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Tabata Training: Aerobic Meets Anaerobic In a Single, Brutal Workout

By James Parker

It’s been known for some time that interval training is one of the more effective ways to increase cardiovascular capacity and, to some degree, anaerobic capacity as well. But it is usually impossible to cleanly mix anaerobic and aerobic training in a workout so that they are equally balanced. Welcome to Tabata Training, an interval training method that develops both anaerobic and aerobic capacities at once.

Why do you need a new kind of interval training? Because the usual versions don't actually accomplish complete training. Short bursts of intensity followed by longer rest times typically increase one’s anaerobic capacity, but do little to improve one's cardio. Likewise, longer, less intense forms of exercise with little to no rest are usually done to increase one’s cardiovascular capacity (VO2 max). In other words, when doing sprint intervals, some muscle activity can reach aerobic capacities, but the dominant system of exercise is anaerobic. For most exercisers and athletes, this means that we have had to do both types of training to achieve positive adaptations in each—that is, until Dr. Izumi Tabata entered the fray. Because of him, a somewhat underground eponymous training system has gained increasing popularity amongst hardcore athletes of all stripes.

What Is Tabata?
Dr. Izumi Tabata and a group of researchers at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan, decided to empirically test a theory of the head coach of the Japanese speed skating team about how to improve the VO2 max of the athletes. One group of test subjects trained on exercise bikes for 20 seconds (at approx 170 percent of their maximum oxygen uptake, or V02 max) with a 10 second recovery period, repeating this pattern to exhaustion. Another group exercised for 30 seconds of activity (at approximately 200 percent of their max VO2) with a two minute recovery span, to exhaustion. Exhaustion was defined as the inability to maintain a pedal speed faster than 85 rpm. The athletes that performed the 20/10 had their anaerobic and aerobic capacities pushed to the max. The other group showed cardiovascular improvement, but not nearly at the level that the first group did, and much closer to what is typically found in anaerobic-only exercises.

Here’s the practical result: we now not only have a way to exercise aerobically as well as anaerobically, we can do it in a very short period of time. The Tabata Protocol has been used in various forms since the information was first published. You can find variations of it throughout the web and in multiple hard-copy publications. It is used by some of the elite in athletics and is a preferred way to train for the director of strength and conditioning Chad Waterbury, at the Rickson Gracie International Jiu-Jitsu Center. I myself use it and have put my classes and clients through it to good effect. Typically the protocol of 20 seconds of intense activity with 10 seconds rest is done anywhere from five to 10 times. Many athletes feel seven rounds is plenty, but I like to see if I can make 10. Below I’ll give you a few variations and ways to implement this form of exercise. Remember, when trying something new, enter with caution.

Loosen Up
Start with at least five minutes on a cardio machine of your choice (10 minutes is my preferred time, but it’s understood that many of you are busy folk). Start to move your upper body joints through small ranges of motion. Circular motion works well as long as you have the room and you won’t accidentally smack another gym member. Move your shoulders, elbows, wrist and neck in clockwise and counter-clockwise small circles. Traditionally, a warm-up should be light and gradual; however, if you choose to only do five minutes make sure the last two minutes are fairly strenuous. Try and get your heart rate up to at least the seventieth percentile, well in the cardio range. When you are done with that, take a minute to rotate your torso, hips, and ankles through the same type of circular motions you did for your upper body while on the machine. If you feel like it you can also do a light, non-ballistic stretch of all your muscles, spending a small amount of time on each to loosen and prepare them.

