A PRELUDE TO TABATA — THE EARLY STUDIES
Usually, it’s the music, movie, or fashion industry that evolves one-name iconic identities such as “Madonna,” “Bono,” or “Oprah.” But, even nonexercisers are fully aware of the name “Tabata” and the sweat and exercise effort that the name implies! So, it is interesting that it was 18 years ago when Dr. Izumi Tabata from the University of Ritsumeikan in Japan published the results of a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) protocol that incorporated brief, supramaximal, 20-second intervals into a 4-minute exercise bout. Although just 4 minutes in duration, Tabata yielded a notable improvement in aerobic fitness (10). Another early, yet still frequently referred to, HIIT study that also showed marked changes in fitness dates back to 1994 (13). In this study, despite doing shorter exercise sessions that actually burned less calories, the group that did HIIT sessions lost substantially more body fat compared with a second group of participants who trained for longer durations doing steady-state, continuous, endurance exercise (ET). Although somewhat controversial, lead author Angelo Tremblay, Ph.D., stated in the discussion section of the published article that the decrease in fat, when adjusted for the disparity in caloric expenditure, “was ninefold greater” in the HIIT group compared with the ET group. The article emphasized further that, even when the total calorie burn is the same, fat loss will be greater when the intensity of exercise is high (see Sidebar, How Tabata and HIIT Burn Fat).
The results of Dr. Tabata’s study were similar to Dr. Tremblay’s in that the improvements experienced by the 4-minute HIIT group were remarkable given the mark of the 4-minute exercise sessions. Comparing changes in cardiorespiratory fitness (as measured by oxygen uptake, V˙O2max) between the Tabata (HIIT) group and a group that did 60-minute ET sessions, the Tabata group experienced similar significant increases in fitness despite spending much less time engaged in exercise. For accuracy, it should be noted that the HIIT group did the 4-minute supramaximal interval sessions 4 times a week at 170% of V˙O2max and also performed one 30-minute endurance session on a separate day each week. The ET participants did their sessions at a moderate intensity (70% of V˙O2max) for 60 minutes 5 days per week. Like the 1994 study of Tremblay et al., the weekly amount of exercise undertaken in Tabata’s HIIT group was remarkably lower at only 46 minutes compared with 300 minutes for the ET group.
Although these studies were published about 20 years ago, their counterintuitive results were clearly precursors for prompting more research on HIIT. These initial studies also served as models for HIIT strategies and techniques that are used more than ever in the real world of fitness today. Table 1 presents a number of HIIT studies and shows the changes in cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition (5,10,11,13). Within, and even across studies, the changes in V˙O2max are quite similar. Once again though, it is important to remember that the HIIT groups, like the subjects in the Tabata study, did substantially less exercise and expended fewer calories than the ET groups. Therefore, the contention that Tabata and HIIT could produce similar or even superior changes in fitness, and do it fast, was demonstrated early on.
Both the Tabata and Tremblay studies (as well as many to follow) used stationary cycles equipped with ergometers for training. Cycles with calibrated ergometers (i.e., work meters) can measure and regulate exercise intensity accurately, which ensure that athletes or research participants exercise at a very precise and individually based exercise intensity. The precision to which exercise intensity is monitored closely and maintained is related directly to the newsworthy changes in fitness and study outcomes. The original Tabata protocol, as noted previously, was done with a supramaximal effort. Each participant performed 8 rounds of 20-second HIIT intervals at 170% of V˙O2max with 10 seconds of downtime. Especially at this intensity, an aerobic-type modality able to measure work performed is necessary to ensure that the exercise effort put forth by each individual is 70% higher than the maximum aerobic power, which is a full-on anaerobic effort! Given this level of intensity, Tabata found that the HIIT group not only experienced significant improvements in aerobic fitness but incurred major strides in anaerobic power too. In fact, the group who did ET showed no change in anaerobic fitness, whereas the HIIT group exhibited a 28% improvement in anaerobic fitness.
How Tabata and HIIT Burn Fat
- Calories are burned fast and fat release is increased by the rise in epinephrine.
- Calorie burning and fat oxidation also remain elevated after intense 20-second rounds of intervals.
TABATA OR HIIT?
