Are We Defacing Tabata?


Leave it to the fitness industry to aggressively destroy yet another sound athletic training concept. Hone in on certain indoor cycling circles and it can be an absolute free-for-all. It is not uncommon to see massive high-speed sprints (with little to no resistance), producing an eye-popping 20 watts (not a typo), upper-body gyrations that appear to be from a scene in the Exorcist, and now Tabata, Tabata, and more Tabata.

Maybe I’m a bit sensitive (do ya think?) when I see effective training concepts mangled beyond recognition. My roots are grounded in the athletic community where science, specificity, and technique reign supreme. Performance is high, training is challenging but focused, and the stresses against the mind and body are taken to the limit. This is not hype, but simply a product of training and competing to win. I am certainly in favor of the fitness industry gleaning inspiration from the athletic masses, but a shred of intelligence must be in attendance. If something is utilized to stress a seasoned and trained athlete, it must be appropriately adapted if used in a demographic where not everyone is a paid sports figure and where fitness is just shy of the pro level.

Introducing Dr. Izumi Tabata

Here is a quote from Dr. Izumi Tabata, the founder…uh…researcher…um…tester of… Well, let him tell the story*:

“During my time working with the Japanese speed skating team, the headcoach, Mr. Irisawa Koichi, had me analyze the effectiveness of his training regime that involved a rotation of short bursts of maximum effort followed by short periods of rest. Although Coach Irisawa pioneered the idea, somehow it became named after me (laughs). The current regime consists of repetitions of 20 seconds of intense work, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This means that, excluding warming up and cooling down, the exercise can be completed in only 4 minutes if repeated 8 times, more than enough to make even a fit person exhausted. The idea has become bigger than I imagined and now if you search this on Google, you will get about 200,000 hits.”

Besides being a big hit on Google, Tabata has been adopted by indoor cycling as its long-lost son. There are Tabata cycling classes and Tabata drills popping up everywhere.

In the same interview, Dr. Tabata also states:

“Such high-intensity exercise is exhausting, so it’s not good for those simply interested in general promotion of their health.”

and…

“Since the exercise is a little bit dangerous for those other than seasoned athletes, I would advise beginners to start at a low intensity, and stay within their comfort zone. Once they feel they are getting stronger, they can then increase the intensity little by little.”

That’s My Name. Don’t Wear It Out

Regardless of the warnings, guidelines, and instruction from a College of Sport and Health Science professor and researcher working with world-class athletes, the fitness industry still decides to run with knives. What part of “the exercise can be completed in only 4 minutes if repeated 8 times, more than enough to make even a fit person exhausted” compels an instructor to dish out 60 minutes of Tabata hell? In context, the “fit person” Dr. Tabata is most likely referring to is an Olympic-level speed skater—same as those who flock into our indoor cycling classes (not). Even if a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool-down were added to Dr. Tabata’s excruciating 4-minute protocol, the complete workout, start to finish, would only total 24 minutes. Nope, 60 minutes folks.

Injury and Negative Training Effects for Everyone

When people get fatigued, or “exhausted,” they become sloppy and the first thing that falls off the table is form. The combination of poor form, exhaustion, and high intensity create the perfect storm for injury. Not to mention best practice for group fitness states that any exercise or movement incorporated should be safe for the entire class, while also allowing the instructor to monitor and apply corrections to all participants. The Internet is flooded by hundreds of videos submitted by fame-hungry instructors showcasing the worthiness of their classes. Watch almost any of these indoor cycling selfies, and you will see both perfect and horrific form demonstrated from one rider to the next within the same class. The riders in the front row of these videos often resemble Jane Fonda (no explanation should be necessary) and Billy Blanks (Tae Bo) clones, while in the remaining rows reside a parade of uncoordinated and goodhearted people trying to keep up. Obviously a perfect scenario for advanced, elite-level, high-intensity training.

Since most cannot perform the first Tabata protocol to its intended maximum without tasting vomit, it is less likely that the following Tabata efforts that comprise the class will have a much better result. So after the first violent whirlwind is completed, the instructor continues to bark out the inspiration, while the class flails away helplessly and ineffectively. If a rider was able to muster the self-discipline and self-denial to push every effort (highly doubtful), it is more likely that they were taken beyond exhaustion and probably broke down lean muscle mass as a result of insufficient fuel available from glycogen (which ran low at the 30-minute mark). The reality is that most (probably all) riders died a thousand deaths after the first Tabata effort and are now mentally and physically faking their way through the remaining 45 or so minutes resulting in another ineffective hour of exercise.

A 60-Minute Tabata Class

The mere fact that you’ve read this far indicates that you are an instructor (and possibly an athlete or coach) that understands how to properly implement movements, efforts, and intensities. I’m going to also assume you are interested in how to best use a Tabata effort in your class. And lastly, I’m going to assume you have excellent judgment and can assess whether an effort of this extreme is appropriate for those who bow before your bike. Assuming those assumptions, here is one way I would incorporate Tabata in a 60-minute class.

00:00 – 10:00 – Warm-up and Instruction
10:00 – 16:00 – Warm-up Part 2 (Zones 2–3)
16:00 – 23:00 – Moderate, Steady Climb (Activate the Muscles)
23:00 – 26:00 – Recovery
26:00 – 34:00 – 8 x 30-Second Efforts to Zone 4
34:00 – 37:00 – Recovery
37:00 – 41:00 – 2 x 30-Second Openers (full-out)
41:00 – 46:00: Long Recovery to Prepare
46:00 – 50:00: Tabata!!!!
50:00 – 60:00: Cool-down and Stretch

Although the early minutes of class will (and should) seem easier in perspective, you will need to coach them NOT to push too hard and prepare for the last gut-busting effort, that is surely the focus and challenge of the class. The key is going to be in the coaching. You will need to warn them and remind them numerous times of that which is lurking in the not-too-distant future. How you prepare them and set them up for success will prove itself in the end. Not everyone will listen to you and that will also be made known once Tabata strikes.

When all is said and done, you will have properly beaten their kick-hungry butts, delivering a highly effective workout. You will also have upgraded your reputation from bad-ass to one bad smart-ass instructor.

* Ritsumeikan University, Japan, http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/eng/html/research/areas/feat-researchers/interview/izumi_t.html/

30 Responses to “Are We Defacing Tabata?”

  1. Donna Gilli says:

    I finish nearly every class with some sort of Tabata. My participants know this. Most look forward to the “final effort”. If not, they know they can cool down while cheering us on…
    I feel the Tabata or HIIT interval is entirely appropriate in this setting.
    Sometimes I make it a game….and go around the room letting eight people call out Sprint or Attack for each 20 second interval. It is fun

  2. Tony Orlandi says:

    This is such an informative thread, and thanks to Tom and everyone for your insights!

    I have yet to utilize a Tabata in my classes, but I am curious: how exactly should an instructor cue them and what level of intensity/heart rate level are the riders reaching on each effort? First, should we be cueing it as simply speeding up from a solid baseline, or it more akin to a Sprint in which we add gear and max out for 20 secs (like high Zone 5) at high gear and 90+ rpm? Second, I assume that if I were to drive the class to true “maximum” on the first interval (like in a Sprint-level effort), the second interval will be a much lower power output after just to 10 secs rest, and so on, leading to diminishing returns. Should we cue at as a more even effort distribution? (apologies if you already addressed this in the Interval Insurrection and I since forgot!)

  3. Pat Kilroy says:

    Good article and comments! I thought this was well written, too.

    http://robertsontrainingsystems.com/blog/the-tabata-myth/

  4. Tom,gGreat article. We use a mix of indoor and outdoor cycling workouts with our cadre of riders who are fitter than novices. We Incorporate Tabatas and similar ultra-high AT intervals sparingly due to the severity of such efforts. I see and hear coments from other instructors such as “more is better” (which is an axiom that is not a truism at all). I saw similar misuse of other elite athlete training tenets and specialized routines with even Fartlek intervals (instructors having participa ts do ffar too many intervals or over-extending them).

  5. Janet says:

    The term Tabata has been coming up more & more in my world. Tabata classes, Tabata finishers, Tabata fillers between weights. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY! Only one person can do Tabata…and that’s Prof Tabata. Hate the way we are bastardizing every good thing that comes down the pike. Kettlebells is another thing of mine….everyone swinging a lightweight 8-lb kettlebell. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY! We dumb it down to the lowest of low denominator….when it should be something we aspire to achieve. If we of the “Spin” world are true purists, then we have to respect Tabata of is true, pure, original form. No finishers, Tom. A 46- minute warmup is too long & taxing. Or would Prof Tabata approve? I’m not diggin’ your 60-minute class….but I still love you!! 🙂

    • Tom Scotto says:

      Thanks Janet 🙂 I’m totally with you on the bastardization of many modalities of fitness. It is sickening. There is definitely a balance between progressively adapting someone to the “fullness” of something like cycling or kettlebells and dumbing everything down. It only demonstrates the lack of standards and true certifications in the industry.

      To your point, there are certainly endless ways to incorporate Tabata efforts into a 45/60-minute class. I personally like to save the hardest efforts for the later half of class when possible or appropriate. A 15-minute warm-up would also be appropriate. The bigger question is what riders would (or should) be capable of after attacking a Tabata effort full-on? Maybe the question is whether Tabata efforts are effective in this format at all. Something for us to consider.

  6. Fran Esfera says:

    Buenos días Interesante articulo sobre Tabata. Nosotros en España, llevamos un año practicándolo y funciona fenomenal. No obstante donde mayor rendimiento y efectividad hemos encontrado es en una adaptación y no en la rigurosidad del propio Tabata.

    Hemos generados las repeticiones en 20 + 10 + 20 + 40 y esto lo repetimos cuatro veces, de esta forma consigues una mejor recuperación y por lo tanto menor fatiga para poder conseguir el éxito de la serie.

    Por otro lado hemos investigado mucho con las cadencias, ya que hay que buscar el equilibrio entre la carga y la cadencia. No he conseguido leer en ninguna de las respuesta la cadencia mas optima para elaborar y desarrollar el Tabata. Por lo tanto si os parece bien os dejo nuestra sensación en cuanto a las cadencias. Tenemos comprobado que la optima ejecutable es 90 RPM.

    Gracias por este articulo esta sensacional y poco a poco van entrando los modelos HIIT en el Cycling Indoor.

    Un saludo

    Fran ESfera

    • Gracias Fran,
      Creo que he entendido la mayor parte de lo que escribió! (Hablo un poco espanol, puedo leer mas, sin embargo, yo estoy usando Google Translate para ayudarme a traducir esto!)

      Estoy de acuerdo que 90 RPM es probablemente la mejor cadencia de potencia óptima al tiempo que reduce el potencial para la fatiga muscular.
      Miré a su excelente sitio web, y me gustaría aprender más acerca de lo que haces. ¿Asegura usted instructores, o proporcionar la educación y eventos?

      ¿Habla usted Inglés? ¿Usted trabaja con Paco de Kaiser?

      Por favor envíeme un correo electrónico a jennifer@indoorcyclingassociation.com

      Muchas gracias por tus comentarios,
      Jennifer Sage
      Indoor Cycling Association

      • Lynda Dove-Garcia says:

        I think I teach a good cycle class and have had good feedback. Recently I was asked “why don’t you do Tabatas”. Well I actually had not heard of doing this in cycle class so I asked other instructors and they told me what to do. Here is my feedback. I think the tabata drill is too quick for cycling. Not enough time to get to the intensity and not enough time to recover. I prefer to do “intervals”. A little longer, a little stronger. Just my take. I did put one in my class for a while but having seen the way these are managed by participants I will just stick to my high intensity interval training.

  7. SpinningB says:

    Right as always, Tom. It is this incredible lack of knowledge that puts class participants at danger of injury. Have to agree that it is the choir that takes notice and is actively involved in being educated. Trying to educate those who do the bat-$$$$ crazy stuff is like pushing a bolder uphill on moss. Those folks must be salivating as they put together their ‘killer workout’.

  8. Maryjo Ruckel, Spinning® MI, NY says:

    Tom, this is an excellent article and great profile. We all know that all too many times instructors feel that the only successful class is one that results in eyes popping out of people’s heads. My key expression when training both instructors and members is, “Don’t mistake intensity for integrity! Just because a ride is very challenging, don’t necessarily think that it is beneficial.” Your article speaks volumes. Thanks so much!!!!

  9. joey devick says:

    So I do teach a Tabata class…but the intensity is a bit different because it is (gulp) a 60 minute class – not a cycle class however. Before you start bashing me – no need – I’m a continual learner of positive and useful criticism – the way that I teach it is a cardio intense set of Tabata, then a strength based large muscle group, strength based small muscle group, and an ab set. Repeat.
    I wouldn’t necessarily say hard core Tabata all 8 times – but I guide them to push moderate, then hard, harder, then as hard as possible, back to moderate, hard, harder, hardest.
    In my cycle classes, its always one set of Tabata – towards the end. 8 20/10’s to threshold….input?

  10. Mike says:

    Tabata actually has a certification program that allows you to use the name once the training has been completed. There isn’t a licensing fee for the facility that uses it. A side note, the 20/10 sequence is not the only Tabata. It also includes a 40/30/20 sequence with progressive intensity. The breaks are 20/15/10 but should not be repeated more than twice.

  11. Chuck Cali says:

    I continue to Bow before your bike Tom. Like Stephen, I believe the unfortunate truth is you may be preaching mostly to the choir. A couple of our more open respondents did admit to doing more than one set of Tabata’s even after presumably reading your entire post. So hopefully it helps.

    Jim Karanas and I had this very discussion last summer at IDEA before one of his session that included one Tabata segment. (Not coincidentally, at the end of the session) At least several of us agree that if one thinks their class capable, then a very structured warm up for the final Tabata segment is most appropriate.

    Thanks

  12. Robert W Blatz says:

    Tom, the article on Tabata cycling classes is very timely. I’ve been conducting Tabata classes since he beginning of October of last year. I’ve started with one set and have added a set each month with four sets being the max I intended to have the participants do. But after the classes last week I’m thinking of going back to three sets because I’ve noticed that those participants that actually gave their all out effort were unable to hold the proper form while riding. I also noticed that some folks backed off their effort knowing that they had four sets to do.

    Lastly, rather than do a Tabata ride last week, I used the Aerobic Conditioning profile that you provided. After the class a number of participants stated that the class was more difficult than the Tabata classes. Which to me signals that they are not doing the Tabata classes at the intensity that will provide the greatest benefit.

    Thanks,

    Bob

  13. Marilyn says:

    In my 17 years of teaching in South Africa I have seen decent training concepts turned to mush by instructors who want to be known for “killer classes” without thought for the participants’ long term well being. I think its a lack of understanding and not doing enough research before trying something new. I am currently training people in my classes for the Argus Cycle ride which takes place in Cape Town every year in March. I have built up the training during January by concentrating on 2 15 min hills linked with an endurance track and a couple of quick sprints at the end. Then 1 15 min hill, endurance, and additional sprinting at the end (always with resistance). For 2 weeks I have included a 4 minute Tabata section (20 secs intense, 10 secs recovery) in the second half of the second half of the class, with the clear understanding that it must be at peak intensity and the recovery must be a recovery. For the first couple of sets you can see them thinking, hey I can do this, no problem, but from then on it really hits home, this is hard! and after 4 minutes they’ve had enough. Its a great technique but needs to be thoroughly understood and never overdone. My plan is to get these guys fit enough to tackle all the hills the race throws at them, know when to take it down a notch to ride sections as an endurance module and also to have the fitness and stamina to push hard when they need to. Only time will tell! One more month of final training and then they need a tapering period from beginning March to race date. I am hoping that the feedback after the race will be highly positive in terms of their training preparation

  14. DAN C says:

    Jennifer, I do a nice Tabata set towards the end of my ride. 8×20 followed by a 10 second recovery. My class loves them. They asked for more. I am thinking to insert a quick 4×20 mid ride tabata, after the legs are good and warm. Is that reasonable? Any other thoughts where to add 4 more? Also, I like the tabata songs that have the coach counting down and cuing. Do you have any other places or sources where I can find these prepared coached , tabata songs., I would even pay for the coached tabata music. I have a few from Spotify and iTunes. Just wondering if I am missing anything. Great work, all the best, Dan

  15. @ Neil, thanks, that’s interesting. Curious what Mr. Tabata gets out of the trademark and use of his name? I hope it’s a lot! I also hope he continues to voice his opinion of the potential misuse of this technique in the fitness world versus athletes.

    @Peter, good point!

    @Vivienne, I’ll have to check out that article. My IDEA journal might still be at the post office or in that stack of mail I haven’t gone through yet! 😉

    @Stephen, you and me both! Well, maybe not a double century, but I’ll take the challenge and suffering of a long-distance bike ride over VHIIT any day! We are both blessed with a higher percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers most likely.

  16. Peter Jones says:

    @Vivienne – “MOST IMPACTFUL PROGRAM” – is that because it causes more damage than any other? 🙂

  17. Vivienne Naylor says:

    Excellent….and timely …..article as usual, Tom. This HIIT=good, moderate intensity=bad is one meme that won’t seem to die a dignified death.

    Interesting coincidence but my IDEA journal arrived yesterday and there’s quite an extensive article on just this topic and questioning the value of high intensity all the time …P90X, Insanity and Crossfit-type WODs being held up as popular “trademarked” workouts. There are a few quotes from seasoned trainers mentioning that they’re the ones now being perceived as “too easy” by fairly deconditioned gym members who’re glomming onto the buzz they get from the beatdown workouts.

    Of course, there’s also a full page ad. for that trademarked “turnkey” programme that boasts “There’s a reason why Tabata BOOTCAMP ™ was awarded “MOST IMPACTFUL PROGRAM” a few pages before you get to it, which is a bit of a hoot!

  18. Stephen Grady says:

    I thought it was named after the person that analysed the effectiveness of the protocol…

    Nice article again Tom. Sadly, it is likely to be read and understood only by the choir. I really hate hearing about Tabata classes. When I hear about an instructor offering a Tabata class, their name and reputation in my book is flushed down the sink. Sorry, dude, you don’t know shazbutt. Worse when they are supposed to be the Group X director. Good-bye. No interest.

    I have done (or tried to do) Tabata intervals on the indoor bike and on the treadmill. Using power threshold, heart rate, as guides, I have never gotten past 6 repetitions. I just cannot will myself to maintain that effort (please, give me a double-century to ride instead!). After, I could barely manage to keep going for the cooldown after those. The rest of the day was a total write-off…

    I do do Tabata-style intervals with my classes. Typically one set sandwiched between a lot of preparation and a lot of wind down. I tell them we are doing 10s off/20s on. If someone (invariably someone will) mentions Tabata intervals, I tell them these are not Tabata, that they are only similar because of the rest/work periods – these are not Tabata intensity.

  19. Hi Janet and Jennifer, it wasn’t until they teamed up with Universal, but now it is a trademark. http://www.tabataofficial.com This is what is beening launched massively in the UK at the moment, and because of the great packaging the fitness industry are lapping it up.

    • Sharon Peters says:

      And, after going over their “About” info on the website, it is hilariously horrifying to note that the word salad they have splayed out over the page on Tabata is … incorrect, including failure to mention Tabata’s statement/warning that this protocol is not for any but seasoned athletes. Then, follow that with a visit to the certification requirements for the “Tabata Body” focus: on-line training and woefully few contact hours, pay your good money, and then you are turned loose on the public. Kinda scary, actually.

  20. @Janet, that’s a very interesting question. It’s named after the person who created the protocol. I wonder if he would have wanted to, or even thought of trademarking it? If so, he’d be rich! 😉
    I have a feeling it isn’t…

  21. Janet says:

    Is Tabata a trademarked name?

  22. Neil, you said it perfectly:
    “…as you mentioned a class told me the other day an instructor pushed them through 20 cycles of 20/10. This just shows a lack of understanding of the concept and really what they are trying to achieve by putting riders through a Tabata workout, just jumping on the buzz workout, just like everyone doing HIIT.”

    This is EXACTLY why Tom’s article is so importantly and timely. I hear the same thing all the time, and it’s hurting far too many riders. It will do more to keep them away from class than to bring them in.

  23. Great post Tom, had this discussion recently with the introduction of Tabata from Universal onto the studio floor, we were like it’s only been proven on a bike and can that sort of intensity be created on the floor with exercises suitable for most members. However regarding the intensity most general public don’t want to taste vomit, it isn’t their (or to be honest my idea of fun), so even if you did 4 minutes of it most riders won’t push themselves to get to their maximum state and hence reap the benefits of this type of training. However as you mentioned a class told me the other day an instructor pushed them through 20 cycles of 20/10. This just shows a lack of understanding of the concept and really what they are trying to achieve by putting riders through a Tabata workout, just jumping on the buzz workout, just like everyone doing HIIT as well, so appreciated your talk about steady state training, which I have been trying to educate this month.

  24. DAN C says:

    I do a nice Tabata set towards the end of my ride. 8×20 followed by a 10 second recovery. My class loves them. They asked for more. I am thinking to insert a quick 4×20 mid ride tabata, after the legs are good and warm. Is that reasonable? Any other thoughts where to add 4 more? Also, I like the tabata songs that have the coach counting down and cuing. Do you have any other places or sources where I can find these prepared coached , tabata songs., I would even pay for the coached tabata music. I have a few from Spotify and iTunes. Just wondering if I am missing anything. Great work, all the best, Dan

  25. Pat Williams says:

    Nice job as always. Thanks, Tom

    Pat

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