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CindySays: Tabata training may be the worst four minutes of your life

By Cindy Boggs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,

Can you please explain Tabata when it comes to working out? Some of my girlfriends are doing it in their group training and talk about how quick and intense it is. I'm all for intensity if it gives me results, but the way they talk about it makes me think it could be dangerous. Can you elaborate on this form of exercise? -- Gail

Dear Gail,

If your friends are promoting Tabata, you've got some savvy and fit female friends. I love people who get fired up over fitness. To successfully complete a four-minute Tabata workout, you have to be aerobically conditioned and ready to push your limits to the max.

What is Tabata training?

It all began when Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata and his colleagues decided to compare moderate-intensity training with high-intensity training.

We're all familiar with the terms "moderate to intense" when it comes to physical activity recommendations. However, this is not just high intensity. It's a physical and mental test to complete the elements of a 30-minute high-intensity workout in four minutes! That's right -- I said four minutes. Be ready and be willing to be filled with this overwhelming thought: I don't really want to be in shape after all.

Many who exercise do so with the expectation that anyone who is active gets similar results. This is where Tabata training differs. Of course, there are various forms of workouts, but there are great differences in what happens to the body, and it is all tied to focus and intensity. While some increase muscle mass, others boost strength, and still others only help you drop weight.

For instance, if you go to a cardio class such as Zumba, you are working to improve cardio endurance and burn calories. It's usually moderate intensity going at the same pace and lasts 30 to 90 minutes.

The study

Comparing moderate-intensity training with high-intensity training yielded these results on two groups of athletes, each training for six weeks.

Group one: Moderate-intensity interval training, five days a week with each session lasting one hour.

Group two: High-intensity training, four days a week with each session lasting four minutes (20 seconds high intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest).

The results

Group one: Substantial increase in cardiovascular system but little or no muscle gain.

Group two: More improvement in aerobic systems than group one, as well as a 28 percent improvement in anaerobic capacity.

Gut-wrenching challenge

This is the type of training which weeds out beginners and all those faint of heart. This gut-wrenching physical challenge separates the men from the boys (oh, and of course, the women from the girls) and demands your best four minutes ever! No kidding.

Dangerous? Here's the thing -- if you aren't adequately conditioned, don't worry: You won't get through the 240 seconds. You really shouldn't even try -- it could prove embarrassing. If you have plenty of physical prowess (and no pre-existing conditions), you have my blessing to go for it!

Inside the four minutes

A Tabata is four minutes of interval training that includes 20 seconds of high-intensity effort. Researchers defined this at 170 percent intensity, which should be compared to moderate effort, which was at 70 percent intensity.

In other words, moderate keeps you moving in an aerobic manner, which is why you can do grapevines and similar movement for more than an hour whereas high intensity kicks you into anaerobic mode and tries to keep you there for at least 20 seconds. It's all-out effort because the demand for energy is literally more than your body can supply -- take it from me, it's a chemical thing.

Sound scary?

As mentioned, it's not scary if you have two things: a conditioned body and a desire for great challenge. Can it give you the results you want and change your body? Absolutely! If you are in it to win it, you will burn calories and strengthen your body at breakneck speed. Any exercise can be folded into a Tabata training session but the basic framework looks like this:

  • 4 minutes long in total
  • 20 seconds of high-intensity training alternated with 10 seconds of rest
  • 8 sessions or rounds

There's an app for that

Tabata Timer is a great smartphone app to help motivate and time your Tabata sessions -- and it's free, so check it out! Believe me -- you will be too exhausted to look up, so use the app.

If you want challenge and are willing to push like never before, try Tabata training. It's the worst four minutes of your life, followed by the best results you've ever had.

Cindy Boggs, wellness presenter and author, is an ACE-certified instructor/trainer. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to cindysays@aol.com. Look for her award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World" on her website, www.cindysays.com.


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