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The astonishing success of Tabata interval training has spawned what almost amounts to a whole industry, furnishing people with 'Tataba-style' workouts. But how closely do these adhere to Professor Tabata's methods?

Tabata workouts are popular because of their proven ability to deliver life-changing effects. But many of the workouts labelled "Tabata" don't have a lot to do with the work of Professor Tabata.

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Circuit workouts are hugely popular because they allow an intense training session, and people equate intensity with achievement — it was hard, so it must be good. Professor Tabata's research backs up a dismissal of traditional conditioning and endurance-cardio sessions, replacing them with HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training.

The trouble is, just because something's HIIT doesn't mean it's Tabata. And just because it's called HIIT does't really mean it is.

What Do We Mean By Tabata?

The Tabata protocol is actually a very specific training modality, created with very specific goals in mind. Professor Tabata used a regime consisting of four sessions of what we now call Tabata circuits, and one session of steady state cardio. Yes, Tabata includes steady state cardio. Maybe your interval training regime doesn't — and maybe it does. Because maybe your intensity isn't all it could be. The original study used very specific, physiological markers to determine intensity and goal setting. The steady state cardio was done at 70 percent VO2 max, while the sprints were done at 170 percent VO2 max. 

Huh?

VO2 max is peak oxygen uptake. The purpose of Tabata isn't negative rest, or getting you smoked. It's to force you to train on the other side of the aerobic threshold, using your anaerobic energy system. Seventy percent VO2 max is still quite challenging, and 170 percent VO2 max is more intense than most people are prepared to know about. 

That's why the original Tabata sessions consisted of an 8-minute warm-up and a 2-minute cool-down, and only 4 minutes of sprints. If athletes couldn't complete the sprint cycle with sufficient intensity they were stopped at 7 sprints.

To repeat: When elite skaters couldn't do a full four minutes, they had to finish early.

These were serious athletes with bags of motivation and  staff of scientists around them. For them, improved performance meant victory in their sport and could impact their careers. And they sometimes couldn't do a full four minutes.

What Do We Mean By HIIT?

HIIT means high intensity interval training. It's currently the received wisdom in the health and fitness field. But there are problems associated with it. It can be counterproductive when it's regarded as being too elastic — when people start doing HIIT with kettlebells, dumbbells and complicated calisthenics, moving from one station to another, they're moving away from a focus on conditioning and into a general workout — one that could be better designed if it wasn't in thrall to "intensity". Some of these workouts are an hour long. How can they possibly be "high intensity"?

The answer is they aren't.

They're just circuit training. That's fine, except that the major defining factor of these workouts is their intensity. Trainers encourage the feeling that being constantly exhausted means you're having a great session. Maybe; maybe not. You're certainly not doing Tabata.

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