Although often used interchangeably, HIIT stands for “high-intensity interval training” and is a model of ramped up aerobic conditioning done close to maximum exercise intensity, that is, equal to or greater than 90% V˙O2peak (4). Competitive athletes, to enhance both aerobic and anaerobic endurance while matching the intensity and rapid bioenergetic shifts that frequently occur in sports and competition, commonly use HIIT. However, in a 2013 study, nonathletes who did one short, intense, 4-minute bout on treadmills at 90% of heart rate max, 3 times a week, significantly increased cardiorespiratory fitness by 10%. No adverse events were reported (12).
Specifically, HIIT workouts generally alternate “effort” or “burst” intervals, typically ranging between approximately 10 and 60 seconds, with “recovery” or “rest” intervals. Recovery intervals can vary but most often also span 10 to 60 seconds. In addition, the nature of the recovery intervals can range from full rest, which is during Tabata (2,10,13), or be composed of low- to moderate- intensity movement (e.g., 4). See Table 2.
Because cycle ergometers and treadmills can both be set at precise intensity levels, they are ideal for research and serious conditioning where pinpoint precision is a must (i.e.,5,8,10,11,13,14). Consider the original Tabata format that imposed an intensity effort of 170% maximum. That intensity would be virtually impossible to reproduce without specialized equipment and also be unnecessarily intense for nonathletes (Tabata used Olympic speed skaters in his study). Likewise then, the changes in fitness found in well-controlled scientific HIIT studies like the Tabata study may not always be duplicated in fitness and health club settings. This is important because Tabata is often promoted and advertised in the media to produce incredible changes in fitness based on the original study. Yet, most trainers and health clubs actually are using modified forms of Tabata that elicit an intensity far below 170% of V˙O2max. For instance, two Tabata-style formats developed and tested in 2013 by Olson (9) and Emberts et al. (3) were found to produce intensities of 95% and 74% of V˙O2max, respectively. Although these modified formats are sufficiently intense to promote fitness effectively in a short time, it would be erroneous to assume that the changes induced with power intensities would parallel those seen for the original Tabata protocol directly.
However, trainers readily can use the Tabata-style format and/or many scientifically established HIIT protocols as models to develop realistic interval programs using common gym equipment. For instance, Dr. Melanie Hood’s team developed and tested a 20-minute format alternating 60 seconds of aerobic cardio exercise at an intensity of approximately 80% of heart rate reserve (80% to 95% range) with 60 seconds of recovery (6) for 10 rounds. Using a heart rate monitor, this format could be used readily with a variety of aerobic-type exercises and machines such as running/jogging, elliptical trainers, electronic stair steppers, jump ropes, spin cycles, aerobic step-up benches, and so on. See Table 2, which shows the exercise equipment/modalities that were used by the protocols (3,9).
AEROBIC OR ANAEROBIC?
As previously noted, the intensity of HIIT is well above moderate at approximately 90% of V˙O2max or higher. “Supra” intense (supramaximal) formats include not only the original Tabata format but also the formats developed and studied by Burgomaster et al. (2) and Zong et al. (14) (Table 2). Because supramaximal protocols are done with a full-on anaerobic effort, the actual volume of exercise is almost shockingly low — between approximately 4 and 12 minutes. In sport training and conditioning, athletes who must perform repeated bursts with an all-out effort can benefit from these supramaximal HIIT protocols such as Tabata because they match the athletes’ more extreme performance needs and improve both aerobic and all-important anaerobic fitness.
Table 2 illustrates that many HIIT formats can require less than a maximal or supramaximal Tabata-like effort. For instance, exercise physiologists Little et al. (8) and Hood et al. (6) adapted the pure anaerobic format by Burgomaster et al. (2) by reducing the intensity and increasing the length of the effort intervals from 30 seconds to 60 seconds. Olson used body weight squat jumps with the Tabata 20-second effort and 10-second rest format. All three of these modified formats (6,8,9), although not supramaximal, are not “soft,” though, on intensity. Table 2 shows that these three formats can produce a high intensity effort (80% to 95% of max) and are labeled more appropriately “aerobic” interval training formats because they do not rely on a 100%+ supramaximal Tabata anaerobic effort. The aerobic HIIT formats also can prove more “user-friendly” and suitable for the general fitness setting while still being quite economical on time requiring no more than minutes to complete. The following section provides more detail and examples of Tabata and HIIT strategies that combine good science with effective and more achievable formats. As always, any intense workout, like Tabata, should be preceded by a proper warm-up and cool-down (see Sidebar, Prepare to Tabata).
