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Done right, Tabata training is a time-efficient cardio workout

Anyone who wants to get into shape quickly is looking for a time-efficient workout

Tabata claims to be just the thing. Able to get you fit in four minutes, it was named after the lead researcher who used it in a study, Dr. Izumi Tabata of the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan.

In the study, researchers compared the effects of a moderate-intensity program versus a high-intensity interval training program. They concluded the high-intensity program was more effective at improving both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

The kicker was the high-intensity interval workout lasted only 14 minutes including 10 minutes of easy warm-up and four total minutes of very hard riding on a bike ergometer.

The four minutes consisted of working hard for 20 seconds followed by a 10-second recovery period for eight sets.

Widespread Use of the Tabata Method

For years fitness trainers and instructors have been using this "20 seconds on, 10 seconds off" style of training and calling it Tabata.

But does it really work to help improve fitness for the general public?

There are a few things you should know about the study.

First, it used as its subjects seven young male university students who were all athletes. Secondly, during the 20 seconds of hard work the subjects worked at 170% of VO2 max, a fancy term for maximum aerobic capacity.

But look at that figure again. They worked at 170% of their maximum! As someone who's used to doing some very intense and difficult workouts, I can tell you this is a very, very hard effort. And they did this for eight sets! If you were truly working at that level by mid-point of the workout you'd probably be close to throwing up. (I've heard unconfirmed stories that some of the test subjects actually did).

I'd be willing to bet that of the thousands of people who've done Tabata-style training, 99% have not come close to this effort. Sure they may have gone hard for 20 seconds, but they probably weren't working at 170% of their maximum aerobic effort.

Take Away Message about Tabata

Don't think that doing 20 seconds of air-squats with 10 seconds of rest is Tabata. Sure it's interval training but true Tabata training is about effort as much as the specific work-rest ratio.

I'm a proponent of interval training. But you can also use other work-rest ratios for intervals, don't feel you need to use the 20/10 method only. And if you want to do a true Tabata you must be working at a very, very hard effort. This is not a workout for beginners!

So if your trainer or bootcamp instructor tells you that you're going to do a Tabata workout, you're probably not really doing it. But that's okay. Interval training is still effective even if you don't throw up. In fact, I don't encourage vomiting during a workout. Go hard, use good form, don't go to the point of throwing up and you'll get into shape.

It just might take a little longer, but not much, than four minutes.