The Big Fat (Loss) Japanese Lie

True conversation that I overheard at the gym yesterday between a trainer and his 20-something female client (sorry, I couldn't help it):


Trainer: "You've got to try this new 4-minute workout that I've got for you. All you have to do is alternate exercising for 20s and then resting for 10s. You do this 8 times in a row for a total of 4 minutes and that's it. It's called a Tabata."

Client: "What does Tabata mean?"


Trainer: "It means "fat loss" in Japanese.  

Client: "So that's it? Four minutes?" 

Trainer: "Yep (proceeds to hand client 8lb dumbells). So let's make this interesting. We're going to combine bicep curls and stability ball crunches. So you'll do 20s of bicep curls with the 8lb weights and then rest for 10s and then do 20s of crunches". 

Client: "Awesome. You know, I've got some light dumbells at home. I could probably do this type of thing for my home workout too. Afterall, it's only 4-minutes. 

Trainer: Absolutely! Just pick any 2 exercises and go for it! 

At this point, smoke is coming out of my ears because of this trainer's misinformed knowledge on a what a Tabata is. 

But it's not just him. I've seen countless sites on the web showing people how to do a Tabata protocol using useless exercises that will do absolutely nothing … 

-Abductor machine for 20s, rest, then Adductor machine for 20s 

-Dumbbell Rows for 20s on the right, rest, then dumbbell rows for 20s on the left 

-Even Bodyweight squats for 20s, rest, then 20s of push-ups (heck, I made that mistake a few years ago in one of my programs)



The truth about Tabatas is that they have to be intense. Let me rephrase that … 


   They have to be "sweat-inducing, my-lungs-are-about-to-pop-out-of-my-chest-if-it-weren't-for-this-vomit-creeping-up-my-throat INTENSE".


   When Dr. Izumi Tabata did his research on high-intensity exercise back in 1996, he didn't test the effects of doing lateral raises with pink dumbbells for 20 on, 10 off.

In fact, in order for the Tabata protocol to be effective, you'd have to get up to 170% of your VO2 Max (a measure of Oxygen uptake). Clearly, there is absolutely no way that anyone could work that intensely doing a single joint exercise like an ab/adductor machine or bicep curls.

You'd have to do bodyweight squats and push-ups pretty fast for you to get to that intensity as well.


 So what are the best exercises to use when you're constructing your Tabata protocol? 

Generally, any FULL BODY exercise would be ideal to use when you're doing Tabatas. 

Specifically, here is a list of my favorite exercises to use when I do Tabatas … 

-Sprints (hills, track, sand/beach … notice I didn't say treadmill – click HERE to find out why)

-Barbell FRONT Squats (because it's easier to rack the bar on a front squat)

-Snatch Grip Deadlifts

-Thrusters (Squat presses)

-Double KB Front Squats

-KB Swings

-1-arm KB Snatches


-Push-up, Burpee, Chin-up combos

-Tire Flips

-Sledge hammer slams

-Sled dragging

-Pushing my VW in an empty parking lot


   Try doing any of the exercises in the above list for 20s on, 10s off for 8 rounds and tell me how you feel. Then, try doing bicep curls for the same protocol and tell me if you feel a difference.


   Another point to mention is that Tabatas by themselves do not a workout make.


   Sure they're intense, and yes, if you're pressed for time then doing a Tabata is better than not doing anything at all. But for someone to think (or for a trainer to prescribe) doing a Tabata as your only form of exercise for a fat loss workout would be incorrect.


   Tabatas, like traditional interval training, bodyweight circuits or KB Swings for time or reps, are best used as "metabolic finishers" after the strength component of your workout. So get your strength work done first and then hit the Tabatas or sprint intervals or swings or whatever.


   The take home point is that Tabatas are not the magic exercise bullet that misinformed fitness people have made it out to be. These days I've noticed that Tabatas are getting the same kind of magic bullet reputation as hoodia or gogi berries or that crazy weight loss tea.


   Tabatas are just another form of interval training, which, combined with strength training and eating real food, is the fastest way to lose fat and get lean.


   Chris Lopez, CSCS, BSc HK

 Certified Turbulence Trainer


 Author, TT Kettlebell Revolution Workouts



P.S. Tabata does NOT mean "fat loss" in Japanese. 


  • Reply December 9, 2009

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  • Reply December 9, 2009

    Sandy Sommer, RKC

    One thing to note also. When Dr. Tabata did his research, his subjects were elite level athletes. They were able to maintain 170 VO2 at 85 RPMs on bikes. Most folks will never get to the 170 that would give results similar to the research. So it’s good work but it would be the same for us as it was for those speed skaters:)

    Train with purpose,

  • Reply December 9, 2009


    Nice stuff Chris!!!! Thanks for the ideas…


  • Reply December 9, 2009


    Great stuff Chris. The story you told has really become very common for sure. Even without including the Tabata issue, I think folks in general have trouble working out at the proper intensity. I think we all can be guilty of it especially when working out by yourself.

  • Reply December 9, 2009


    The other point that Dr. Tabata made was that he didn’t see his approach being utilized in a mainstream manner, since it was so intense that it had his elite athletes flat on their backs gasping for air at the end of the workout. It’s very painful and certainly no fun, if you’re doing it correctly.

  • Reply December 10, 2009


    I totally agree and have been saying as much for 18 months.

    I posted about the dangers of mispresentation of research data earlier this year.

  • Reply December 10, 2009


    When you wrote this…

    -Sprints (hills, track, sand/beach … notice I didn’t say treadmill – click HERE to find out why)

    There is no link. Can you please fix this because I want to know why haha I’ve been using treadmills cuz courts are too small n its too cold outside.

  • Reply December 11, 2009

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