Prepare to Tabata
First, break a sweat! Incorporate a 10-minute dynamic warm-up with jumping jacks, jogging in place, or similar multimuscle activities before tackling eight rounds of 20-second Tabata intervals.
TABATA HITS THE GYM
Classes and workouts ranging from Tabata Boot Camps to Tabata Spin and Tabata circuit classes are multiplying. The exercise video market and many magazines regularly feature Tabata-style programs that can be done in the gym, at a fitness park, or even at home. The 20/10-second effort/rest Tabata format is simple, and the 4-minute bout makes it easy to organize when creating workouts that have multiple, submaximal, 4-minute bouts. For example, the Tabata-style format developed and tested by Emberts et al. (3), although not requiring the intensity of the original Tabata protocol (74% of max vs. 170% of max), has four circuits. Although the intensity also is lower than the 90% of maximum criterion generally afforded for aerobic HIIT (4), Emberts’ workout is a robust 16-minute circuit-like format that burns an appreciable number of calories and includes a variety of exercises nicely grouped into 4-minute segments. Here are two of the four bouts featured in the report that first featured this particular Tabata-style circuit workout (3).
Specifically, each exercise in a segment is done for 20 seconds at high effort, followed by 10 seconds of downtime, then repeated. All segments last 1 minute and are separated by just 10 seconds. After an entire (4-minute) bout is completed, there is a 1-minute rest period before starting the next bout.
- Segment 1: High Knee Run
- Segment 2: Plank Punch
- Segment 3: Jumping Jacks
- Segment 4: Side Skaters
- Bout 2
- Segment 1: Jump Rope
- Segment 2: In/Out Boat
- Segment 3: Line Jumps
- Segment 4: Push-ups
The average heart rate for this Tabata-style workout was 86% of max, and the metabolic equivalents (METS) were 9.3 for the female participants and 10.6 for the male participants. The rate of caloric expenditure averaged about 15.0 kcal·min−1.
Olson’s workout is a higher-intensity Tabata-style format. The 20-second effort intervals required an average intensity of 95% of V˙O2max using just one exercise: full-out body weight squat jumps. The energy cost for this workout was 13.8 METS with a calorie burn of 13.5 kcal−1·min−1. Unlike the study by Emberts et al., which had a more even mix of men and women, Olson’s study included just two male participants and 13 women. Therefore, when corrected for the difference in body weight for men versus women and the difference in intensity between the studies of Emberts et al. and Olson, a woman weighing 140 lbs would burn approximately 11.1 calories per minute with the Tabata-style circuit workout of Emberts et al. and 12.2 calories per minute with Olson’s body weight squat jump format. For a heavier male body weight (i.e., 185 lbs), the calories expended would be about 15.5 per minute for the workout of Emberts et al. and 16.1 per minute for Olson’s 4-minute squat jump format. Both formats exceed the minimum recommendations for improving cardiorespiratory fitness and modifying body composition. The intensity of Olson’s format is clearly in the HIIT range (>90% of max). However, the format of Emberts et al. is longer, using multiple 4-minute bouts, which yields a higher total caloric expenditure. These Tabata-style workouts and their diversity in intensity, duration, and exercise movements illustrate how trainers can select and organize a range of Tabata-inspired workouts depending on the needed intensity, such as training a “Weekend Warrior,” competitive athlete, or apparently healthy adult whose quest is improved health and better overall fitness.
In Table 3, two 4-minute Tabata-style sequences that combine exercises from Tabata’s, Emberts’, and Olson’s formats are provided. These sequences provide options that include both conventional gym equipment and lower-tech body weight exercise with small portable devices. A single 4-minute bout using a more intense sequence (i.e., alternating just plyometric body weight squat jumps and skater leaps) could be done as a fast aerobic-type exercise option or to “finish off” a moderate-intensity workout session. As stand-alone HIIT workouts, the sequences could be repeated or combined for workouts that are 8 minutes, 12 minutes, or 16 minutes in duration. Ideally, each exercise would be done with an all-out as-many-repetitions-as-possible effort in the attempt to reach “failure” by the end of each 20-second effort bout. See Table 2 and photos.
