What is the Tabata Method?

During the 1990s, Izumi Tabata and his colleagues published what is considered a landmark paper (Tabata et al., 1996). In their study using 14 physically fit, young, male subjects, Tabata and colleagues compared two training protocols, examining improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

  • In experiment one, seven subjects performed steady state exercise (moderate-intensity endurance training) five days per week on mechanically braked cycle ergometers, with each session performed at 70% of VO2max for 60 minutes (total of 300 minutes per week).
  • In experiment two, seven subjects performed exhaustive intermittent training (high-intensity interval training) five days per week on mechanically braked cycle ergometers, with four sessions performed at workloads equivalent to 170% of VO2max. The subjects completed seven to eight reps, with the workload progressing by 11 watts on subsequent sessions when more than nine intervals could be completed. Each set involved a 20-second work interval followed by a 10-second recovery interval, totalling approximately 4 minutes of work per session. On the fifth day, the subjects completed a 30-minute interval at 70% of VO2max, followed by only 4 sets at 170% of VO2max.

Both protocols improved aerobic capacity, but only experiment two increased anaerobic capacity.

  • Experiment 1:
    • Aerobic capacity: increased by 9% (52.9 to 58 mL/kg/min); and
    • Anaerobic capacity: no increase.
  • Experiment 2:
    • Aerobic capacity: increased by 13% (48.2 to 55 mL/kg/min); and
    • Anaerobic capacity: increased by 28%.

Tabata and colleagues made reference to Medbø and Burgers 1990 work on the effect of training on anaerobic capacity with regards to intense exercise of short duration, stating that it was heavily dependent on energy from anaerobic sources (Medbø & Burgers, 1990).

An anaerobic activity is defined as energy expenditure that uses anaerobic metabolism (without the use of oxygen) that lasts less than 90 seconds, utilising an exhaustive effort (25)

Unfortunately, the nature and results of this study have largely been misinterpreted by many fitness professionals who market Tabata training (and other permutations) to the general public. Although the study used 14 physically fit, young, male subjects exercising on bicycle ergometers, this form of training has a number of permutations and is now performed with many different population groups (e.g. deconditioned individuals, females and older adults) and includes other forms of cardiorespiratory exercise (e.g. treadmill, elliptical and sprints), and even resistance training (e.g. body weight and externally loaded resistance), were it can be problematic to conduct training at 170% of VO2max. It could be argued that the only commonality between these forms of exercise is the 2:1 WR Ratio. Some have also moved away from the eight interval protocol.

“The training protocol used in experiment 2 was first introduced by Kouichi Irisawa, who was a head coach of the Japanese National Speed Skating Team. The training has been used by the major members of the Japanese Speed Skating Team for several years.” (Tabata e al., 1996).

Although Irisawa developed the training method, it was Tabata’s paper and his name that became inexorably linked with this form of interval training. The Tabata method of interval training is also known as the Tabata Protocol and, occasionally, the Koichi Protocol. Tabata lent his name to a protocol that helped to promote the interval training movement to the general populace. Prior to the 1990s, interval training had generally been the preserve of elite athletes.

Horst (2008, p.94) suggests that the Tabata method differs from traditional interval training in three ways:

  • “First, the twenty-second work interval is much shorter than traditional intervals.
  • The second difference, then, is that this shorter work interval must be performed with 100 percent exertion; and
  • Third, the rest interval is just ten seconds, which is so brief that very little recovery can occur before the next work interval begins.”

Peter Coe, the father and coach of the famous British runner Sebastian Coe, used an early model in the 1970s (Coe, 2013, p.38-39).

In summary, the ‘original’ Tabata method of training is twenty seconds of high-intensity exercise followed by ten seconds of rest (a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio). This interval is repeated eight times to create four minutes of the most gruelling training you can imagine. There are now a number of permutations.

References

Coe, S. (2013) Running My Life – The Autobiography. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Horst, E.J. (2008) Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Performance. 2nd Ed. Guidlford, CT: Rowman & Littlefield.

Medbø, J.I. & Burgers, S. (1990) Effect of Training on the Anaerobic Capacity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 22(4), pp.501-507.

Tabata, I., Nishmura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M. & Yamamoto, K. (1996) Effects of Moderate-Intensity Endurance and High-Intensity Intermittent Training on Anaerobic Capacity and VO2max. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 28(10), pp.1327-1330.

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