Not long ago, I got an e-mail from someone asking about Tabata intervals and whether they could use them to lose fat.
“What do you think of Tabata intervals?” he wrote. “Everything I’ve read on the subject says you can lose fat with only four minutes of exercise.”
It’s an interesting question, and I’ve wondered the same thing many times.
Because I’m fundamentally lazy, I’m always looking for ways to get better results in less time. And this question started me thinking about it again:
Is it really possible to lose fat with a workout lasting just four minutes?
Before I tell you exactly what I think, here’s a little background information.
Dr. Izumi Tabata is a Japanese scientist who published a study back in 1996 comparing the effects of conventional aerobic exercise with high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
In Tabata’s study, one group did a full 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days per week. Group two also trained five days a week, but performed up to eight 20-second sprints of high-intensity cycling with a 10-second rest (pedaling at a slower rate) in between.
On the fifth day the interval group also did 30 minutes of steady-state exercise at 70% of their VO2max. This was followed by four intervals.
Tabata found that athletes on the HIIT program, which has become known as the Tabata Protocol, improved their VO2max and anaerobic capacity to a greater extent than athletes on a typical endurance training regime. That’s despite the big difference in the amount of time each group spent working out.
Before you read on, I should point out two things.
Firstly, Tabata’s research looked at the effect of HIIT on VO2 max and anaerobic capacity.
VO2max is a way of measuring aerobic power. It tells you how much oxygen your body can use at a maximal level of effort and is usually expressed in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute.
He DID NOT look at weight loss, post-exercise calorie expenditure (EPOC), metabolic rate or any of the other things that some people are claiming.
Nor did Tabata compare different types of interval training. It’s not like he tested a number of work-to-rest ratios and concluded that 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest worked best.
All he did was compare one form of interval training with steady-state cardiovascular exercise over a period of six weeks.
In addition, most of the gains in aerobic power came in the first three weeks of the study, before gradually tapering off.
“Interestingly, the running coach Arthur Lydiard made this observation half a century ago,” writes Lyle McDonald. “After months of base training, he found that only three weeks of interval work were necessary to sharpen his athletes. More than that was neither necessary nor desirable.”
HIIT isn’t going to keep on improving your VO2max indefinitely. Do too much of it and there’s a good chance your performance will gradually get worse rather than better.
Most athletes divide their training into “seasons” where they work at different levels of intensity depending on their proximity to a competition, rather than working at maximum effort all of the time.
In fact, many athletes will spend most of their training time working at a relatively low intensity. They’re certainly not doing Tabata intervals in every workout.
Second, the Tabata Protocol involves “all out” sprinting on a stationary bike.
I’m not talking about a level of intensity that gets you a little out of breath — this type of training will leave you feeling like throwing up.
Think back to your school days and remember how you felt after doing a 100-meter sprint. Now imagine doing eight of them with only 10 seconds of rest between each one.
“If you feel OK afterwards you’ve not done it properly” says Tabata. “The first three repetitions will feel easy but the last two will feel impossibly hard. In the original plan the aim was to get to eight, but some [subjects] only lasted six or seven.”
Kettlebell swings, thrusters or bodyweight exercises with a 20-second work interval and 10 seconds of rest are not the same thing.
“Despite what you’ve been told, front squats, resistance bands, or any other bodyweight routine you might be doing may replicate the time sequence of the Tabata protocol, but it is NOT a Tabata interval,” explains Mark Young in The Tabata Myth.
“If your first set is performed at a submaximal weight that becomes maximal by the final set this does not even come close. It might be hard, but it isn’t a Tabata.”
That’s not to say that bodyweight training is useless when it comes to improving aerobic power. In fact, such workouts have been shown to work just as well as longer bouts of endurance training when it comes to raising VO2max.
Those are the findings from researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston Canada, who compared bodyweight interval training with traditional cardiovascular exercise.
They recruited 25 active women and divided them into two groups. Group one did 30 minutes of treadmill running at 85% of their maximum heart rate. The second group did eight 20-second sets of a single exercise (jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees, or squat thrusts) with 10 seconds of rest between sets.
Both groups increased their VO2max to a similar extent (about 7-8%) after four weeks of training. That’s despite the fact that the short Tabata-style bodyweight workouts lasted just four minutes, compared to 30 minutes of cardio.
Are Tabata intervals the best way to lose fat?
In answer to that question, I’d have to say no. If you want to lose fat, you need a calorie deficit. As long as your diet is in order, any form of exercise is going to make some kind of contribution, however small, to that deficit.
But despite their popularity, Tabata intervals do have their limitations.
The main problem is that no matter how hard you push yourself, there’s a limit to the number of calories you can burn in such a short period of time.
It’s true that many of the calories burned will come after the workout has finished. That’s because intense exercise has a much bigger “afterburn effect” than moderate-intensity activity.
However, the size of the post-exercise calorie burn is dependent on both exercise intensity (how hard you work) and exercise duration (how long you work for). The afterburn effect following short bouts of exercise, no matter how intense, just isn’t as great as some people seem to think.
In one of the most recent studies on the subject, researchers from Colorado State University found that interval training led to 225 extra calories being burned over the course of the day, a number that includes the calories burned both during and after the workout.
There are reports of a soon-to-be-published study showing that the Tabata protocol burns an extra 150 calories in the 12 hours after exercise. But that’s pretty much all I can tell you, as the research has yet to reach the pages of a peer-reviewed journal.
For such a short workout, that’s a lot of extra calories. But it’s still much less than you can expect to burn during longer bouts of steady-state cardio.
By way of comparison, an Appalachian State University study shows that 45 minutes of cycling at 85% maximum heart rate burned a little over 700 calories – 519 during the workout itself and 190 after it had finished.
In short, interval training is both a highly effective and time-efficient way to boost your VO2max and anaerobic capacity. Just like any form of exercise, it will also make some kind of contribution to fat loss. However, many of the claims being made about Tabata intervals go way beyond what was shown in the original study.
If you’re genetically predisposed towards extreme leanness or really strict with your diet, you can get away with shorter cardio workouts. But most people will need to spend longer in the gym for optimal results.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.