DALLAS — Before we talk about what Tabata is, perhaps it's prudent to say what the popular, four-minutes-to-fitness workout regimen is not.
It is 20 seconds — not 30 or 45 or 60 — of all-out exercise, followed by 10 seconds — not 30 or 45 — of rest. It is not based on strength training: no push-ups, squats, biceps curls. Only cardiovascular work, please.
"It got to be trendy because it got some really interesting results," says Lucy Waite, group exercise fitness coordinator at the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center in Dallas. "People started putting it into classes: 'We're going to do a set of Tabata — 30 seconds on and 30 off.'
"That's not Tabata. Call it high-intensity interval training, but to use the term Tabata is not an accurate representation of what's going on."
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True Tabata, named for Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata, is a specific form of workout. His research in 1996 concluded that specific increments of time — 20 seconds on, 10 off for four minutes — significantly increased aerobic and anaerobic energy systems in participants. The trick is going all-out during those 20 seconds.
"It's not for someone just starting out, but you can do these at any level," says Paul McDonough, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington. "You get really good results in a very short period of time. That's the real selling point."
A lot of athletes like that it minimizes time and maximizes results, says McDonough, who trains in sports jujitsu and is a Tabata devotee. "But it's pretty tough, and that's why people don't do it."
Tabata works by allowing you to exercise at a higher workload or intensity than you normally would, he says. "You increase aerobic capacity and the ability to withstand lactic acid, which is what builds up in the muscles. That's what makes people stop. It hurts."
Twenty seconds means all-out, Waite stresses. "It's not like 20 seconds of hard and then 10 of moderate. It's 20 max, 10 rest, 20 max."
McDonough says doing Tabata every day would be too much. But a couple of times a week, as he does, helps to improve an athlete's ability to release energy. That can be the difference between winning and losing in a race, when you want to "bump up intensity as quickly as you can," McDonough says.
Dallas personal trainer Norbert Motte agrees a Tabata workout would be appropriate for a lot of people, but he doesn't make it part of his clients' training.
"One thing a trainer needs to do is weigh risks and benefits," says Motte, who is 52 and training for his 12th Ironman competition. "I'd suggest most people are waiting for an injury to happen if they do threshold training."
He first heard about Tabata training several years ago but was skeptical.
"I'm kind of a science nerd," Motte says. "As soon as I hear about something, I want clinical trials. I could be easily corrected, but I didn't see anything in terms of peer review. It's a number of college physiologists using college students, primarily males. So 18- to 22-year-olds can do this. That's fine and dandy, but am I throwing my 40-year-old female who sits at a desk all day under the bus?
"I do question specific things, like the four minutes. It's kind of like that six-minutes-to-great-abs thing. Good luck there."
For the most part, Tabata should be used as part of a well-rounded regimen that includes cardiovascular, strength and flexibility workouts. "Four minutes twice a week is better than zero minutes zero times a week," Waite says.