By Emily Sopo, Special AFS Contributor

Do any of these sound familiar? 

“I want to get the greatest benefit in the least amount of time.”

“My friend got super fit working out just 15 minutes a day.”

“I just really need someone to kick my butt in the gym.”

These are all sentiments we have heard from clients. Given that clients want to improve their health and fitness as much as they can in the least amount of time, it should be no surprise high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one of the most popular forms of exercise today.

HIIT is time-efficient and calorie-scorching. For us fitness pros, there are endless possibilities for how we can include it in our programming.

Today, we will cover one of the most well-known yet misunderstood forms of HIIT – Tabata.

The Tabata protocol was first researched in 1996 by Dr. Izumi Tabata of the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan. According to the authors of the initial Tabata study, the protocol had been used by members of the Japanese Speed Skating Team for years.

Before we break down the research itself, one thing we want to note is that the “Tabata” workouts we see in commercial fitness settings usually do not follow the actual protocol used in the Tabata study. The details of the research will help us to understand why.

The Tabata study included two experiments. To simplify things, we will refer to them as the “Steady State Experiment” and the “HIIT Experiment.”

The Steady State Experiment:

  • Participants: 7 young male students; most were physically active and part of a sports team.
  • Protocol: A pretest was used to determine the participants’ aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity. Participants then performed 60-minute exercise sessions five days a week for six weeks on a cycle ergometer (a type of stationary bike). They pedaled at a constant speed at 70% VO2max.
  • Results: After the six weeks of training, participants’ aerobic capacity increased significantly, but their anaerobic capacity did not.

The HIIT Experiment:

  • Participants: 7 young male students; most were physically active and part of a sports team
  • Protocol: A pretest was used to determine the participants’ aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity. Participants then exercised five days per week for six weeks on a cycle ergometer. On four days per week, they performed exhaustive intermittent training with seven-to-eight 20-second intervals performed at about 170% VO2max (supramaximal - above maximal - intensity). Between bouts of exercise, they were able to take a 10-second recovery. The fifth exercise session each week used a steady state protocol of 30 minutes of cycling at 70% VO2max.
  • Results: After the six weeks of training, participants’ aerobic capacity AND anaerobic capacity increased significantly.

A quick note on supramaximal exercise intensity:

Clients often ask how someone can exercise above 100% of VO2max, or above 100% of anything, for that matter. Here’s how “supramaximal exercise” is possible: a pretest is used to determine 100% of VO2max and the workload associated with VO2max. From there, it is possible to determine any percentage above or below that workload as supramaximal or submaximal, respectively.

For example, if your VO2max was reached when you were performing exercise at 200 watts (watts are a commonly used measure of workload during cycling), then we could simply set up a proportion: 170/100 = x/200, x = 340 watts. So, exercise performed at 340 watts could be described as exercise “at 170% VO2max.”

Why does this matter?

The concept of supramaximal exercise can confuse some exercisers into believing that they should be performing exercise above 100% of their estimated maximal heart rate, when this is not actually the case. Tabata exercise in its original form would be incredibly challenging and may get us close to or at 100% of our estimated maximal heart rate, but that’s not the goal for most exercisers. If you’ve ever spent any time above 90% of your estimated maximal heart rate (the MYZONE® RED zone) or hit 100%, you know that it is incredibly challenging and may not be suitable for some people.

Takeaways from the Tabata Study:

The authors of the Tabata study offered several takeaways, including the following:

  • Aerobic training does not change anaerobic capacity (this follows the principle of specificity – we get what we train for)
  • High-intensity intermittent training is a very effective way to increase both aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity (a two-for-one, if you will)

Takeaways for Exercisers:

So should we start integrating Tabata’s protocol into all our clients’ workouts? Here are a couple points to consider:

  • True Tabata may not be tolerable for most of our clients. The participants in this study were young male athletes, and they performed exercise to exhaustion (to the point where they physically could not complete more than eight bouts of exercise). Many exercisers would probably run from your class screaming if you put them through a true Tabata protocol.
  • True Tabata may not be measurable for most of our clients. Do you know what percentage of VO2max your client reached during their last cardio workout? If so, awesome! However, most fitness facilities are not equipped with the technology to measure VO2max, and if they are, it might not be realistic to measure it for all members of the facility. Facilities that use heart rate monitor systems, like MYZONE®, have the advantage of gauging the effort of their clients in real time.

So, we might have to skip programming Tabata in its original form. However, we certainly can adopt the Tabata work-to-rest ratio of 2:1 – 20 seconds on at a high exercise intensity, 10 seconds off for recovery – for about 8 bouts of exercise. We can even create “Tabata” workouts with these time intervals using cardiorespiratory exercises and muscular fitness exercises. While this may be a modified version of a true Tabata protocol, it is still a great workout that takes just four minutes!

Encourage your clients to work at a high intensity during the 20-second push (YELLOW or RED zone for MYZONE® users) and recover as much as possible during the 10-second recovery. Since the rest phase is so short, we anticipate that most people will likely remain in the YELLOW and RED throughout the workout.

Final Thoughts:

Including Tabata-style workouts in your programming is an excellent way to offer your clients variety and to reap many physiological benefits in a short amount of time. Plus, it gives many clients the intense challenge they are seeking when they work with you. We encourage you to use a form of effort tracking, such as MYZONE®, to gauge intensity during Tabata.

We hope you found this information valuable for yourself, your clients, or your classes. To learn more about MYZONE®, visit or connect with us on MYZONE®’s Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter.


Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28(10), 1327-1330.


Emily Sopo loves sharing her passion for health and wellness as a personal trainer, facility assistant director and fitness educator. Since Emily started teaching group exercise classes six years ago, she has immersed herself in the fitness industry. She has experience in several formats of group fitness, personal training, management, and teaching. Emily is a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a certified group exercise instructor through the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America.

In 2015, Emily graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with her Master of Science in Kinesiology, Exercise Science. She is now the Assistant Director of the LifeFit Center @ The Beach, a health and fitness facility geared toward adults 49 years and older. Emily is also a Master Trainer with MYZONE®, and a certified IN-TRINITY® instructor, and a 2016-2017 PTA Global Ambassador.

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