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The Exercises
The TABATA Protocol

Chapter 9

 Fitness Doesn’t Have to Take

 a Lot of Time

Time - we waste it, then become short of it and try to find more. We keep track of it, lose track of it, and when we’re happiest it seems unimportant. What is this abstract concept that dictates our lives? Nothing can move faster or seem to last longer.

The number one reason people give for not exercising is lack of time. But we all know that a reason can also be a thinly veiled excuse. We seem to easily find time to do what we enjoy and somehow never find time for the things we don’t like to do. Many of us seem to be in a great hurry, yet appear to be going nowhere. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu may have said it best: “Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’”

In an excellent article titled "In Their Own Words: 14 Experts On Time" from Forbes.Com, alternative medicine expert Deepak Chopra, M.D., talks about the dangers of living a hectic lifestyle based on a perceived lack of time:

People who feel that they are ‘running out of time’ have speeded up their biological clocks, they have faster heart rates and jittery platelets with high levels of adrenaline. When they drop dead from a premature heart attack, they have literally ‘run out of time.’

The aspects that many dislike about exercise—physical exertion, sweating and the heart-pounding breathlessness—actually lead to better health and allow us to enjoy our favorite things. Our bodies are designed to be in motion and function much better when active, and of course, we look and feel our best as a result. The damage done by chasing time and neglecting your own fitness could catch up with you—if you’re fortunate to live long enough.

The British statesman Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby, proclaimed during his “The Conduct of Life” address at Liverpool College in 1873, “Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” Nothing rings truer today, and this was stated almost 150 years ago.

A quick, efficient way to train

A training session need not be long and tedious to be effective. The Tabata Protocol, an approach to expedited training, is based on 4 minutes of work (20 seconds of intense activity with 10 seconds of rest for eight cycles). Ideally, a warm-up (light biking, cycling, elliptical, etc.) of 8 minutes is recommended, as is an 8-minute cool-down. Still, this makes for a super-efficient 20-minute workout.

The protocol was developed by Irisawa Koichi, head coach of the Japanese Olympic speed-skating team. Professor Izumi Tabata, a Japanese scientist and a former researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports who worked as a training coach for the team at the time, was asked by Koichi to analyze the effectiveness of his training regime and measure its effectiveness in a clinical setting. Koichi developed the method, but it was named after Professor Tabata.

Testing the Tabata Protocol

A research study testing the Tabata Protocol examined the effects of conventional aerobic exercise compared with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Study results published in 1996 indicate that HIIT appears to offer the best of both worlds—aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) fitness. Professor Tabata and his researchers found that athletes who performed the routine five days a week for six weeks improved their maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max) by 14 percent. The protocol also improved anaerobic capacity by 28 percent.

The protocol was originally tested with elite athletes (speed skaters) performing with all-out sprinting effort on a stationary bike. In its true form, only highly trained athletes should attempt the Tabata approach to training. Many of the speed skaters in the initial study worked themselves to the point of vomiting during their intervals, far beyond the level of intensity that gets you a little out of breath and inhibits speaking in complete sentences.

Tabata’s study followed two groups of athletes. One group did a full 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week. The other group also trained five days a week, but performed eight high-intensity cycling sprints for 20 seconds with a 10-second rest period (pedaling at a much slower rate) in between. The fifth day the interval group also did 30 minutes of steady-state exercise at 70 percent of their VO2 max. They followed this with four intervals.

It’s important to note that Tabata didn’t compare other forms of interval training. He only researched work-to-rest ratios of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest over a period of six weeks. He did note that most of the increases in performance came in the first three weeks of the study and then gradually tapered off. So it is quite possible that performing HIIT isn’t going to improve your VO2 max indefinitely. As with most things, overdoing it may degrade your performance rather than increase it. Most elite athletes gap their training into periods of working at varying levels of intensity based on when they plan to compete, and don’t work anywhere near their maximum-level effort all the time.

The Tabata Protocol is an exceptional workout that enhances the fitness of both sprinters and endurance athletes. In comparison, traditional aerobic training (running at approximately 70 percent of aerobic capacity) performed for 60 minutes for the same number of weeks as Tabata’s study showed an improvement in aerobic capacity of only 9.5 percent and virtually no effect on anaerobic capacity. Tabata training appears to offer a big bang for your fitness buck. A recent article describes new research that demonstrates the benefits of Tabata training, which indicates that this type of interval training is still proving to be effective almost 20 years after the initial study.

Reaping the benefits of a Tabata-style workout

A Tabata-style workout can be used with virtually any type of activity, from sprinting to kettlebell swings. Simply put, the protocol calls for 20 seconds of all-out, high-intensity effort alternated with 10 seconds of rest, for a total of eight repetitions.

The reason we refer to “Tabata-style” rather than “Tabata” is that few people, except perhaps elite-level athletes, will be able to put forth the maximum effort used during the initial development of Tabata training. As Professor Tabata has said, “If you feel OK afterwards you’ve not done it properly.” There are many who believe that the only reason the Tabata testing proved to be so effective was the intensity of the athletes’ effort, and I would agree.

Even beginners can use the Tabata format and gradually ramp up their intensity. Once a base fitness level is achieved, a beginner can perform the given exercise with as much intensity and as many repetitions as possible, ideally maintaining the same number of reps on the first set as the eighth. A good way for beginners to start with Tabata-style training is to rise from and sit back down onto a chair for eight cycles and see how they feel the next day. It sounds easy, but some will have a difficult time performing this for eight cycles. Remember that it takes some time to become unfit, and there is no point in hurrying back to fitness. There is no reason to rush into injury.

The GymBoss is a great, inexpensive tool to help you start incorporating Tabata-style workouts on your journey back to fitness. This small interval timer will beep or vibrate letting you know when to stop or start your exercise cycle without the need to watch the clock, allowing you to fully concentrate on your movements.

While being immensely popular, Tabata intervals do have limitations other than the obvious one that few of us do them as designed and tested. While interval training is a time-efficient and extremely effective way to boost your VO2 max and anaerobic capacity and contribute to fat loss, many of the claims made about the Tabata Protocol exaggerate the findings of the original study. One thing to keep in mind is that regardless of how hard you push yourself, there’s a boundary to the number of calories you can expend in such a short period of time.

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