By Drew Price BSc Masc ACSM Cert RNutr
If your goal is to be able to do a lot of work over a sustained period of time with minimal rest then this is the exercise protocol for you. It is incredibly popular with combat athletes and something wrestlers/grapplers as well as MMA competitors use regularly, but it also has amazing potential for use with bodybuilders, Olympic lifters and other weights or physique interested trainees.
For those not familiar with the Tabata protocol, here it is:
- warm up
- 20 seconds work
- 10 seconds rest
- repeat 7 more times
You chose the movement and how many rounds you want to do but eight is the common number seen. You may want to start off with less: it's a full, hard workout in a few minutes. It doesn't sound incredibly difficult, after all it's short and for a third of the time you are just stood there, but let me say it is some of the toughest workouts I know.
The History of Tabata
This method of conditioning was invented by Dr. Izumi Tabata and his team at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. The team was looking at different exercise protocols and their effect on the energy production systems of athletes with the aim of finding ways to increase both anaerobic and aerobic conditioning. They tested a number of very intense protocols but found that the one called 1E1 tested both systems, this is the 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off method we see today.
Why use Tabata?
The Tabata method is incredibly good for conditioning and this is great for most athletes but what if you are not interested in the physiological conditioning but rather about conditioning and how it relates to body fat levels and muscularity?
a) Reduced body fat levels: Although Tabata has been used for energy system work it was quickly found that it is a hugely effective way to strip fat from the body. The training is itself brief, but the knock on effects are increased calorie utilization through the day and more importantly, an increased rate of fat burning in the hours after training. While low intensity long duration work has you burning fat on the bike for say 45 minutes, Tabata causes you to increase the rate for fat burning for many hours after.
b) Ability to train: If Tabata teaches the mind and body one thing, it is the ability to increase intensity and maintain a lot of hard work; this is incredibly useful to the bodybuilder. In my experience once a trainee has been exposed to Tabata they raise their game elsewhere in the weights room. Think you're working hard on that final set of squats? Do a Tabata session and then think again. Apart from the psychological aspects there are of course the physiological ones, anaerobic conditioning can be very useful when lifting especially on higher volume plans.
c) Time pressure: Plans are all very good but they have to be able to fit into our hectic schedules. Tabata at anywhere between 3-7 minutes is just such a plan.
Doing Tabata could not be simpler. As above you choose an exercise and perform as many reps (or as much work) as possible for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds. You then repeat this cycle for a predetermined number of times. That's where the easy bit ends.
I have said it before but Tabata is very demanding, these protocols were first used to increase the performance of Olympic medal winning speed skaters – not exactly slouches themselves. The trainee has to make a deal with themselves that they are going to stick to the predetermined schedule i.e. work for 20 seconds and not take any more than 10 seconds rest. Anything else is not Tabata and very probably won't work anywhere near as effectively.
When using a weights movement such as dumbbell thrusters you should not put the weight down and walk away from them but either hold on to them or put them on an elevated surface in front of you. Similarly bars should not be racked unless it becomes necessary, which it may well do!
When training using Tabata, it is a good idea to have someone with you to spot and also to help with timing and counting of cycles. Tabata interval timers are commercially available and with a quick search you can easily find free timers as well, some even featuring some inspirational music. If you are not able to get these then make sure you are facing a large clock as you train.
Tabata is a good example of where more is not necessarily better. If you are able to do 15 rounds then you are not working hard enough. Also you should not consider doing this more than once every week at the most, ideally staying around once every two weeks.
You can use most common forms of aerobic work to train in a Tabata style, indeed the experiments were carried out on stationary cycles, but in the weights community common choices of movement seen include:
- Back squat - a good choice
- Front squat - again a good choice but usually harder on the lower back and lungs
- Dumbbell thrusters - probably the best choice for those utilizing resistance
- Deadlifts - a good choice but form is an issue here as is back fatigue
- Sumo deadlift high-pulls - again a great choice but those with shoulder issues may want to avoid these
- Stationary bike - a great 'gym friendly' choice and an easy method to start with
- Rowing (on the ergo) - huge full body impact
- Sprints - great for speed and leg development
- Cleans and jerks - I can't recommend these as form is hugely important, after rounds 3 and 4 your form will have gone to pot
The potential problems with Tabata
There are a few issues with Tabata that should be addressed by anyone interested in taking the challenge:
1) You have to be in good condition already before performing this type of exercise. Remember who and why this protocol was devised. If your health and fitness levels are an issue, then work on other forms of conditioning for a while.
2) Movement choice: Triceps kickbacks are not a valid choice here, the movement should be a large compound exercise (i.e. not bench press) but there is also another problem...
3) Ego: You are just not going to able use that much weight, you have to be really careful with loads here – a few percent too optimistic and you aren't getting through round four.
Will this put a training stress on the muscle though? YES! Remember training stress is both recruitment of the higher threshold motor units but putting a load of stress through them and also fatiguing motor units, fast repetitions will do this. It also causes a huge systemic reaction due to the sheer difficulty of the task.
You will also frighten the other people in your gym.
A word of warning though, it is an advanced technique and not for everyone, though it is used regularly by some it is regular but not often! Once every three weeks is enough for most and think long and hard about loads used and form when doing them.
- NSCA, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2nd Ed
- Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. Tabata et al Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (1997) 29, 390-395