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This article was published 19/7/2013 (1104 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Q. For the last year or so, I have heard the term tabata thrown around in the gym and have been told it's the best form of exercise. What exactly does it mean and should I be incorporating it into my fitness routine?
I was inundated with the term tabata two or three years ago and was totally in the dark. As a trainer, I am not usually the first to institute the newest training fad, but I eventually succumbed and did a bit of digging. Here is what I found.
Izumi Tabata is a researcher in Japan who did a study on high intensity interval training (HIIT) and its benefits. His study, performed on speedskaters, determined an interval of 20 seconds of work paired with 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times over the course of four minutes (take a minute to digest all of those numbers), was the most effective and time-efficient way to improve cardiovascular fitness -- both aerobic and anaerobic (we will get into that in a bit). His name and this specific interval have been popularized and are now synonymous with interval training.
So tabata training is simply high intensity interval training with a specific work-to-rest interval and length. HIIT training is defined as a period of high-intensity work paired with a period of low-intensity work or rest. This is beneficial, because your body has several systems at work to supply you with energy during exercise. At a lower intensity, your body will use primarily its aerobic system to create a muscle contraction, which uses oxygen and takes considerably longer to complete its pathway. Conversely, when you exercise at a high intensity, your body uses the anaerobic pathway to create a contraction and it does so through a highly expedited process without the immediate use of oxygen. Here is the kicker: When you exercise at high intensity, you get improvements in both systems, while low intensity exercise doesn't achieve as significant anaerobic improvements.
So why should you care about aerobic and anaerobic improvements? Because it translates into increased fat loss and strength gains; when done properly, it can help train many specific movement patterns, and because you can incorporate almost any movement patterns involving large muscle groups, you can avoid some nasty overuse injuries caused by too much of one repetitive motion.
The caveat is this, and if you read the last piece on the functional movement screen this may already be apparent: Many of us are limited in which large-movement exercises we can perform properly without risking injury. Let's revisit the burpee. If, as your trainer, I have to modify your burpee to a level that doesn't challenge your anaerobic system, it's no longer HIIT or tabata training. Therefore, this type of training is often reserved for fitter individuals.
My other issue with tabata training is the confines of the work-to-rest interval. If your goal is to consistently challenge your body by changing different variables in your exercise routine, why would you limit yourself to one interval length? Eventually, your body will acclimatize to that interval and will no longer be challenged. My approach to HIIT is to treat your interval length like all the other variables in your training routine and continue to modify them.
So approach tabata training with caution and select exercises you can do safely at high intensity while acknowledging HIIT is probably a better term for a broad and effective form of training. If you've performed this type of training, you know the feeling you experience when finished, and if you are going to try it -- have fun.
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