Is Tabata All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

Exclusive ACE-sponsored research evaluates the physiological responses to the popular high-intensity interval workout known as Tabata.

By Talisa Emberts, M.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Jeffery Steffen, Ph.D., Scott Doberstein, M.S., and Carl Foster, Ph.D.

It all started with the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating Team. Head Coach Irisawa Koichi created a high-intensity interval-training workout for his skaters that consisted of eight rounds of 20 seconds each of intense work on a cycling ergometer, followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a total of a four-minute workout. Koichi asked one of his training coaches, Izumi Tabata, to analyze the effectiveness of this short but grueling workout. The result is a landmark 1996 study that found, in just six weeks of testing, a 28 percent increase in the subjects’ anaerobic capacity, plus a 14 percent increase in their VO2max.

“Originally I thought this type of training was just for speed skaters or other highly motivated athletes because it is very painful and tiring,” says Izumi Tabata, now a professor and researcher at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University. “However, I found that there were groups of people interested in building muscle and therefore doing short high-intensity exercises that trained their muscle, but not those exercises that improved their aerobic training. When this regimen came along, they began to realize they could train both at the same time.”

Though Tabata didn’t actually design the workout, due to the widespread interest in his findings the workout was coined the “Tabata Protocol.” In recent years, legions of exercisers have been inspired to do high-intensity Tabata-style workouts, including most notably the CrossFit community, which now uses the protocol in a popular workout they call “Tabata This.”

“It seems like everything high-intensity is now called Tabata Training,” says John Porcari, Ph.D., head of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Program at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. “The original Tabata study was done on a bicycle, but people are now doing that 20-second/10-second format with resistance training, plyometrics, calisthenics…with almost anything.”

Because of all of this recent interest in Tabata-style workouts, the American Council on Exercise enlisted Porcari and his research team to gauge just how effective a Tabata-style workout really is.


To analyze the intensity and calorie burn of a Tabata-inspired workout, the research team, led by Porcari and Talisa Emberts, M.S., used the Tabata Protocol to create their own 20-minute, full-body calisthenics workout consisting of exercises like push-ups, split squats, box jumps, burpees, jumping rope, jumping jacks and more. Next, they recruited 16 healthy, moderately to very fit male and female volunteers, ages 20 to 47. All subjects first underwent a treadmill test to determine maximal heart rate (HRmax) and VO2max, with ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) assessed at the end of each stage and at maximal exertion using the 6—20 Borg scale. Then, they each practiced the Tabata routine until Emberts deemed each subject proficient at each exercise.

Once prepared, each subject began with a five-minute warm-up followed by four rounds of Tabata (eight reps of 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest) with one-minute of rest between each round, and a 10-minute cool down. During the 20-second phase of high-intensity exercise, subjects performed as many repetitions as possible. HR was monitored throughout, while blood lactate levels were tested with a finger prick blood test after every four-minute segment of exercise. RPE was also evaluated after each four-minute segment. In all, each subject completed two 20-minute Tabata workouts.


Immediately following both testing sessions, the researchers crunched the data. On average, this study showed that, during a Tabata workout, subjects averaged 86 percent of HRmax (range of 84—88 percent) and 74 percent of VO2max (range of 67—81 percent)—both of which meet or exceed established industry guidelines for improving cardio fitness and modifying body composition.

As for calorie burning, the 16 subjects burned between 240 and 360 kcals during the workout, for an average of 15 kcals per minute burned. Again, Tabata met established guidelines for calorie expenditure for improving health and facilitating weight loss. On average, subjects also anecdotally perceived Tabata to be pretty darn tough. The average RPE was 15.4 (rated as “hard”). Meanwhile, blood lactate levels averaged 12.1 mmol/L following the workouts, suggesting that subjects were working out well above their lactate thresholds.


“The great thing about Tabata is it’s a short workout—only 20 minutes—and it incorporates your total body, so it’s working every muscle group that you possibly can,” says Embert, referring specifically to the Tabata-style workout she designed.

Basically, if you work hard enough, even for just four minutes, you really should be able to get into decent cardiovascular shape. Do the full 20-minute workout shown here and your results will be much better.

“I think with his research, Tabata was trying to prove that if you work people hard enough—if you work at high enough intensity—you can get in shape in a very short period of time,” says Porcari. “The flip side is, if you’re in good shape and you’re limited on time, you can definitely maintain your fitness. It’s just another trick in the arsenal of helping people get and stay in shape.”

