Regular readers will know that I am currently undertaking a training block aimed at improving my base aerobic capacity and that I’m primarily using long, slow treadmill and bike sessions to do this. But today I thought I would have a quick look at Tabata training because a) towards the end of this block I will be doing some High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and b) a lot of people keep telling me that I am wasting my time with the steady state cardio and all I need to do are some Tabatas.
What is the Tabata protocol?
Tabatas or Tabata training protocol training are phrases that are very popular now, particularly among the primal online community. However, very few people seem to know what the original Tabata training was and as a result mostly what they are doing is actually a kind of more generalised HIIT.
The Tabata method is a training method named after Izumi Tabata and is based on a series of experiments he did on interval training, the results of which were published together with K Nishimura and M Kouzaki in 1996 in a publication called Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in a paper called, “Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max”.
What Tabata did was to compare one group who did nothing but steady state cardio with another who did a mixture of steady state cardio and HIIT. All exercises were done on a stationary exercise bike.
Tabata and his colleagues looked primarily at two functions: VO2 Max and accumulated oxygen deficit (AOD). AOD is actually a test of anaerobic capacity not aerobic capacity (a very important fact and one that is often overlooked).
The control group carried out a standard steady state aerobic training program, where they exercised 5 days/week at 70% VO2 max for 60 minutes on a stationary bike at 70 RPM for the entire 6 weeks. Tabata tested the subjects and increased the resistance on the bikes each week to make sure that as their fitness improved the resistance was increased to keep them exercising at a constant 70% of VO2.
The second group undertook the Tabata’s version of HIIT. For four days each week of the experiment they did 7-8 sets of 20 seconds at 170% of VO2 max with 10 seconds rest between sets. If more than 9 sets could be completed, the wattage was increased by 11 watts. When the subjects couldn’t maintain 85 RPM, the test was stopped. For the fifth day they did 30 minutes of steady state cardio/aerobic exercise at 70% of VO2 max followed by 4 sets of the Tabata HIIT exercise but this session was designed to be not exhaustive.
What were the results?
For the control group there was little or no improvement in anaerobic capacity, but this isn’t very surprising as they had done no anaerobic conditioning at all. Their VO2 max increased significantly by roughly 10%. (I think it’s important to note that none of the subjects were highly trained athletes and their VO2 max scores were average at best at around the mid 50’s.)
The second group showed improvements in both the anaerobic capacity and VO2 max. Again not surprising since this group had undertaken both (HIIT) anaerobic conditioning and steady state cardio/aerobic workouts. Their VO2 max improved by roughly 13% (against the control groups 10%).
It is also important to note is that the second group started from a lower base and also finished lower and that some (I’m not saying all) of the 3% difference could be put down to the fact that less trained subjects tend to make bigger gains. It’s not a criticism on Tabata training it’s just something to bear in mind if we are going to be objective.
The study took place over six weeks, but the biggest gains in the Tabata protocol group were made in the first two weeks, with smaller gains in the second two weeks and very small gains in the last two weeks, whilst the steady state group made consistent gains over the course of the study.
What do the results mean?
1. Tabata training will improve anaerobic capacity
2. Tabata training is effective at improving aerobic capacity over a 6 week period but seems to plato significantly after 3-4 weeks with most of the gains being made by week 3.
Why is Tabata HIIT training so popular with recreational athletes?
I think this is a difficult one. The first thing to say is that I don’t think it is universally popular. People who have always enjoyed good results with long steady state cardio are still doing it and getting great results. But there are a lot of people out there (like me) who have never been very good at endurance sports. I can lift heavy weights and sprint very fast, but I’ve got short legs a heavy body, very little slow twitch muscle and I was always at the back during cross-country runs at school. And for people like me a scientific method that appears to offer the same (if not better) results to steady state cardio, but that involves doing the kind of exercise I’m good at instead of the kind of exercise I hate – well that’s bound to be popular with folks like me.
Add to this that most of the people doing HIIT/Tabata are not distance runners/cyclists rowers etc, In other words they are not primarily aerobic athletes and so are not generally measuring their aerobic ability objectively (such as times in a race over a given distance) and I can see how they are happy with the results. Especially as a set of Tabatas can be completed in 4 minutes and most people are only doing them once a week. So as a way to keep up some aerobic ability and considering how time efficient they are I think for many people they are great.
The first thing to say here is that most people I see in the gym who say they are doing Tabatas aren’t. Firstly Tabatas were done on a bike. Not with a bar bell or body weight strength training or on a treadmill or a rower. They were 20 seconds all out followed by 10 seconds rest. What most people call Tabatas are in fact a form on HIIT training which is ok, but they’re not Tabatas. The second thing is (and this won’t be popular) Tabatas are brutal. Really brutal (170% of VO2 max repeated 8 times) is unbelievably hard. Most people at my gym (and I’m sure yours) don’t know what their VO2 max is and so would be far less keen to do their version of Tabatas if they had to do them at 170%.
Another important point that is often overlooked is that the Tabata experiment involved one day a week of 30 minutes of steady state cardio. This must have had some effect on their aerobic improvement (I’m not saying all, just some).
If you want to make consistent progress with your aerobic capacity then Tabatas won’t do it. They are very effective at giving you a rapid boost and I think will help maintain some aerobic ability (especially if you replicate the experiment and include some steady state cardio), but real long-term consistent improvement comes mainly through an increase in the mitochondrial density in the muscles and increase in the capacity in the left ventricle of the heart, Tabata training just doesn’t do this.
Tabata training for professional athletes
I think the important thing to say here is many professional and serious amateur sports people do use HIIT training, not necessarily Tabata protocol but some form. HIIT training will add that finishing touch to an athletes conditioning, but it’s very demanding, so athletes incorporating HIIT sessions will have to cut the number or intensity of some of their other training sessions. HIIT when applied together with a high volume of other training means a very real danger of over training, and as hinted at in the study, their effectiveness plateau. Most coaches know that their athletes will only need 6-8 weeks of HIIT training to get them ready for a race or a fight or the start of a football season and any more than that is detrimental because a) the improvements get smaller and smaller and b) HIIT necessitates cutting back other forms of training that do achieve consistent improvements.
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