High intensity interval training (HIIT) has exploded onto the mainstream fitness scene, and is a prominent part of every intelligent person’s fat loss training program. With this increased exposure, it’s no wonder someone got a hold of the scientific research on interval training and spun it the wrong way.
Thousands of trainees are using one particular type of interval training – without a clue what they’re really doing.
Professor Izumi Tabata and friends in Japan created this 4-minute ultra intense protocol and tested it on his Olympic speed skating guinea pigs in 1996.
Today’s version of Tabata in commercial gyms is far from the real deal. Tabata training requires “exhaustive intermittent training consisted of seven to eight sets of 20-s exercise at an intensity of about 170% of VO2max with a 10-s rest between each bout.” That quote is from the study itself (1).
It’s time to dispel the myths right now…
Can the real Tabata protocol please stand up? (Rap on).
Why Tabata Fails
Mistake #1: You’re NOT doing Tabata
Hands up if you’ve read the study? If you’re not a science fan, it’s like alien language. Despite the widespread use of this training protocol, no one actually has a clue what it really means.
Sure, so I’ll enlighten you now.
The control group of athletes did steady state (70% VO2max) training 5 times per week, similar to what most people consider cardio at the gym.
The Tabata group did a 10-minute steady state warm up followed by 7-8 continuous cycles of 20 seconds at 170% VO2 max, then 10 seconds of rest on a braked cycle ergometer.
In the original study, the athletes trained 4 times per week using Tabata, PLUS another day of steady-state training at 70% VO2 max with the other group.
That’s right, over a course of a week, the athletes did one day of steady state cardio as well.
Let go back for a moment.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to sprint at 170% VO2 max for 2 seconds, let alone 20 seconds?
That is where most people screw up. You measure VO2 max by getting someone to ride a cycle ergometer while measuring oxygen uptake, and increasing the wattage until oxygen uptake no longer continues to rise. That’s 100% VO2 max.
Think total exhaustion. I’ve been there. You feel dizzy, nauseous and want to go home. It’s not like a hill sprint in spinning class.
Now you increase the wattage to 170% of that value.
That’s 170% VO2 max. Go for 20 whole seconds. Imagine how fun that is (insert sarcasm).
You. Might. Die.
That is the intensity for a TRUE Tabata interval. Every single interval is truly an ultra-maximal effort. It feels more like an hour of exercise.
The thought of doing that myself, let alone my clients, makes my stomach churn. Listen. Nausea, vomiting and dizziness are not welcome in any of my training programs.
First of all it’s NOT enjoyable for one second, which means the likelihood of you sticking with the program is very slim. Plus, I’m really bad at cleaning up mess, especially bodily fluids.
So as you can see, the research is very difficult to apply to the real world.
Mistake #2: It’s Effective for Fat Loss
Nowhere in the Tabata study did they mention anything about its effectiveness for fat loss. They didn’t even study it.
So sure, maybe it does work for accelerating fat loss, or not. It’s unknown. I personally think Tabata would work for fat loss, (well it better right?) but it’s never been tested against any other interval training method.
The original Tabata protocol was created for performance base and tested aerobic and anaerobic output of the athletes.
Yes, you may lose fat doing Tabata training, but according to this research protocol, it’s unclear.
Mistake #3: Using the Wrong Equipment
From the research study, you can see they used a cycle ergometer. It’s a special, expensive bike found in University research labs. You can’t buy one from the sports shop down the road and ride it to work.
What type of exercises can you do at 170% VO2 max? Ah, not many. The treadmill becomes the deadmill. It’s really dangerous, because literally you can fall off and splatter yourself.
Some folks at the gym are doing “Tabata” squats, “Tabata” burpees, or God forbid, “Tabata” crunches. It’s NOT the real deal.
In fact, you don’t even come close to the intensity. Most of the sets are submaximal, and maybe by the final set you get close to a maximal effort. But as we determined in the first point, every single interval is more than a maximal effort.
This is not to say doing 4 minute intervals with 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest are completely worthless or wrong. The Canadian study conducted at the Queen’s University in 2012 proves otherwise (2). They showed doing 20-10 intervals of bodyweight exercises does work for increasing cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, but it’s not the same as true Tabata.
Keep on rocking the 20-10 intervals if it’s working for you. Just don’t call it Tabata when it’s not. Think of a more creative name, like “20-10 intervals”.
You can find out more about my unique replacement for interval training here at Fat Loss Accelerators.
Kate Vidulich, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer
1. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al.(1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc 28 (10): 1327–30.
2. McRae G, Payne A, et al. (2012). Extremely low volume, whole-body aerobic-resistance training improves aerobic fitness and muscular endurance in females. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 37(6):1124-31.
If you like workout challenges then jump back to part 4, of this expert interview series with the creator of the Hurricane Training System.
Craig: Let’s switch it up and talk about your Training for Men articles that you’ve been doing recently. We’re going to totally switch away from body weight training and talk to us about some of the exercises you think have disappeared that are maybe really worthwhile putting back in.
Here at Turbulence Training we have a bit of a meathead series of workouts that would probably go really well with the ideas here.