That said, based on the intensity of a Tabata workout, the average non-exerciser should be very careful with this type of training. “It could be potentially dangerous for them to be working this hard,” he says. “Before people even attempt Tabata they probably need to have a pretty decent baseline level of fitness.”

Thus, Emberts recommends only doing Tabata-style workouts two to three times a week with 48 to 72 hours rest between each session. And Porcari puts it all into perspective: “People need to realize that to get into shape, to really reap the benefits of Tabata training, it’s the intensity part that gets you into shape, not the four minutes.”

Four minutes to fitness? Maybe not, but clearly, based on the evidence, short-burst, high-intensity training is the real deal. And adapting Tabata-style training to fit your client’s workouts is without a doubt another very effective approach you can employ to help them achieve their goals.

This study was funded solely by the American Council on Exercise.

JC Santana on Situps

First – Definition of a strong back is simple. A strong back is a back that can safely transfer the forces the hips generate – period! AND that makes all of the difference in the world – it is associated with performance and injury prevention.

Second – for an exercise to be functional is DOES NOT HAVE TO LOOK AND FEEL LIKE THE ACTIVITY IT IS TRYING TO IMPROVE. This is a huge myth about functional training. For example – a plank is excellent for core development for many reasons – it looks like nothing we normally do. Our Triple Threat series – (one leg bridging, curls, and hip lifts on a SB) is one of the best protocols for running and hamstring health – looks nothing like running. SO -sit-ups ups, crunches, and many other exercises like those can provide excellent training without them looking like anything. This is the whole idea of traditional strength training – movements that look very little like anything – yet improve overall strength and function. Functional training INCLUDE exercises that provide the SPECIFICITY BRIDGE between traditional exercises and the activity, and YES -these would also include MANY STANDING EXERCISES that more closely mimic the target activity. But to say that something is not functional it does not look like the target activity is ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT!

Next – What do crunches and Sit ups have to do with function – we can make an argument that sit ups are to the front part of the core what the Bicep curl is to the arm, and what a hyper-extension is to the posterior chain. We are not going to get into a debate about that, are we? Although NOBODY picks up anything just using a bicep curl, yet, the bicep curl will help people pick up items in front of them (e.g. children). The sit-ups open and close the hips flexors, while teaching AB stiffness, which is useful in force transfer of the core. Open hips flexors (which can also be trained from the standing and prone positions) are essential for human locomotion and overhead throwing. Therefore, although certainly not the only way to train – the sit-up has always been a great tool for general core health and strength. SO – it is not more ridiculous to concern yourself with sit-ups and crunches than to concern yourself with many other exercises and training methods (e.g. planks, pull-ups, bridges, hypers, rev hypers, etc.) – none of these look like anything we do – yet are very effective at providing function and health.

Now – I know what Stu McGill and Mike Boyle say – “it destroys the back . . . . puts pressure on this and that . . . . “ Well – It does put pressure on the back – BUT NOT PRESSURE A HEALTHY BACK CAN’T TAKE!! Generations upon generations were raised on a steady diet of sit-ups – what happened to them? NOTHING! When I was a young man the sit-ups were part of the Presidential Physical Fitness award. The military and municipalities required TONS of them. What happened to us? NOTHING – we are stronger than this generation that have not done them!! NO DATA SHOWS THAT GENERATIONS RAISED WITH THIS EXERCISE HAVE BAD BACKS!! SO – THE EXERCISE CAN’T BE ASSOCIATED WITH BACK ISSUES. Now, if a deconditioned person attempts them –they may hurt their back. But that true with anything. Are we really going to say that resistance training in general is bad because if someone puts 200 pounds on a structure that can only take 100 pounds it would cause damage? REALLY GUYS?

Come on people – we have inflicted enough fear and JERRY SPRINGER headlines to freak people out and allow the insane to be heard!! It’s time for some common sense, attention to HISTORY (not panic), and a little conviction for the truth. I have been doing sit-ups for over 40 years. AT IHP we have been doing sit-ups for decades. We not only have sit-up benches – we have declined sit-up benches! We try to make everyone’s back strong enough to be able to enjoy the benefits of the sit-ups.



Wall Street Journal – Larry Levy With Chris and Tracie Vlaun

A Restaurant Chairman Whittles His Waist
Levy Restaurants Chairman Larry Levy Fitness Secrets

Fitness experts often say you should mix up your workout routine. That is easy for Larry Levy. The 69-year old restaurant executive has a workout to match each of the cities he frequents.