Get Inventive
Now your real work begins. I’ve found the best version of a Tabata is to incorporate an exercise or a combination of exercises that use the whole body. But this will require planning, innovation, and set-up. Remember that this form of exercise is a fairly intensive 20 seconds of work with very little recovery time. You don’t want to be setting up and taking down equipment—pick a variation or make one of your own that will allow for a full-body exercise without interruption. You may want to invent your own exercise. For example, my favorite is to push a sled with weight (usually 100 lbs) across a section of the gym floor. If you belong to a mixed martial arts gym that has grappling dummies or heavy bags that can be detached from the ceiling, you can throw one of these on your sled. If your gym has an open aerobics room, you might be able to try a concoction I use at one of my gyms: place a towel on the wood flooring with a short step platform face-down on top. Add a 100-pound dumbbell, or whatever weight you think will work for you, to the center of the platform. You now have a nice sled with which to get your work done. You can also just use a 45-pound plate on the floor of the gym proper if there is space and it’s not too crowded.

Another variation to consider if room is limited is the squat/overhead press combo. (I would not recommend using weight that you would usually use when targeting strength and muscle hypertrophy when doing this variation. If after the third round you can’t lift the weight away from your shoulders, the weight’s too heavy for this exercise.) You might also try pike-ups with a stability ball, with a push-up added. Basically, you are looking for any compound or functional training exercise that puts your whole body to use. Play with different types of exercises to see what you like and what kills, and then stick with what kills.

Integrate Tabata With Your Routine
Once you’ve found the main full-body exercise that suits you, you’ll want to make it the center of your workout. Because of the short time it requires, you will also want to integrate it with other forms of exercise. If you are a body-builder or weight-lifter, my recommendation is to place your Tabata at least a few hours apart from your weight lifting so as to avoid over-training. If your goal is to condition for fighting or you just want to make this your whole exercise routine, make your Tabata a full workout in itself by adding another five to 20 minutes of full-body calisthenics (for shorter duration) or lower heart-rate, fat-burning exercises like recumbent bike or elliptical (for longer duration). You can also play with using less weight for your Tabata series, and follow this with functional strength exercises for the whole body. However you modify the Tabata, remember a few key things: First, give yourself at least a 48-hour recovery between Tabata trainings. Second, always keep to the 20/10 ratios, otherwise you’re not doing a Tabata Protocol. Third, unless this is the only workout you do, you are adding a very intense form of exercise to your normal schedule. You might want to reassess what you are doing and how well this fits into your current schedule/routine.

Train Your Body, Train Your Mind
One note on getting through this program. At first the exercises might seem easy, but as the rounds go by the brutality of this workout will become rapidly apparent. The speed at which you move will decrease significantly and your brain will scream to give up. Don’t do it. Even if you are barely moving, continue pushing with all you have and just concentrate on breathing, because at this point you have reached the essence of the Tabata Protocol. Part of what makes this particular form of exercise essential to all of us in general, and fighters in particular, is the importance and integration of your will to continue. The first time I did the Tabata with my cobbled-together sled, I felt the need to quit at round six. At this point my quads were tight and swollen, my shoulders were numb, and I felt like I was crawling at a 90 degree incline through sand. During the scant 10 second rest I had while I was trying to just breathe, I asked myself if I could make it. My body was screaming hell no… but my brain, the center of my will, said, “Sure, why not? “. Beyond the benefits that the Tabata Protocol used correctly will give your body, it can give a little bit extra for your mind as well. Mixed martial arts coaches and fighters say that their training is often worse than the actual fight they are training for. By the time they enter the cage/ring the worst is behind them. Maybe training like this isn’t for all of us, but for those of you that have a need to go beyond training the body and into testing your will, the Tabata Protocol will find a home in your arsenal. As always: train hard, be safe, and whup ass.

You may use one of these exercises for 10 rounds, or do several rounds with each; just stick to the 20/10 ratios.
Exercise Muscles Worked Time in Interval Recovery Number of Rounds Notes
Sled Pushes All 20 seconds 10 seconds 5 – 10 Focus on your breathing and time
Squat/Overhead Presses All 20 seconds 10 seconds 5 – 10 Focus on your breathing and time
Stability Ball Pike-ups with Push-ups All 20 seconds 10 seconds 5 – 10 Focus on your breathing and time
About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.