You’re Not Doing Tabatas

It seems like high intensity interval training (HIIT) is all the rage these days. Anyone can do it at anytime as frequently as they like and achieve amazing results.

Sound too good to be true?

That’s probably because it is.

If you’re not familiar with HIIT you may be more familiar with the Tabata protocol or some other version of high intensity short duration exercise. Let me re-phrase that. You may be familiar with the name Tabata but it’s unlikely you’re familiar with the actual protocol of the study performed by the researcher of the same name.

So why is the general population going crazy over HIIT or Tabatas? Well because the landmark study, and others by researchers such as Dr. Martin Gibala, indicate that you can achieve weight loss, improved aerobic function and potential performance with a fraction of the time invested in training as is normally thought to be necessary.

Now before I give you some things to consider before jumping into HIIT or Tabatas at your next training session let’s quickly review what the Tabata protocol involved.

While two groups participated in the study the one we are interested in is the short duration, high intensity group. They did:
* sprints on a braked cycle ergometer
* 7 or 8 sprints of 20 seconds in duration
* 10 seconds rest between sprint attempts
* at an intensity of 170% VO2 max
* for a 6 week period

Now there are a number of things to be aware of here when comparing this protocol to what many exercisers believe there are following when they workout.

So with that in mind here are 4 Reasons You’re Not Doing Tabatas.

Reason #1 – You’re not on a bike

While it’s true there are many benefits of cross-training it’s a bit of a stretch to do something for general benefits and something else entirely to expect the same results when a different mode of exercise is performed. For example, there is a huge difference to doing 20 seconds of sprinting on a bike, at the track, on an elliptical or with a jump rope. To verify this use your heart rate monitor and track how high your pulse gets after performing a number of different activities as a sprint. You may see as much as a 5-15 beat difference based on the type of activity.

With this much variance in maximal heart rate it is easy to understand how the same results cannot be expected when the mode of exercise is changed.

Reason #2 – You didn’t do 7 or 8 20 second sprints

Quick question…how many time can you run your absolute fastest? And I’m talking with minimal rest. Could you do this 3 or 4 times? Maybe a few more?

The athletes in the study did 7 or 8 sprints. Not 10 or 20. Or an hour’s worth.

And they only did 20 seconds. I say ‘only 20 seconds’ jokingly as this would be pure physical torture. It should be so highly uncomfortable that anything beyond 20 seconds would be nearly impossible.

Yet we hear of people claiming to do Tabatas for an hour. Or instead of doing 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off they feel they need to improve on this by doing 30, 40, 50 or even 60 seconds. Or they do the same 20 seconds but try and shorten the rest to 5 seconds.

Reason #3 – You’re not at 170% VO2 max

I remember asking Dr. Gibala about this aspect of the study. He was in Kelowna in 2012 to speak at our conference and I was wondering about achieving 170% of your max. He explained that when you measure someone’s VO2 max you correlate this with the power output they are able to generate at that level.

Let’s assume someone could generate 400 watts of power at their VO2 max. 170% of this power would be 680 watts. The numbers used for watts are made up but just used to demonstrate how much higher the intensity needs to be to replicate the protocol of this study.

Now when most people train they are nowhere near 100% of their VO2 max. Let alone at 170%.

Reason #4 – The study was 6 weeks

This research study lasted 6 weeks. And it didn’t involve training this way every day.

Now while the subjects demonstrated improvements in their aerobic capacity it’s hard to say if these gains could have been maintained, or improved upon, overall the long term?

Because in the short term almost any type of physical intervention will generate results. The difference becomes to what extent, for how long and how safely this protocol can be followed?

And safety is a huge consideration when performing this type of training. Consider the following story where a BBC journalist had a stroke performing sprint intervals on a rowing machine.


Unfortunately many are unaware of what the Tabata protocol looks like and are under the impression they are replicating it, and thus reaping the same benefits as reported in the study. Further, they may be under the impression that this type of training can be done for longer durations and repeated indefinitely. This is not the case and some care must be taken to ensure the participant is not over-exposed to this type of physical stress leading to potential injury or worse.

Chris [fb-like]



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *