Four minutes to fitness

Four minutes to fitness

The harder you go, the shorter you last. The longer you last, the less hard you work. Adapting Tabata to your fitness routine can help work wonders, informs Deepak Rawat

It all started with the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating Team. Head Coach Irisawa Koichi created a high-intensity interval-training workout for his skaters.

It consisted of eight rounds, 20 seconds each, of intense work on a cycling ergometer, followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a total of a four-minute workout. Koichi asked one of his training coaches, Izumi Tabata, to analyse the effectiveness of this short but gruelling workout.

Though Tabata didn’t actually design the workout, due to the widespread interest in his findings, the workout was coined the “Tabata Protocol”. 

A landmark 1996 study found, in just six weeks of testing, a 28 percent increase in the subjects’ anaerobic capacity, plus a 14 percent increase in their VO2 max (maximum rate of oxygen consumed during the workout).

Originally, it was thought that this type of training was just for speed skaters or other highly motivated athletes because it is very painful and tiring. However, it’s been found that there are groups of people interested in building muscle.

In other words, there are many takers for doing short high-intensity exercises that train their muscles and improve their aerobic training. 

Exercise time and intensity have an inverse relationship. The harder you go, the shorter you last. The longer you last, the less hard you work. Clearly, however, there is something valuable in this idea.

For too long, people focused on how long they were exercising for, especially when it came to traditional cardio. The Tabata study blew apart the convention that more time equals better workout.

With the popularity and notoriety of the "Tabata study", there is considerable confusion and disagreement in the fitness industry about this style of training. With the headlines touting that four minutes of exercise can get comparable results to an hour of exercise, the wildly ambitious claims started a frenzy of interest.

Everyone began using Tabata’s timing of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest - with jumping jacks.

Let’s be clear. I’ve never done a true Tabata workout. And most likely, you haven’t either. It’s impossible to do true Tabata training with squat thrusts, push-ups, treadmills or barbells.

The majority of humans will never do anything at 170 percent of VO2 max. You can do intervals of 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest, but it is not considered a true Tabata training interval, unless you are using the same impossible levels of intensity used in the original Tabata study.

Growing popularity

Fitness First UK took the exclusive license to run the programme in their clubs in order to provide fitness-rich experience to time-poor members, thereby generating a lot of interest.

It seems like everything high-intensity is now called Tabata Training! The original Tabata study was done on a bicycle, but people are now doing that 20-second or 10-second format with resistance training, plyometrics, calisthenics, with almost anything.

Every fitness professional is curious to learn about the method and apply it in some form and health clubs see this as a quick fitness solution of sorts.

The benefits

With the elevation in baseline metabolic rate as far out as 48 hours post exercise, the implications for fat loss are huge. 

Interestingly, the calories burned during exercise become increasingly less important. Because at higher intensity, more of the energy for exercise comes from carbohydrate.

But at rest, the majority of the energy comes from fat. This is why the 10 seconds rest after every four minutes of workout is so important in Tabata training; it burns fat, not just calories. Additionally, Tabata training is also known to improve VO2 max, speed, power and strength in trainees.

Adapting it

Knowing that true Tabata interval training is impossible to perform in your daily life, unless you are a highly skilled professional athlete, what can you take from the Tabata study and actually use?

How can you use it to benefit your students and clients? You can use Tabata-inspired interval training. What does this look like?

Essentially, it is interval training that features work intervals that are twice as long as the recovery interval. This means creating high-intensity intervals where the intensity is still “high,” but relative to the individual’s fitness abilities.

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