Other viable options can include sprints on tracks, treadmills, or fitness cycles, as well as stair running, bleacher running, fast lap swimming, and pool running. In addition, the format by Zong et al. (14), who is a graduate student of Dr. Tabata, combined a stationary cycle and treadmill. A 20-second all-out effort is completed on a stationary cycle, and the next 20-second effort interval is done on a treadmill. This format provides yet another valid option and the combination of cycling and treadmill running could prove quite useful to a triathlete because of the specificity of modalities.
HEALTH OR HAZARDOUS?
Although somewhat counterintuitive, a growing number of fitness experts are suggesting that HIIT and short, intense, Tabata-length 20-second intervals be considered as a strategy to improve health and cardiometabolic risk factors. Newer research on nonathletic individuals shows that metabolic rate, fat oxidation, abdominal fat, insulin action, blood glucose, and blood pressure can be impacted effectively by HIIT (1,6,11,12). Dr. Tabata, who also has been researching the effects of his protocol on insulin, has stated that “everyone can do it, but beginners should start with educated trainers so that they can work at the correct intensity for them” (7).
Similar to Dr. Tabata’s 4-minute protocol, a report featuring the work of Dr. Jamie Timmons (1) from the United Kingdom showed that extremely short sessions with 20-second Tabata-length intervals, amounting to just 3 minutes of exercise a week, substantially impacts the action of insulin (see Sidebar, Three Minutes a Week). When insulin works more effectively, the muscles are able to use greater amounts of fat for fuel, which, in turn, reduces the risk of cardiovascular and related cardiometabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. Therefore, the overall impact of supershort 3- and 4-minute Tabata-style workouts on metabolism is not only a greater efficiency in energy expenditure but also the ability to use fat effectively even at rest is increased.
During short 20-second effort intervals, Dr. Timmons asserts that much more body mass is used (compared with slower less intense exercise) such as the legs, hips, trunk, core, and shoulder girdle, creating a calorie inferno with more fat utilization, which persists after the short intense workout. Known as the excessive postexercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), often called the “after burn,” the Tabata-style all-out body weight squat jump study (9) showed that the participants’ caloric expenditure in the initial half hour after the brief 4-minute bout was double the calories burned before exercise. Dr. Tabata has found more recently that 150 extra calories are burned during a 12-hour period after Tabata (7). The extra caloric expenditure and fat burning resulting from Tabata clearly show the additional impact that Tabata workouts can have in not only promoting cardiorespiratory fitness and weight loss but in qualitatively impacting cardiometabolism and related health risks and risk factors.
In summary, Tabata and Tabata-style formats are continuing to increase in use and popularity in many settings. Trainers and health fitness specialists should consider the needs, goals, and appropriateness of Tabata when using it with athletes, nonathletes, and those who may have health risks. Furthermore, the additional health benefits afforded by Tabata-style HIIT workouts also should be considered when designing the format. Those who can benefit from this particular version of HIIT may extend beyond individuals who simply desire to improve their fitness fast. For those who have body weight concerns as well as risk factors for and/or facets of compromised cardiometabolic health, Tabata could very well be a “hit.”
Three Minutes a Week
The Timmons’ Thrice-Weekly 20-Second Recipe:
- Spin moderately to warm up.
- Go all-out for Tabata-style for 20 seconds.
- Spin moderately for 2 minutes and repeat twice more.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Tabata, like HIIT, is an exercise format that alternates relatively brief periods of intense exercise, often called “effort” intervals, with periods of rest or less-intense exercise, known as “recovery” intervals. Tabata is one of the most popular forms of shorter HIIT workouts and was first popularized by Dr. Izumi Tabata. Dr. Tabata coupled 20 seconds of “supramaximal” anaerobic effort with just 10 seconds of recovery for 8 rounds, making the exercise session quite short. At just 4 minutes in duration, Tabata’s research showed that this exercise protocol delivers impressive changes in fitness. Modified Tabata workouts that range between 4 and 20 minutes in duration can be less intense but still robust (i.e., 74% to 95% of max) such as Tabata-style circuits. Research shows that Tabata and HIIT produce similar changes in cardiovascular fitness, have the potential to improve body composition, and can even ameliorate risk factors such as insulin action in far less time compared with traditional, moderate-intensity, steady-state 30- to 40-minute cardio sessions. When implementing Tabata and Tabata-style HIIT workouts, trainers should determine the appropriateness of this intense type of interval training for a given client or group and select the volume, intensity, and specific exercise activities that best match the needs and capabilities of the participant(s).
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