercising at the necessary intensity to make that workout as effective as they think it will be. These people would actually be better suited looking at strategies to include more lower intensity training, that is more emotionally sustainable and they’re more likely to repeat on a consistent basis.

That consistent and sustainable lower-intensity training might even follow a 20 on, 10 off interval timer, but it does so with better education about what changes to expect from your body and the timeline on which to expect them. Even the timeline of 6 weeks in Dr. Tabata’s landmark study is longer than most people are willing to commit to an exercise program. We continue to throw the Tabata name around, and I believe we do it as we’re sold the story of efficiency. I’m not buying it anymore. Are you?

Alright friends, that’s it for this piece all about Tabata training. I’d love to know your thoughts: Have you ever followed a 20 on/10 off timer? Do you call it a Tabata workout? What does today’s piece of exercise education mean to you? Let me know in the comments! 

As always, you can watch the HGTV episode here:

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Hey friends, welcome to this episode of HGTV.  In the next 4 minutes, I’m going to explain to you what the "Tabata Protocol" is, and why the 20/10 intervals you may be using likely aren’t doing what you think they are. My goal in sharing this information is to help differentiate you between fitness branding and exercise science so you can achieve realistic results. Tabata isn’t just about a 20/10 workout, it’s actually someone’s name.  Dr. Izumi Tabata is a Japanese exercise physiologist who's research became a darling of the fitness industry in 1996 after he published a study detailing the IE1 protocol. A peer-reviewed scientific study has turned into pop-fitness where it seems that everything that’s done with a 20/10 timer gets the name “Tabata” slapped on it and everyone carries on their merry little way until they aren’t seeing the results that they want. I’ve seen workouts that focus on fat-burning to muscle building, from core work to cardio. Regardless of the metabolic demand of the workout, it’s a 20/10 timer with the name “Tabata” attached to it. Don’t get me wrong, a timer that alternates between 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest can provide for a fantastic workout, and we’ve been using iterations of this at @MFFClubhouse for the last 4 months. But 20 on and 10 off doesn’t make it the IE1 Protocol, and that means that most of us are using the good doctor’s name in vain. Consistent and sustainable lower-intensity training might even follow a 20 on, 10 off interval timer, but it does so with better education about what changes to expect from your body and the timeline on which to expect them. We continue to throw the Tabata name around, and I believe we do it as we're sold the story of efficiency. I’m not buying it anymore. Are you? Alright friends, that’s it for this episode of HGTV. I’d love to know your thoughts: Have you ever followed a 20 on/10 off timer? Do you call it a Tabata workout? What does today's piece of exercise education mean to you? Let me know in the comments! As always, you can read these words at HaroldGibbons.com. #FitnessIsFreedom #Tabata #TabataProtocol #tabataworkout #tabatatraining #HIIT #intervaltraining

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2 Replies to “Why You’re Not Actually Doing Tabata Training”

  1. I have a tabata app on my iPhone. I set it to 23 seconds work, 7 seconds rest, for a 10 minute workout. I use it for abs/core. I’ll swap between planks, different leg raises, side plank, this crunch type thing my chiropractor recommended for my back, etc. I like it because I would NEVER make through 5 minutes of core exercises without this. So question Harold; are these Intervals too short to be effective? Granted I’m feeling the burn only for a short time before I switch, but on the flip side it gets me doing work

    1. Great question, Ross!

      Let me offer this bird’s-eye view perspective: If you’re doing it, then it’s effective!

      In regards to that specific timer, because the goal isn’t heart rate or cardiac output, then you’re A OK using it to keep yourself moving to get your core training in.

      If you’re using it for cardio with those exercises then I think that would be a different story because muscles burning ≠ cardiac output, BUT if the goal isn’t cardiac output this is a great way to stay in task!

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