The Tabata Protocol – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Humans are a funny species. We have enough information available to us to know what is good for us and what is harmful.

For example eight hours a sleep a night is a good thing. Yet the majority of us don’t get this much. In fact we get much less. For some this is as little as 5-6 hours per night.

We know the benefits of exercise in maintaining the musculoskeletal system, burning calories, eliminating waste and toxins not to mention looking good. Yet not everyone has somewhere where they can get in a training session. And many of those who have a gym membership don’t make use of it.

Lastly we know certain foods are great for maintaining health, preventing disease and enhancing performance. But we pass on these foods and opt instead for the foods which take years off our lives, rot us from the inside out and make us sick.

And the common denominator of all of these is that they involve a choice. Health is only a few good choices away for most of us. It doesn’t have to cost more and it doesn’t have to take more time.

So why do we pass on being healthy?

I think it has to do that many want the magic pill. They want all of the benefits without any effort. And they want it all yesterday.

This is in part why the Tabata Protocol has become hugely popular.

What exactly is the Tabata Protocol? It’s named after the Japanese researcher who compared 8 twenty second bouts of high intensity exercise and 10 seconds rest with 60 minutes of steady state cardio. Both groups increased VO2max but only the sprint group improved anaerobic performance.

But the popularity this has gained with the average person has less to do with aerobic or anaerobic performance improvements and more to do with time investment, glucose metabolism and fat burning.

That’s right. As soon as the mainstream media reported on the body composition changes that accompany High Intensity Interval Training this became all the rage in fitness programs, group exercise and bootcamps.

But there’s a problem with this love affair with the Tabata Protocol. In fact there are 5 as I see it.

Problem #1 – Too Intense for Most

If you read the paper from this research from 1996 you’ll know that the intervals were intense. 170% of VO2max intense. Most people have no appreciation for how hard this is. And if you simply follow the 20 seconds on 10 seconds off protocol this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re performing a Tabata.

Think about it. If you go for a run you may be at 70 or 85% of VO2max. The protocol calls for more than double this. Yet most people won’t hit this level of intensity yet will expect the same results as occurred in the study.

Problem #2 – You Need to Be in Shape 1st

There’s a noted physiotherapist, Diane Lee, who said ‘you don’t run to get in shape, you have to be in shape to run’. This couldn’t be more true for the Tabata protocol.

The research conditions involved high level athletes, not everyday people looking to lose 15-20 lbs. You do more damage to body when you jump straight into high level physical activity rather than easing into it. Unfortunately as soon as this protocol appeared in the mainstream media there was a knee jerk reaction by couch potatoes everywhere to achieve the same results for themselves.

Problem #3 – It’s Only One Tool

Think of all the different parts of training that one can do from Olympic lifting, powerlifting, plyometrics, medball training, suspension training, kettlebells, mobility work, core training, stretching and lots more.

And I haven’t even mentioned energy system work. Which is what the Tabata protocol measured. And specifically it targeted the anaerobic system.

There’s a saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer then pretty soon everything looks like a nail. In other words if we limit ourselves to Tabatas only, and all the time, we are putting severe constraints on the body’s ability to develop and perform at its highest level.

Problem #4 – It’s Not Meant To Be Long Term

There are bootcamps in town here that run all their training as a Tabata style. Push extremely hard, short rest and repeat. And they do this week after week, month after month.

Here’s the problem. The study ran just over a month. But not everyday. And it included a lower intensity workout on one day. And it had a beginning and end. And as we mentioned it involved high level athletes.

Problem #5 – More Risk

If you think about when you get hurt with exercise it’s usually when you challenge yourself and push a little more. And often times this comes when we try something we’re not as familiar with and haven’t developed the same tolerance to training.

For example, when you start a sprint training program you will be sore the first few times out. Especially if you haven’t been doing any running previously. The range of motion is greater. The forces upon impact are higher. The stress on the cardiovascular system is larger. So it makes sense the chance of doing harm, especially if we’re not ready for it, is pretty good.

Even if you’re not doing sprints at the track you need to ease in to your training. Don’t think just because you’re on a bike that you’re ready for the workload that comes with a Tabata. Recognize your limits and save yourself an injury by working up to the challenge.


The Tabata paper described here is a great piece of research that validates the benefits of high intensity interval training. This does not mean however that it is to be used by all populations, all the time. And it also doesn’t mean that anything done in a 20 s/10 s manner is necessarily going to torch the Molson muscle you developed over the holidays. Lastly, recognize that the protocol develops one aspect of one area of fitness. For the best all round health make sure to challenge the body in a variety of ways under conditions it is prepared for.


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