Tabata or Not Tabata

(This article originally appeared in the 9 October 2012 edition of the StrongFast Planet newsletter.)

exhaustionOne of the most popular training routines making the rounds these days is "High Intensity Interval Training", or "HIIT." It involves short bursts of very hard work ("high intensity") interspersed with short rests ("interval"). The intervals are measured in seconds, as high as 60 (yes, I know, that's a minute) and as low as 10. They are described using a work-to-rest ratio; for example, 30 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest would be written as 30:15.

The origins of today's fascination with HIIT date back to a 1996 study led by Dr. Izumi Tabata that compared two groups of cycling athletes. One group rode for 60 minutes straight (yes, I know, that's an hour) while the other rode 8 20:10 intervals for a total of four minutes of training. The result showed the interval group getting better results than the steady-state group. Awesome! So awesome, in fact, that the term "Tabata Intervals" or just "Tabatas" has taken root in the training lexicon. And why not? Four minutes instead of an hour? What's not to like?

Apparently, nothing. Seems that way, at least, because you'll now find Tabatas being used for warmups, and a popular training gang doing two or even three sets of Tabata Intervals in succession. Because if one is good, more is better, right?

marathonWell, here's the thing. The term "Tabata Interval" is being applied to training that isn't. Specifically, trainers have started calling any 20:10 intervals "Tabatas" as if there's something magical about the timing. Lost in the shuffle is the most important part: high intensity. Twenty seconds of toe-touches interspersed with 10 seconds of rest is no more a Tabata Interval than driving 26 miles is a marathon. Even doing something hard, like burpees or thrusters, is not comparable to the original Tabata study because you can't go at full intensity all the time: the movements have built in transitions (the lowering phase) that are effectively rest periods. And the original Tabata study had them going at 170% of maximum effort. (Yes, I know that sounds impossible; read the study to see how it shakes out.)

In short, anyone claiming to do multiple Tabatas in a row, or calling them "fun" isn't doing Tabata intervals. If you don't want to shoot yourself after four minutes (if you could even manage the strength to pull a trigger), you didn't just do Tabata Intervals.

timerThis is all a shame because subsequent studies have shown excellent results from different timings and reduced (but still high) intensity. In fact, 20:10 is not a particularly good ratio for most people, possibly not for anyone. Rest periods should generally be at least as long as work periods, often even longer, depending on your fitness level. And let's face it: if we know we're going to have to do eight intervals, we're going to pace ourselves differently than if we only had to do one. Thus, the intensity level will drop which negates the effect of the short rest period anyway. And without maximum (or more!) intensity, it's not a Tabata.

Of course, the term will continue to be used in its neutered form because it's convenient and, let's face it, it's fun to say "Tabata." Plus it sounds really professional and stuff. HIIT is indeed an excellent way to train, but if you hear anyone say they did Tabatas, just smile, shake your head knowingly, and quote Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Be seeing you.


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