3 Common Misconceptions About Tabata Intervals
In the mid 1990's, a Japanese researcher named Izumi Tabata studied the effects of two different cardio training methods in high level cycling athletes. Both groups in the study were evaluated on an indoor cycling ergometer and assessed for changes in anaerobic capacity and VO2 max (to test for aerobic improvements). The first group studied performed 6 weeks of training, 5 times per week for 60 minutes at a steady intensity of 70% VO2 max (commonly considered to be an ideal aerobic training intensity). The second group performed 6 weeks of exercise, 5 days a week, but instead of doing one hour of steady state, they performed 8 rounds of 20 second intervals with 10 seconds rest at an impressively high 170% of VO2 max. At the end of the trials Dr. Tabata found that the group of cyclists who performed the one hour steady state training improved VO2 max but made no significant anaerobic measure such as maximal accumulated aerobic deficit; whereas the group who performed the 20 second intervals at 170% VO2 max improved aerobic AND anaerobic measures despite significantly less training time. You can link to the 1996 study here
Since then high intensity intervals have been studied many times over and Dr. Tabata recently wrote a review paper examining many of the different studies. You can find that link here
Thanks in large part to popular contemporary exercise programs, the 8x:20 interval workout has become known as "tabata" and has taken on a life of its own. The original studies performed looking at the :20/:10 intervals were done in a very specific fashion, but unfortunately there are many trainers and gyms applying tabata methodology inappropriately. Here are some of the most common misconceptions and misapplications of the tabata methodology.
1) We can perform any exercise doing a :20 work and :10 rest interval and reap the same benefits we saw in the studies.
This is the most common misconception when it comes to tabata and it leads to most of the inappropriate applications we see. The studies looking at Tabata intervals involved high level cyclists performing 20 second all out sprints at 170% of their VO2 max. This is essential to consider. If you do "tabata" push ups thinking you are going to reap the same aerobic and anaerobic benefits, you're likely mistaken. Yes, tabata squats, push ups, sit ups, burpees, etc will make your muscles sore and tired but I GUARANTEE you are not working at 170% of your VO2 max. Probably not even close to that. These intervals were studied on an indoor cycling ergometer, not doing pushups or any other calisthenic type of exercise (or even running or rowing for that matter). In order to reap the benefits of performing those high intensity intervals you have to be able to reach a high intensity cardiovascular stimulus.
2) If we do tabata, we will get the highly sought after "afterburn" effect.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the "afterburn" here is a brief description. The afterburn effect is related to excess post exercise oxygen consumption. This is the period of time after performing high intensity exercises where your body is burning more calories at rest and your metabolic rate is elevated to allow your body to recover from the exercise. While there certainly is a period of time following intense exercise where your body is burning more calories, the effect is often greatly overblown in media and social media. The additional calories you burn following intense exercise is certainly elevated but not to the high degree that many people sell it as. More over, the afterburn effect hasn't been thoroughly evaluated pertaining to the tabata protocol. It has been studied to some degree, but the way it is presented on social media would make one think they are burning thousands of extra calories after exercise. The truth is it is probably a fraction of that. That isn't to say that it doesn't happen, there certainly has been adequate evidence showing an increase in energy expenditure after high intensity intervals, but the effect is nowhere near as large as we think it is.
3) Last, to understand the effects of the tabata intervals, we must understand the athletes that tabata used in his studies and how they compare to the average person just trying to get a good workout.
Dr. Tabata's studies were done on highly trained competitive cyclists. The thing about highly trained competitive cyclists is that they already have a phenomenal aerobic base of fitness and are capable of warming up and hitting 170% of their VO2 max, the average person with a lower training "age" does not have that capability pr the capacity to maintain that intensity for four minutes. A true Tabata protocol is more than just doing something 8 times for 20 seconds while resting 10 seconds. The protocol specifically studied utilized 20 seconds of work performed at or near 170% VO2 max. This is important to consider when designing a high intensity interval workout.
Where do we go from here?
Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Tabata intervals. They can be a very effective high intensity interval protocol however we suggest developing your aerobic fitness first, and we recommend doing that through a system of heart rate guided training. In September we will be hosting our introductory workshop for our biannual Primal Health Project. During this 6 week program we will break down how to develop a strong aerobic base of fitness that will set you up for greater success from high intensity interval training.