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Why Tabata Training Could Become the New Normal

Originally developed for elite speed skaters, Dr. Izumi Tabata's intense interval program has found a near cult following among fitness aficionados. But could Tabata make exercise more accessible than ever?
Why Tabata Training Could Become the New Normal
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Get fit fast? Great, sign us up. Get fit in four minutes? Now we're skeptical. But while getting results in a fraction of the time might sound like the stuff of fitness legend, one reseacher is out to prove his hyper-efficient Tabata protocol — which takes just four minutes of exercise per session — is anything but a marketing scheme. And now he's set on bringing it to the masses.

What It Is

If you're a fan of interval training, chances are you've heard about Tabata training, the interval program that calls for 20 seconds of all-out intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times. The four-minute timing was developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata in the mid-1990s, when he first tested his namesake protocol on elite Japanese speed skaters [1]. But the doctor didn't stop with just the elite, and subsequent research showed the protocol beat out more time-intensive, steady state training because it boosted the body's aerobic and anaerobic pathways (meaning it made exercisers more efficient at both short, intense exercise and longer, slower sessions) [2]. Tabata's findings have also held up when tested by other researchers, making it one of the most widely researched interval programs to date [3].

Now, Dr. Tabata wants to bring his protocol to the masses. The Guardian recently reported on a deal with Universal Studios to develop a DVD series highlighting the system, expected to be released later this year. While Tabata's research has led to the protocol's adoption by many in the fitness industry — including CrossFit and other popular exercise methodologies — he's concerned many aren't using the system that effectively. Namely, the 20-second intervals need to be all-out sprints, and as The Guardian quotes, the doctor is concerned people aren't hitting the necessary intensity during those sprints: "If you feel OK afterwards you've not done it properly." The forthcoming instructional videos could help encourage exercisers to push past their perceived limits and hit the level of intensity necessary to get Tabata's full effect.

Is It Legit?

Yep, sure is. To say we're fans of interval training might be a bit of an understatement, and Tabata protocol is one of the most tested, proven programs out there. It's also great at boosting the post-exercise oxygen consumption, the so-called "afterburn effect" that burns fat even after we leave the gym. Tabata protocol is also flexible when it comes to exercise selection, and after a proper warm-up, it can be done running, biking, and with weighted and bodyweight resistance movements (we're big fans of burpees).

The key, as the good doctor says, is intensity. It's difficult for beginners to reach the point of complete, utter exhaustion without a little professional encouragement. Tabata's upcoming video series might not be as effective as a qualified personal trainer, in this case, someone who can push you while helping dial in safe form. But it will hopefully give at-home exercisers a better idea of how hard they need to push (we imagine the people in the videos will be collapsed in puddles of sweat by the end). And Tabata beginners, take note: You might only last five or six intervals the first time. That's how hard it's supposed to be.

Photo: Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet

Have you tried Tabata intervals? Share your favorite Tabata moves and experiences below and in our communities, and tweet the author @d_tao.

Works Cited +

  1. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.
  2. Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. Tabata, I., Irisawa, K., Kouzaki, M.,  et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kanoya City, Japan. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1997 Mar;29(3):390-5.
  3. Extremely low volume, whole-body aerobic-resistance training improves aerobic fitness and muscular endurance in females. McRae G, Payne A, Zelt JG, et al. School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Sep 20.

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