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Will the Real Tabata Please Stand Up?

I remember a few short years ago when I was first introduced to “Tabata” workouts. These days, it’s hard to miss the made-for-headlines exercise Rx. There are “Tabata” classes at the gym, “Tabata” workouts in fitness magazines, books on Tabata, apps that time your intervals.

It’s a pretty easy sell on the face of it: 8 short bursts of only 20 seconds of all-out activity with a quick 10 seconds to recover in between. And with that small four-minute investment of time (not to mention a massive investment in effort, but we’ll get to that) you take away the fitness benefits of a workout 10 times as long. Sure it’s hard, but you can do anything for four minutes, right? Umm, yeah. Tell that to the guy trying to break the four-minute mile barrier! Anyone who has ever run a race—really raced a race, that is—knows that even mere seconds can feel like an eternity. In slow motion. Through Jell-O.

But wait a minute here, you might be saying. If Tabata takes only four minutes, why does the class at my gym take 30—or even an hour? Exercise physiologist Michele Olson, PhD, whose research on Tabata I wrote about last summer here, puts it quite bluntly: “Authentic Tabata is nasty.” And that original research that Tabata's benefits are based on was done with hard-core athletes who could tolerate the intensity.

The truth is, it’s not just muscles-burning, sucking-wind tough, it’s also pretty hard to even get your heart rate to the “supramax” levels the Dr. Izumi Tabata, who conducted the original research, did with his subjects, Olson explained to me. In fact, doing so required specially-designed cycles. Olson managed to get her subjects to 95% in her study. More recent research by the American Council on Exercise averaged 86%. Dr. Tabata? His subjects hit 170%, leapfrogging far beyond their aerobic capacity. The bottom line—if you can physically do it for more than four minutes, it’s not the real deal.

That doesn’t mean you should go demanding your money back from that 45-minute “Tabata” class you’ve been doing at your gym, though. Whether your version of Tabata is like the ACE study, 20 minutes with a warm-up, four-minutes of all-out intervals, and a nice easy 10-minute cool-down to cap it off, or a longer period filled with multiple lower-intensity “Tabatas,” doesn’t really matter.

In fact, for most of us (that is, unless you’re training for a specific event), it isn’t about the “Tabata” at all. The magic is in interval training, period. And intervals are a negotiation between time and energy. While Tabatas may have the power to give you huge fitness gains in just a few short minutes (if you have the stomach for them), other research has proven that one-minute intervals at a much lower intensity can be just as effective. Same with two- or three-minute intervals. It may take you a bit longer to finish your workout, but you may be less likely to lose your lunch.

Want to take a stab at some interval training? Here are a few of my go-to workouts. Start with at least 5 (preferably 10) minutes of easy-paced cardio to warm up. Then let ‘er rip.

* 10 x 1 minute hard/1 minute easy in-between
* 6 x 2 minutes medium-hard/1 minute easy in-between
* 3-4 x 5 minutes comfortably-hard/2-3 minutes easy in-between

Happy interval training!

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