In 1994, Dr. Tabata and some other Japanese researchers conducted a study with results that have forever changed the way fitness professionals program workouts designed to burn fat and boost fitness.
There were 2 groups in this landmark study.
Group 1 did steady state cardio for 60 minutes- the long, slow, boring stuff you see most people do at your local gym with no results to show for it.
Group 2 did high-intensity interval training for only 4 minutes on a bike, consisting of 20 seconds of maximum effort and 10 seconds of rest for 8 total rounds.
The researchers found that the interval group had greater fat loss and fitness results than the steady-state cardio group proving the merits of high-intensity interval training in providing maximum results in minimal time- a tenet that’s of the utmost importance for busy people struggling to fit a daily workout into their schedule.
Since then, the Tabata protocol has been used all over the world.
Some have applied it well, most people have not.
Here are the top 3 mistakes I’ve seen with Tabata training:
1.) Using straight sets of the same exercise:
In the study, elite Japanese cyclists perform the 20-10 interval on a recumbent bike and most of them weren’t even able to finish all 8 rounds (many crapped out after 6).
In other words, even world-class athletes are unable to do 8 straight sets of max effort bouts for the exact same exercise without huge drops in intensity – and thus diminishing returns.
The solution? Perform alternating sets of non-competitive exercises to keep intensity high.
Alternating between squats and push-ups or burpees and swings for example, will provide a better overall metabolic training effect that doing straight sets of just squats which will do more for local muscular endurance than anything else.
2.) Poor exercise selection:
As previously noted, in the original study the exercise mode of choice was a recumbent bike. Though cycling intervals are great, there are other ways to get the job done that provide a little more of a functional training experience.
Using tools like battle ropes, kettlebells, bands, TRX, med balls, and other classic bodyweight movements like push-ups, mountain climbers, and split squat jumps provide a bit more bang-for-your buck (and fun) than just sitting on a bike and cranking it in-place.
My 10 favorite Tabata exercises are as follows:
1.) TRX Squat Jumps
2.) Med Ball Slams
3.) Kettlebell Swings
4.) Battle Rope Waves
5.) Band Squat to Presses
6.) Stationary Running
7.) Mountain Climbers
10.) Skater Jumps
Furthermore, in order to properly perform the original Tabata protocol, you will need to push yourself to the brink of exhaustion making it difficult to perform exercises with a high skill and speed component.
So people new to Tabata training should probably avoid using high skill loaded exercises like swings, snatches, and cleans and extremely taxing systemic exercises like sprints and shuttles.
Rather, opt for more entry-level bodyweight options like squats and push-ups to build confidence.
Remember, just like the great Vince Lombardi used to say, fatigue makes cowards of us all- and it also makes our exercise form look like crap over time 😉
3.) Lack of progression:
There are 3 basic ways to properly progress with Tabata training:
#1- Exercise Progression
This basically means gradually moving from a Level I (beginner) movement to a Level III (advanced) movement for the same exercise variation.
For example, if you were using burpees (or squat thrust), here’s how that progression might look:
Level I- Burpee
Level II- Burpee + Push-up
Level III- Burpee + Push-up + Jump
Each level integrates a new movement that makes the task significantly harder when doing the same interval protocol.
#2- Density Progression
The original Tabata protocol has a negative 2:1 work to rest ratio that is extremely taxing on your body’s ability to supply sufficient oxygen to working muscles without conking out (even when alternating between non-competitive movements).
But here’s how you can modify the work to rest ratios and gradually build up to this negative work to rest format without being too overwhelmed in the beginning:
Level I- 10-20 Tabatas
Level II- 15-15 Tabatas
Level III- 20-10 Tabatas
Rome was built in a day, so don’t try to become the Tabata master in your first attempt 😉
#3- Intensity Progression
Most people tend to get confused regarding what constitutes intensity.
In the past, I’ve had some people tell me that a 50-10 circuit training workout is really intense.
Now I know what they meant- that the workout was challenging.
And though they may be right when comparing that 50-10 workout to 60 minutes of slow running, the reality is that work periods longer than 30 seconds tend to involve more muscular endurance and provide more volume and less intensity no matter how hard you get after it.
On the contrary, work periods lasting 10-20 seconds long are ideal for developing maximum strength and power and are much more “intense” in nature.
Outlined below is the ideal intensity progression for Tabata training:
Level I- 20-10 Tabatas
Level II- 15-15 Tabatas
Level III- 10-20 Tabatas
Yes, you read that right- 10-20 intervals are much harder than 20-10 intervals because you can put forth a lot more effort during each shorter work period and with greater rest you are better able to maintain max strength and power output in each subsequent round.
Enter TABATA REVOLUTION!!
In essence, you will utilize the following 3-workout rotation each week for at least 3 straight weeks with at least 48 hours between sessions for best results.
Each day features a different work to rest ratio to allow you to experience the unique benefits of each protocol as outlined below:
Workout A- 10-20 Tabatas: Alternate between 10 seconds of maximum effort and 20 seconds of rest. Perform 8 total rounds followed by a 1-minute rest and transition. Repeat this 5-minute cycle 4 times for a 20-minute total body metabolic workout.
Workout B- 15-15 Tabatas: Alternate between 15 seconds of maximum effort and 15seconds of rest. Perform 8 total rounds followed by a 1-minute rest and transition. Repeat this 5-minute cycle 4 times for a 20-minute total body metabolic workout.
Workout C- 20-10 Tabatas: Alternate between 20 seconds of maximum effort and 10 seconds of rest. Perform 8 total rounds followed by a 1-minute rest and transition. Repeat this 5-minute cycle 4 times for a 20-minute total body metabolic workout.
Where 10-20’s allow for maximum strength and power output, 20-10’s work more strength and power endurance.
Think of 15-15’s as the ultimate Tabata “tweener” which also works extremely well for unilateral strength and power training as the extra 5 seconds of work is ideal for 1-leg or 1-arm movements that take more time to perform than there bilateral counterparts.
Lastly, the exercise selection we use is perfectly matched with each work to rest protocol. For example, exercises that require more skill and have a bigger set-up and transition time are best suited for 10-20 intervals rather than 20-10’s and visa versa.
Studies show that undulating periodization, where you change up the intensity of your workouts each day throughout the training week, provides for maximum improvements in both strength and endurance and that’s what you’re getting with TABATA REVOLUTION.
In fact, we call it undulating interval training and it’s the best way to get the most out of your interval workouts.
Do you have what it takes to join the HH FITNESS TABATA REVOLUTION!?
We shall see 😉
Heath Herrera, M.Ed., CSCS