Leave it to the fitness industry to aggressively destroy yet another sound athletic training concept. Hone in on certain indoor cycling circles and it can be an absolute free-for-all. It is not uncommon to see massive high-speed sprints (with little to no resistance), producing an eye-popping 20 watts (not a typo), upper-body gyrations that appear to be from a scene in the Exorcist, and now Tabata, Tabata, and more Tabata.
Maybe I’m a bit sensitive (do ya think?) when I see effective training concepts mangled beyond recognition. My roots are grounded in the athletic community where science, specificity, and technique reign supreme. Performance is high, training is challenging but focused, and the stresses against the mind and body are taken to the limit. This is not hype, but simply a product of training and competing to win. I am certainly in favor of the fitness industry gleaning inspiration from the athletic masses, but a shred of intelligence must be in attendance. If something is utilized to stress a seasoned and trained athlete, it must be appropriately adapted if used in a demographic where not everyone is a paid sports figure and where fitness is just shy of the pro level.
Introducing Dr. Izumi Tabata
Here is a quote from Dr. Izumi Tabata, the founder…uh…researcher…um…tester of… Well, let him tell the story*:
“During my time working with the Japanese speed skating team, the headcoach, Mr. Irisawa Koichi, had me analyze the effectiveness of his training regime that involved a rotation of short bursts of maximum effort followed by short periods of rest. Although Coach Irisawa pioneered the idea, somehow it became named after me (laughs). The current regime consists of repetitions of 20 seconds of intense work, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This means that, excluding warming up and cooling down, the exercise can be completed in only 4 minutes if repeated 8 times, more than enough to make even a fit person exhausted. The idea has become bigger than I imagined and now if you search this on Google, you will get about 200,000 hits.”
Besides being a big hit on Google, Tabata has been adopted by indoor cycling as its long-lost son. There are Tabata cycling classes and Tabata drills popping up everywhere.
In the same interview, Dr. Tabata also states:
“Such high-intensity exercise is exhausting, so it’s not good for those simply interested in general promotion of their health.”
“Since the exercise is a little bit dangerous for those other than seasoned athletes, I would advise beginners to start at a low intensity, and stay within their comfort zone. Once they feel they are getting stronger, they can then increase the intensity little by little.”
That’s My Name. Don’t Wear It Out
Regardless of the warnings, guidelines, and instruction from a College of Sport and Health Science professor and researcher working with world-class athletes, the fitness industry still decides to run with knives. What part of “the exercise can be completed in only 4 minutes if repeated 8 times, more than enough to make even a fit person exhausted” compels an instructor to dish out 60 minutes of Tabata hell? In context, the “fit person” Dr. Tabata is most likely referring to is an Olympic-level speed skater—same as those who flock into our indoor cycling classes (not). Even if a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool-down were added to Dr. Tabata’s excruciating 4-minute protocol, the complete workout, start to finish, would only total 24 minutes. Nope, 60 minutes folks.
Injury and Negative Training Effects for Everyone
When people get fatigued, or “exhausted,” they become sloppy and the first thing that falls off the table is form. The combination of poor form, exhaustion, and high intensity create the perfect storm for injury. Not to mention best practice for group fitness states that any exercise or movement incorporated should be safe for the entire class, while also allowing the instructor to monitor and apply corrections to all participants. The Internet is flooded by hundreds of videos submitted by fame-hungry instructors showcasing the worthiness of their classes. Watch almost any of these indoor cycling selfies, and you will see both perfect and horrific form demonstrated from one rider to the next within the same class. The riders in the front row of these videos often resemble Jane Fonda (no explanation should be necessary) and Billy Blanks (Tae Bo) clones, while in the remaining rows reside a parade of uncoordinated and goodhearted people trying to keep up. Obviously a perfect scenario for advanced, elite-level, high-intensity training.
Since most cannot perform the first Tabata protocol to its intended maximum without tasting vomit, it is less likely that the following Tabata efforts that comprise the class will have a much better result. So after the first violent whirlwind is completed, the instructor continues to bark out the inspiration, while the class flails away helplessly and ineffectively. If a rider was able to muster the self-discipline and self-denial to push every effort (highly doubtful), it is more likely that they were taken beyond exhaustion and probably broke down lean muscle mass as a result of insufficient fuel available from glycogen (which ran low at the 30-minute mark). The reality is that most (probably all) riders died a thousand deaths after the first Tabata effort and are now mentally and physically faking their way through the remaining 45 or so minutes resulting in another ineffective hour of exercise.
A 60-Minute Tabata Class
The mere fact that you’ve read this far indicates that you are an instructor (and possibly an athlete or coach) that understands how to properly implement movements, efforts, and intensities. I’m going to also assume you are interested in how to best use a Tabata effort in your class. And lastly, I’m going to assume you have excellent judgment and can assess whether an effort of this extreme is appropriate for those who bow before your bike. Assuming those assumptions, here is one way I would incorporate Tabata in a 60-minute class.
00:00 – 10:00 – Warm-up and Instruction
10:00 – 16:00 – Warm-up Part 2 (Zones 2–3)
16:00 – 23:00 – Moderate, Steady Climb (Activate the Muscles)
23:00 – 26:00 – Recovery
26:00 – 34:00 – 8 x 30-Second Efforts to Zone 4
34:00 – 37:00 – Recovery
37:00 – 41:00 – 2 x 30-Second Openers (full-out)
41:00 – 46:00: Long Recovery to Prepare
46:00 – 50:00: Tabata!!!!
50:00 – 60:00: Cool-down and Stretch
Although the early minutes of class will (and should) seem easier in perspective, you will need to coach them NOT to push too hard and prepare for the last gut-busting effort, that is surely the focus and challenge of the class. The key is going to be in the coaching. You will need to warn them and remind them numerous times of that which is lurking in the not-too-distant future. How you prepare them and set them up for success will prove itself in the end. Not everyone will listen to you and that will also be made known once Tabata strikes.
When all is said and done, you will have properly beaten their kick-hungry butts, delivering a highly effective workout. You will also have upgraded your reputation from bad-ass to one bad smart-ass instructor.
* Ritsumeikan University, Japan, http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/eng/html/research/areas/feat-researchers/interview/izumi_t.html/