tabataWhat is Tabata?

How do you fancy getting fit in four minutes? It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Yet that's the claim of Professor Izumi Tabata who has developed a gruelling exercise regimen that can boost your cardiovascular health in just a few minutes. Professor Tabata's research came about after he had monitored Japan's speed skating team in the early 1990s. He noticed that quick bursts of intense exercise seemed to be as effective as long periods of moderate training.

Professor Tabata therefore experimented with cardiovascular exercise and discovered that an hour of steady cardiovascular exercise on a stationary bike five times a week, was actually less effective than a 10-minute warm-up on a bike, followed by four minutes of Tabata interval training, four times a week – with one 30-minute session of steady exercise with two minutes of high intensity interval training. A test group of students - exercising for just 88 minutes a week - increased their fitness more than those doing ordinary cardiovascular exercise. It is worth mentioning at this stage however that the test subjects were all male and super fit P.E. majors, and most were members of various University sports teams.

The appeal of the Tabata protocol is obvious of course. Who wouldn't welcome becoming super fit by just exercising for four minutes four times a week? According to Professor Tabata, just one of his four-minute sessions is equal to an hour of jogging, an hour of Zumba, or moderate cycling, or two hours of walking or yoga.

Is it Safe?

The jury is out on just how safe Tabata interval exercise is. You benefit from being fit before you start using the Tabata system. Anyone who has a medical history involving blood pressure or cardiovascular problems should consult a doctor first, but people who are healthy and are used to regular exercise should be safe.

According to Dan Salcedo, the former Olympic triathlon head coach for Team GB, "Any sensible coach would never recommend high-intensity training unless you have been doing a lot of exercise for three months," because high intensity exercise can be of "limited benefit by itself. You'll get generally in shape, but you won't develop endurance fitness, and you'll only be able to cope with four to eight minutes of exercise."

Any benefits seem to appear in the first three weeks of training and after that they will gradually taper off. Some experts recommend that Tabata is used only once or twice per week in conjunction with other exercise.

tabataWhat's Involved?

The aim behind the Tabata protocol is to increase the heart rate to its maximum. For 240 seconds you have to push yourself beyond your limits to give yourself both aerobic and anaerobic benefits (that is, a cardio and muscle workout). Following a ten minute warm up four different exercises are performed for 40 seconds each with a 10 second break in the middle. The whole thing is then repeated.

Multiple four-minute routines are stacked together with a one minute break in between. This allows for a slight recovery period and then you put as much energy into the second set as you did the first. This creates a longer work out, burning more calories and allowing you to work your muscles and joints in multiple directions.

Is it Good for Weight Loss and Fat Burning?

According to research, in addition to the calories you burn while performing the exercises, the Tabata system burns an extra 150 calories in the 12 hours after exercise, even at rest, because of the effect of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. So while people use the system to get fit – or fitter – it does also burn fat.

Who is it for?

There are a variety of workouts available on the Internet and via YouTube that work at varying levels of intensity. Professor Tabata does complain however that not everyone on the web is doing it right or putting the correct amount of effort in. According to Richard Scrivener, former assistant strength and conditioning coach at Northampton Saints rugby club, it is essential to "psyche yourself up," and "give it all you've got, push yourself, hammer it."

Ostensibly the Tabata system is for everyone although it certainly helps if you're already fit, and as one person put it, "If you feel OK afterwards you've not done it properly." Yes, everyone can do it but it would benefit beginners to start with educated trainers so that they can work at an intensity that is suitable. Super fit gym-goers will benefit by doing three strength sessions and three Tabatas a week, while everyone else should just build up on a session by session basis.

The tricky and most effective part of the Tabata system is that it never gets any easier. You always have to push yourself to work at maximum productivity and that's why it works so well. The benefits of the Tabata system are clear but they should be used advisedly and in addition to other sports or preferred training methods.

Image courtesy of Tabata Official

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