The world of Internet fitness search content is replete with forum questions consisting of members asking “what is it” and “does it work.” Among the many topics is “what is the Tabata method” and “does it work.” We might as well throw the “what is the Tabata method”/”does it work” inquiry into the ranks of questions about similar workout methods we’ve discussed on this blog:
It would be amusing if it weren’t a bit disappointing that people ask questions like “Does the Tabata method work” without having a concise goal-driven context within which to frame the question. As with these other fitness methods, asking “what is the Tabata method” is perfectly legit in and of itself. Asking “does it work” simply begs the counter question:
“I don’t know! What the hell are you trying to do?”
That might be a little blunt for some people’s taste. I’ll apologize for that.
It might also sound somewhat contrarian to knee-jerk responses you get from other fitness experts. As if in cookie-cutter fashion, they’ll often answer questions such as “does the Tabata Method work” with something like the following retort:
“It depends on how hard you WORK it.”
Oh… isn’t that brilliant? It assumes that every lackluster result experienced in physique improvement is due to insufficient work ethic. I’d estimate that in many cases where it is, the lack of work ethic stems from a motivation deficiency. And… the first requirement for maximum and lasting motivation is in knowing EXACTLY what you want and WHY you want it.
In other words, it’s not enough for creating motivation to simply say “… the Tabata method is hard… it’ll have you gasping for air… therefore, it’ll get you in shape… thus, you should do it.” We’ll leave those types of generalizations to fitness trainers who simply want your money or your nod toward them in ‘acknowledgement of expertise’ for showing you ANYTHING toward which you might gravitate.
With that clarification, let’s answer “what is the Tabata Method” and “does it work?”
“What is the Tabata Method?” 20 seconds of all-out sprinting – multiple times
- It doesn’t matter what exercise with which the sprints are performed; as long as it’s one that stimulates large muscles and/or multiple muscles. Some popular ones are pushups, pull-ups, barbell squats, front squats, lunges, thrusters, rowing, mountain climbers, heavy-bag punching, treadmill running, and outdoor running. (“Haha”… I guess this means no triceps kickbacks?)
- The exercise is performed at an all-out effort for 20 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest between sets.
- If doing a repetition exercise (like squats or pull-ups), the objective is to safely perform as many repetitions within each 20-second period as possible. For running exercises (outdoor or treadmill), or other aerobic movements (like punching a heavy bag), the objective is to sprint as fast as possible within each of the 20-second periods.
- This pattern of 20 second sprints with intermittent 10 second rest periods is repeated 8 times for a total of 4 minutes of grueling exercise.
That’s it; pretty simple. The protocol was glommed from a study by a Japanese researcher, Dr. Izumi Tabata, who decided to study the effects of high intensity, intermittent training as compared with those of traditional, moderately-intense aerobic training. The study was done on a group of speed skaters at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo back in 1996.
What’s the gist of the study’s findings; “does the Tabata method work?”
As can be seen by the abstract of the study, the takeaway is that both the body’s aerobic capacity (VO2) and anaerobic capacity (ability to exercise at oxygen deficit) can be improved simultaneously with this type of training. Specifically, within the 6-week study, aerobic capacity went up by 14% in the high-intensity trained group while anaerobic capacity improved by 28%. Contrastingly, the endurance trained (ET) group in the study improved VO2 by 10% and didn’t improve anaerobic capacity at all.
“Does the Tabata Method work”: What is ‘VO2’ and ‘Anaerobic Capacity?’
Since knowing whether something will “work” for you is goal dependent, the best way to answer the question “does the Tabata method work” is to have a goal and know whether ‘improved VO2’ and ‘better anaerobic capacity’ are relevant to that goal. This would obviously start with knowing what each of these respective fitness measurements represent.
VO2 is a scientific representation of how the body both delivers and uses oxygen. With each beat of our hearts, oxygen enriched blood is being delivered to our tissues via arterial vessels. When the oxygen reaches that tissue, a certain amount is extracted for energy use by the cells. The efficiency with which this oxygen is pumped by the heart, delivered to tissue, and used by cells is what VO2 is measuring – especially as demand for oxygen goes up during cardio-respiratory exercise.
Think of the heart’s role in this scenario as a giant delivery truck. The truck is filled with sand (oxygen). The truck reaches an opening in the ground to dump the sand (cell). The measurement of VO2 would be (with this analogy) a measurement of how efficiently the truck gets filled with sand and delivers sand to the open hole. Obviously, if this delivery system isn’t very efficient, the truck might move slowly between fill-up and dump-off. It might also not get filled to its maximum and, thus, need to make more trips to the open hole to fill it. With improved efficiency, the truck could move faster, get filled with more sand at pick-up, and deliver more sand at dump-off.
That’s a very simple (possibly simplistic?) analogy.
Anaerobic capacity is what’s tapped into after we’ve reached our max V02 output. What happens at this point is that an oxygen deficit begins to build. In order for the muscles to continue working in the face of this, the body shifts into ‘anaerobic’ (without oxygen) energy production. It does this through a process called glycolysis; a method whereby glycogen (bodily stored sugar) is synthesized into ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). The ATP is what’s used for fuel by the muscles and its derivation by way of glycogen also produces lactic acid, which creates a burning sensation in the muscles. This system of anaerobic (without oxygen) energy production is also referred to as the lactic acid system of energy.
So… how does this all relate to the questions “what is the Tabata method” and “does it work?”
The studies that Dr. Tabata has done demonstrate that not only can these two systems be worked simultaneously, but they might be optimally improved using the 4-minute exercise protocol of his original study.
“Does the Tabata Method work?” It’s back to the question of goals
If you’re training for improved performance in a physically demanding sport, the Tabata method (for obvious reasons) could be an excellent protocol to adopt. Sports that come to mind would be football, basketball, soccer, speed skating, boxing, martial arts tournaments, and high school/collegiate/free-style wrestling. Any sport that requires a high degree of both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning would fit the bill.
Incidentally, users of CrossFit training often add the Tabata method to their repertoire of (random) fitness routines.
Since evaluation of the Tabata method as an optimal workout for losing body fat deserves its own discussion, I’ll save it for an upcoming entry.
In the mean time, I encourage feedback from readers who’ve used any variation of the Tabata method.