Martin: I created this series, it’s on T Nation Now if anybody wants to check it out. It’s called Train Like a Man. One of the things that I noticed was going on in the industry was it was almost like everything was becoming so foo-foo. Everything was becoming so scientific and rehab oriented, and I really believe that there were just people really almost pushing people away from exercise.
It was almost like, “Oh, if your ankle doesn’t Dorsey flex to 12 degrees and it’s only 10, you have to do a year of this foam roll. Nobody’s allowed to do a sit-up anymore. Overhead press is dangerous. Dead lift will hurt your back. You shouldn’t squat anymore, it’s only one leg.”
What I tried to say was there’s nobody taking the other side of this argument. I’ve produced world champions in many, many sports utilizing all the things that everybody’s saying not to do, as well as took regular people and really got them fit doing all the things that somebody might be blogging about or writing about that maybe didn’t have the same experience.
I started to do these articles about the topic and it really hit a nerve. These were some of the more popular articles that were written on the entire site, thousands of likes and hundreds of thousands of views.
So many people got behind the message.
Then I would write another article and another article, and now I think the series is up to eight or nine articles in the Train Like a Man series. There’s stuff about the evolution of exercise, like you had talked about, what I call the outlaws of exercise.
I’m trying to take a standpoint, but at the same time stir the pot to get people interested again to take a look back. That was the whole purpose.
I’m not ever going to be there to point fingers or say somebody’s right or somebody’s wrong, but what I was trying to do was make an argument for both sides. Let us not forget that sometimes you have to get in there.
The heart and philosophy of Train Like a Man is you have to get in there and kick some ass. You have to get in there and get after it. You have to get in there and move some weight.
No matter what anybody says, you can’t take these things away and say, “All you have to do is a five minute plank and there’s your workout.” I was just attacking some of that because the last thing I want is to make anybody else softer on this planet. We have enough people like that right now. I was trying to fire people up and get them going, and it definitely hit the mark.
If anybody’s listening who wants to check out the Train Like a Man series, I guarantee they’re entertaining, there are cool videos, and if what I said just resonated with you, it will get you fired up.
Craig: Speaking of that, you’ve kind of broached the topic of people need to train harder, but people need to back off. Where can people figure out exactly where they need to be in a training session? How much volume should somebody’s actual training component really be on a daily basis or on a weekly basis?
We’re talking about a guy or a woman who wants to be above average fitness, relatively low body fat, like 10% for a guy, 16% for a woman. What does that person need to do?
Martin: Another great question. I get that one a lot. Here’s how I’ll answer it, which I think is interesting.
So many people out there, I think everybody thinks, “Oh man, if I’m going to work out and I’m really going to be fit like you described, I’m going to try to get to 10%. I have to workout seven days a week, hours a day.” Then they start to think about that and they say, “I don’t have seven days a week, hours a day.” Then all of a sudden they don’t work out at all.
What I would recommend to people is three or four training sessions a week is optimal. I’d use that with my highest level athletes, I have used that with myself. There are a few reasons. Number one, you don’t get better when you’re training. The results happen when you are recovering from your training. If you have not added enough of that in, then it doesn’t work.
The person who’s that guy out in the street that you see in the mornings, he’s running at 5:30 and he’s busting his butt and he has kind of a gut and he has no muscle mass, the guy’s just eating himself alive. He’s never recovering and he’s not doing the style of training of what he wants, but that guy wants to be lean and muscular.
What I’ve found is a couple of strength training sessions and a couple of metabolic sessions a week, which is what the Training for Warriors system is, you hit a couple of those the right way and you really eat well because yes, the 10% is found in the refrigerator, not in the weight room.
If you do those two pieces together and you add in the right amount of recovery with the right amount of sleep, the body is waiting for anybody if they want to do it. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done as you know, Craig.
Yeah guys, it’s not a commercial. Three or four days a week, which essentially if you get it right, it’s about three or four hours a week, which out of 168, everybody has it. You have to make sure you get the right recovery and you have to eat well.
If people can’t do that, then they’re lying to themselves that they really wanted to be in shape. If you want to be 10%, you have to follow that formula. Most people just don’t do it, and that is the Training for Warriors formula.
When people read my books or see the system, the maximum I will allow somebody to train is four days. The nutrition information is all in there, then you have to make sure you’re following the proper methods of recovery. It almost couldn’t be simpler than that.
If somebody’s going to tell me they don’t have time, I’m busier than most people I know and I always have time for it. If I have time for it, people listening have time for it. Now it’s just time to do it.
Craig: Yeah, and you have a couple of kids, too, so it can’t be the thing they throw at me that I don’t have kids or anything. You have a couple kids and everybody on the call knows how much stuff you have going on here.
Martin: I have four kids and it’s four daughters, so when I go home I’m defending myself almost the entire time I’m there.
It’s managing your time, managing your energy, and really learning how to be effective. This is what I do on a daily basis, helping people to learn. These are all skills.
One thing I’ll throw out there that I usually throw out to everybody. In the late 1960s we put a man on the moon. You can’t tell me that you can’t find a few hours a week to workout and still get your stuff done and get to sleep on time and eat right.
So true! We’ll have to end our call for today remember to join us in part 6, where we talk recovery.
Also don’t forget to ….
Take Advantage of the Ballantyne’s Day Sale and Become a TT Platinum Member.
Train hard but safe but hard,
Craig Ballantyne, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer