The Tabata Workout: A 4 Minute Weight Loss Miracle?

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Is the Tabata workout a weight loss miracle. Can you really do a 4 minute workout and burn up calories faster than a 5 alarm fire?

There has been a lot of talk around the Tabata protocol in fitness circles. Some trainers call it a 4 minute workout-miracle. Others say it’s over-hyped, and isn’t really the optimal way to lose weight. Let’s find out what the real answer is.

What is a Tabata workout?

Tabata training gained popularity after fitness professionals caught wind of a study that was conducted in Japan by researcher Izumi Tabata. The study compared moderate intensity exercise (70% of V02max) to high intensity, intermittent exercise (170% of V02max). The purpose of the study was to determine the affect of each exercise protocol on anaerobic capacity.

The group doing the moderate exercise would workout one hour a day on a bike, 5 days a week.

The high intensity group did a shorter more intense workout 4 days a week. This consisted of a 10 minute warm up followed by 7-8 sets of 20 second sprints on a stationary bike, with 10 seconds of rest between each set. Also, on a 5th day, they did 30 minutes of moderate intensity training, similar to the exercise done by the other group.

This workout is not complex and easily mimicked by anyone in a commercial gym. All you need is a stationary bike.

Obviously you cannot measure VO2max without special equipment, but here’s a simple guideline. If you are about ready to puke, you are doing this the right way and are probably close to the right intensity level. This is seriously intense stuff, with very little rest in between sets.

What kinds of exercises can you use to do a Tabata Workout?

Many people are trying to sell the idea that you can do Tabata training with all sorts of equipment and/or body weight exercises. However, it’s important when selecting your exercise of choice that you are able to reach peak intensity levels. Sprinting, stationary bikes where the resistance can be cranked up, versaclimbers, and rowers make great Tabata exercise choices. Any of these can get your heart racing and allow you to reach maximum intensity.

But, not all exercises are good ones for doing a Tabata. In fact, there is often some confusion about the Tabata workout:

Tabata is a very concise way to organize intervals of work and rest. You perform your chosen exercise, jumping rope or doing  burpees for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds maintaining this one and off sequence for a total of eight cycles.

Each round is four minutes long and you keep repeating the formula structure with different exercises.  You want to work as hard and as fast as you can for those 20 seconds – no dilly dallying. I did it for a total of nine cycles after running for 10 minutes as a warm up.

To keep things exciting I worked out around three piece of equipment, an  8 pound medicine ball, BOSU and cable pulleys, using each piece for three exercises. The hour flew by and I burned almost 500 calories.

The above mentioned workout is not Tabata training. I am not saying it’s a bad workout. I’m just saying that it’s not a Tabata. You’d be dead if you tried to do Tabatas for 60 minutes. These intervals are far too intense to be done for long periods of time.

Is Tabata training best for weight loss?

Here’s where there seems to be a big divergence of opinion. There seems to be a great deal of misinterpretation around the original study, and some wrong conclusions about what the study actually measured.

The Tabata Myth | Robertson Training Systems

In fact that the Tabata protocol has not even been tested for fat loss at all. In neither of the studies done on this protocol was fat loss even measured.  This protocol was created for performance.  And the primary outcome measures were predominantly looking at aerobic and aerobic fitness. Someone simply took these studies to mean something that they didn’t say.

So, to say that Tabatas are great for fat loss misses is nothing more than a guess, because there really isn’t any study to validate this. The study was done to determine the effects of both training protocols on anaerobic capacity. Fat loss wasn’t on the researchers list of things to measure.

Believers in the Tabata-as-weight-loss-miracle often attribute the magical weight loss effect to EPOC, or the afterburn effect. Meaning that you will burn extra calories during post-exercise recovery. And, to this end they are probably right, there will be some afterburn effect.

However, as I wrote about in the article on HIIT training, I explained that EPOC calories are largely a result of intensity and duration. Tabata workouts are intense for sure, but the other element of duration, well…it’s a pretty short workout, so don’t expect a big calorie burn due to EPOC.

When should you do Tabatas?

If you are trying to lose weight, think of Tabatas as a great finisher to your workout. For example, you might lift weights for 45 minutes, and then do Tabatas after.

You’ll get the advantage of burning calories due to your combined weight and Tabata workout, and you’ll also get a greater degree of afterburn by combining the two. Your body will need to spend more calories in recovering from both a weight workout and a Tabata workout.

What if you are an athlete and want to improve your conditioning? Well, Tabatas may have a place in your program. However, there may be some limitations to the benefits after about 3 weeks. 

Lyle McDonald, on his website, has this finding:

Effects of Moderate-Intensity Endurance and High-Intensity Intermittent Training on Anaerobic Capacity and VO2 Max – Research Review | BodyRecomposition – The Home of Lyle McDonald

(excerpt)

As I noted, pay attention to the fact that the Tabata group (black line, filled circles) started lower than the steady state group, they also still ended up lower than the steady state group.  As well, note that pattern of improvement, the Tabata group got most of their improvement in the first 3 weeks and far less in the second three weeks.  The steady state group showed more gradual improvement across the entire 6 week period but it was more consistent.  As the researchers state regarding the Tabata group:

After 3 wk of training, the VO2 max had increased significantly by 5+-3ml.kg/min.  It tended to increase in the last part of the training period but no significant changes [emphasis mine] were observed.

Basically, the Tabata group improved for 3 weeks and then plateaued despite a continuingly increasing workload.  I’d note that anaerobic capacity did improve over the length of the study although most of the benefit came in the first 4 weeks of the study (with far less over the last 2 weeks).

So, hopefully this breaks the Tabata myth. But as we noted this workout can be beneficial as an add on to your workout as an aerobic benefit, but don’t look to it to burn fat.

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