A Closer Look at Tabata Interval Training

A Closer Look at Tabata Interval Training

Across the board, interval training has plenty of benefits. From fat loss, maintaining muscle, helping to strengthen aerobic and anaerobic metabolism personal trainers have prescribed this kind of training to their clients as well as the average gym goer. In summary, intervals usually consist of a high intensity bout of exercise followed by a low intensity bout (or a complete rest) and will repeat this for several rounds. For example, a person may run on the treadmill at a very fast speed for 30 seconds followed by a light jog or walk for 30 seconds and repeat that for 15-20 minutes. Another person may run at a moderate to high intensity for one minute and then either walk or jog for three minutes. The combinations are endless, as long as you understand that the intensity of the workout will determine the duration. Don’t expect to do a sprint at 100% intensity for one minute and not let up within that time.

Recently, even though this has been around for almost 20 years, a different type of interval training has hit the fitness masses with the goal of helping you lose weight. Read some fitness magazines and you will see something about the Tabata Interval. While many intervals have a work to rest ratio of 1:1 all the way to 1:5, these intervals have a work to rest ratio of 2:1. For this type of interval, the work to rest ratio is 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated for eight rounds. That equates to four minutes of activity. On paper, this looks and is very tough. Besides using this concept for cardio based activities (treadmill, bike, elliptical) many will use exercises in its place. You will see and read about people doing push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, lunges, jump squats etc. using this method.

And this is where we started doing it wrong.

Before you get upset and start defending your craft, understand the origin of this concept.  In January of 1996, Izumi Tabata and his colleagues submitted a study that tested the aerobic – think long distance running and biking – and anaerobic – think sprinting and power work – capabilities for the Japanese National Speed Skating Team. They used two different intermittent protocols that were regularly used by the coaches of the Japanese speed skaters and wanted to compare them.

Nine students volunteered for the study and tested one of the two protocols:

1.  Group 1 (IE1) used bouts of 20 seconds of exercise carried out at an intensity of 170% of the subjects VO2 max. Each bout was separated with 10 seconds of rest and was repeated 6-7 times to exhaustion.

2.  Group 2 (IE2) used bouts of 30 seconds of exercise at an intensity of 200% of their VO2max and was separated by 2 minutes of rest. This continued 4-5 times to exhaustion.

Both groups used a mechanically braked cycle ergometer, basically a stationary bike. The study deemed exhaustion as the inability to maintain pedaling frequency at or above 85 rpm near the end of the bout. What they discovered was that when it came to maximal oxygen uptake, IE1 increased their aerobic capacity by 13%. They also discovered that the same group stressed the anaerobic energy systems maximally (the same with the aerobic systems). IE2 did not stress either system maximally.

Why have we been doing this interval all wrong? Many people will hear the latest concept that is out and use it but tweak it to their liking. From the initial submission of this study to our version of it today, something got lost in translation.  Instead of using a bike why not use body weight exercises?  Instead of body weight exercises why don’t we use plyometric exercises?  Instead of using all of that, why don’t we use an elliptical?  All of these are versions of the Tabata Interval that people have used or come up with in the past. But if you want to do the interval correct, the intensity you have to train at is at 170% of our VO2 max. How intense is 170%?  Well, for starters, Lou Ferrigno aka The Incredible Hulk could only work at 110%.  http://youtu.be/G5Qd-pdZ8YA

I’ve heard this analogy from Eric Cressey and Alwyn Cosgrove: Imagine you are standing on some train tracks and underneath you is another set of tracks and underneath that is another set and so on. A train is now coming at you full speed and you run as fast and as hard as you can for 20 seconds. After 20 seconds you jump off the side of the tracks and land on another set of tracks. You catch your breath for 10 seconds and right after you catch your breath another train is coming at you full speed. You then run for 20 seconds as fast and as hard as you can and the process repeats itself six more times. Remember that some of the subjects in the study couldn’t complete all of the rounds required because of the intensity.

Where things went astray is that we use the: 20/:10 format, slapped a Tabata sticker on it and just ignored everything else.

Here is what people forgot or didn’t know about the study:

  • The study used 6-7 bouts of intervals as opposed to the 8 we currently are using.
  • The intensity was at 170% of their VO2. To again help clarify how intense this is, Lance Armstrong’s VO2 was once measure around the mid 80’s. What’s 170% of that?
  • The main mode used was a bike and once failure hit, the test was done.
  • The test was used to compare and see how their training systems stressed both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Not fat loss or weight loss.

Here is a small list of what people have used instead of the bike (most of which I am not a fan of with this kind of intensity):

  • Push-ups, squats, lunges, jumping jacks, jumping rope, Biceps Curls (seriously)
  • Plyometric activities: squat jumps, split squat jumps, clap push-ups, box jumps
  • Olympic lifts: Cleans, snatches, push presses
  • Holding the down position on a push-up, squat, lunge or pull-up. All of which are insanely hard and will probably stop doing half way through the interval.

Are these effective? Yes. Are they safe? Not all of them, especially the O-lifts. Are these for fat loss? No. Conditioning? Yes.

My thoughts on this workout is that its effective for what it is supposed to do but technically it’s not a Tabata. I would consider our versions a high intensity interval or even density training. Others would call it a negative rest interval. When I do something like this with a client, it’s for the goal of stressing both their aerobic and anaerobic systems. Simply put, I use it to help with their cardio and their strength. But I don’t call it a Tabata. I just call it an interval. A very intense interval.


  1.  Tabata, Izumi; Irisawa, Kouichi et al.  Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. The American College of Sports Medicine.  29:390-395. 1997.

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Vancouver Health Coach