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My Top Three Bodyweight Exercise Alternatives.

I often hear people say that they have been a bit banged up from lifting weights and are looking for some alternative methods of resistance based training. My suggestion is that bodyweight training may be a great alternative. Some of the benefits include: improved joint health, increased mobility, and enhances neuromuscular adaptation (adapting the the movement patterns). Although a new routine may seem daunting at times, but with a daunting task often leads to great rewards.

Some rewards are mearly just getting more bang for your buck, you can often burn more calories in less time. In a recent study funded by the American Council of Exercise, researchers found bodyweight training can burn up to 16.2 calories per minute in men and 13 calories/minute in women. (That’s almost 1000 calories per hour.)

Another benefit is that you can workout anywhere. Since often no equipment is required for bodyweight exercises you are less dependent on relying on a facility equiped with the latest technology. We are often conditioned to believe that we need to move heavy objects or operate intricate exercise machinery to achieve a desirable physique. And why is this? Well.. it’s profitable. If the mission of many fitness clubs is to profit from the equipment, sales and membership fees then marketing and advertising is not likely geared to educate you on its alternatives.

So.. If someone where to ask me.. “Chris, if you where never to lift a weight or touch another machine again and you could only choose three alternative bodyweight exercises, what would they be?”

Well, here is my answer…

1. Alternative to Bench Press – Push-Up

How to do it: Kneel down on all fours and place your hands slightly beyond shoulder-width apart. Set your feet together and straighten your arms and legs. Your body should form a straight line from ankles to head. Keeping your elbows pulled in toward your sides, lower your chest to an inch above the floor, and press back up. That’s 1 rep.

Keep in mind this is not just a chest exercise. The exercise targets all the muscles in our upper body while building optimal strength in the forearms, shoulders, chest. The push-up is also a great for the ladies too. When done properly, the push-up also puts emphasis on building a strong core by stabilizing all layers of the abdominals and back. There is even some benefits to your hip joint, quads and hammies.

Are push-up exercises to easy..? Not always..

There are many variations of push-ups on of my favorite advanced push-ps is the Brazilian Twisting push-up.
How to do it? Assume a pushup position, but form fists with your hands so your knuckles are flat against the floor. Rotate your hips to the right and cross your right leg in front of your left. Then lower your chest toward the floor as you would for a standard pushup, being careful not to let your hips touch the floor. Push back up and return to the starting position. Repeat with your left leg.

2. Back Exercise Alternative – Recline pulls

How do I do it? First find or place a horizontal bar at a lower level (waist high) then lie with back on ground so bar is lined up with chest.
Next, hold bar with shoulder-width grip and pull your chest to the bar, keeping body straight and heels on ground
Lower with control; repeat.
A great goal would be (10 to 12 reps.)

If you need more of a challenge try mix it up by elevating your feet or adding a plyometric component. Trust me, they’re harder than they look!

3. Single Leg Squats Instead of Weighted Squats.

Ok on paper it looks great if you can squat 300lbs but is it necessary or even effective for balance, deceleration or force transfer?
I will leave that debate for another time. One thing I can tell you that a heavy back squat can pose more of a risk of injury than a single
leg bodyweight squat.

How do I do it? Downward Movement: With your weight balanced on the right foot and the toes of the left foot still on the floor, slowly begin to bend forward at the hips. Keep the abdominals braced. Do not allow the torso to shift or rotate. Keep your back flat and head aligned with your spine.

Upward Movement: Keep your bodyweight in your right side, exhale and slowly push the right foot into the ground to straighten hip and knee and return to start position. The core should be bracing through the entire movement to support the spine; keep the hips level and control balance.

Perform an efective number of repetitions. Change sides and complete another set of repetitions on the other leg.

More unilateral strength, become more efficiently loaded for locomotion. Single limb strength movements tend to require more stability and can activate the deep core muscles to help keep your body stable and balanced. You will use stabilization muscles that are not usually targeted and can remain dormant when training bilateral movements. Unilateral strength exercises can help to build an all around stronger, more stable, and faster body.

A good way to get started with bodyweight exercises without completely abandoning the weights is to take a hybrid approach. For example for your first target set go for the traditional exercise like a dumbbell bench press and then unload the chest with a bodyweight back exercise like the recline pull.

Christopher Vlaun | ©2013

“American Council on Exercise’s Pro Source”
“National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Personal Training”; Roger W. Earle and Thomas R. Baechle; 2003
“Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications”; George A. Brooks, et al.; 2004