The Tabata Lie

Tabata training is an example of how science has been used to skew a training protocol in to a weight loss regime- even though they are not related.  Tabatas are based upon a study where the participants performed a programme of high intensity/ low volume training peaking out at 170% of their VO2 Max. The original abstract is here for the science geeks. In summary, performing high intensity work over a six week period resulted in an improvement in maximal aerobic power and indicated that  intermittent high intensity training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supply systems. That would be okay if the study stayed in cycling highlighting that a short period of high intensity work can bring about improvements in your performance.

However this study has been bastardized in to main stream fitness and “rebranded” as a fat loss protocol. Fundamentally though if you are not working at 170% then you are not performing a tabata. You may be perfroming a set of hard exercise but it is not a tabata.

To explain this consider the original protocol. The Tabata protocol consisted of a 10 minute steady state warm up followed by 7-8 sets of 20 seconds at 170% VO2 Max with 10 seconds of rest between each set. They performed this 4 days a week and performed a slightly modifed version on the 5th day when they did 30 minutes of steady state work followed by 4 intervals.

The control group did 60 total minutes a day at 70% of VO2 Max 5 times a week.

The study was performed on a stationary bike and is an interesting, perhaps a landmark study, showing a clear improvement in performance with high intensity work over a short period of time (even though they did 70mins a week of steady state exercise).

The key for me though is to perform a tabata you have to be working at 170% of your VO2 Max. Simplified this is beyond the point that you can readily replace oxygen in your body. For trained athletes this is a vomit inducing intensity. Performing squats, lunges, burpees or any exercise under the pseudonym of a vaguely threatening animal will not illicit an effort similar to 170% of your VO2 Max. It will be hard, your last set may be tough, this is not 170% of your VO2 Max- instead it is a hard interval for 20 seconds. In essence it is like comparing a hill to Mount Everest- it’s not the same thing.

But welcome to world of fitness and nutrition where we can make things up and alter parameters.

Science doesn’t matter if it works right?

Tabata’s apparently burn more fat don’t they?

Well no.

Tabata’s were created as a performance enhancement tool. Will they enhance energy usage- well the study indicated enhancements in aerobic measures of power for the steady state group as well as improvements in aerobic and anaerobic measures of power in the Tabata group. What does this mean though? Well both groups improved performance. The Tabata group though enhanced their ability to work at a higher intensity. This study has no mention of fat or fuel utilization though inferences can be drawn from this. This indicates perhaps either (A) an increased in efficiency of energy utilization or (B) the ability to mobilize more energy to maintain a higher intensity. The assumption from the fat loss crowd would be option (B) and that is good enough for them- however (A) is just as likely.

Common sense dictates that if you work at a higher intensity for a longer time then you will consume more fuel (unless there is a saving in efficency) than someone working at a lower intensity. The key is this is related to performance and not body composition.

This leads to the re-entering of the Tabata protocol and different high intensity interval protocols last year popularized on the BBC by a Horizon documentary  This particular programme boasted a range of improvements in physical markers perhaps predominantly though an improvement in insulin sensitivity (if you are resistant to insulin you require larger amounts of insulin to metabolize carbohydrates which has been linked to a number of conditions such as elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure- also elevated insulin plays a role in fat storage importantly).

What was interesting though is that the general media took the message of Tabata and high intensity interval training on with headlines of “Fit In 3 minutes a Day.”

On the BBC Horizon programme, Timmons (part of the research team) told Mosley (the presenter) the problem with the current guidelines is they don’t take into account the variation in individual response to exercise, so there is no guarantee that following such a regime will actually give you the right results. The programme highlighted that the link between exercise and health is an individual thing.

But what does all the research highlight?

Very high intensity exercise elevates markers of performance. The question is a 6 week study is fine but in the long term do we see improvements. Well no- in fact other studies on high intensity work performance plateaus after 3 weeks.

It also enhances insulin sensitivity. It does not burn more body fat in preference to other methods of training but high intensity exercise can aid improvements in body composition by playing a role in managing fat storage or the body’s utilization of dietary carbohydrates.

This highlights that energy management is the key to fat loss as is fuel utilization (in essence what you put in to your body). A greater review is here remember though this encompasses all interval training and isn’t specifically Tabata style 20 second blasts. The role of interval training is well documented as a training aid but the key point is that Tabata’s are a specific type of interval.

If you are not working at 170% of your VO2 Max it isn’t a Tabata- if you have ever done it you will know.

 

 

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