Why Tabata Won’t Make You Strong or Lean (And Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong Anyway)

In case you’ve never heard of it, Tabata is a form of HIIT that requires 20 seconds of ultra high intensity exercise to be followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times. Tabata was created to condition the most elite of elite athletes. But in my estimation, the vast majority of non-elite individuals who think they’re following the Tabata protocol are not. In fact, they’re not even close. Why do I think this? Because I can virtually guarantee that nobody, including myself, has ever been able to get anywhere near 170% of their V02 max. That’s what Tabata really is. V02 max is basically a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute, normalized to body weight. So at 100% of your V02 max, your body is using all the oxygen it can possibly use. 170% of V02 max means that your body’s oxygen processing capacity is being outstripped by 70%. Any idea what that feels like? Searing pain. Absolute agony. Three years ago in my cardiovascular prime (I was in the top 1% of the population for my age), I could complete only two rounds of real Tabata before collapsing. It is extreme, severe, virtually impossible. This is why most recreational fitness enthusiasts partaking in Tabata aren’t really doing it. They might be getting up to 90% or [less likely] 100% of V02 max, but nowhere remotely near 170%, I promise.

All that said, even it its unadulterated form, Tabata is inefficient for fat loss and strength development. It can be more effective than steady state cardio because it does create a modest anabolic stimulus, but it doesn’t hold a candle to heavy lifting. Let’s first look at why Tabata isn’t nearly as efficient for fat loss as heavy lifting.

I’ve mentioned in several other posts that if you want to lose fat, like if you really want to lose fat and stop believing what you see on TV, heavy lifting is the only way to go. Fat loss is almost blindly attributed to burning more calories than you eat. Yeah, you might lose fat if you eat less than you burn, but that’s usually not the case. You will DEFINITELY lose WEIGHT if you eat less than you burn, but generally that weight is comprised of a lot of muscle. Your body is efficient; when it’s in a chronic caloric deficit, it will preferentially use muscle over fat for fuel if there is no reason for it to hold it. Since muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain, your body wants none of it when faced with the choice. This results in skinny-fat syndrome i.e. when someone who does lots of cardio and eats at a deficit is slim, but flabby.

If you’re really serious about losing fat, your job is to not give your body the choice between using fat or muscle as fuel. Your job is to force it to burn fat to the greatest degree possible. How do you do that? Lift very heavy weights. This simple thing creates a powerful anabolic signal that tells your body that the muscle is critically needed for something, meaning that you must metabolize more fat and less muscle to meet energy demands. There’s far too much fat-loss misinformation that treats fat loss as something acute, i.e. that you must burn lots of energy exercising to lose fat. It’s just flat out wrong and counterproductive. Weight lifting doesn’t acutely burn many calories–maybe like 250 in an hour for the average sized male. What it DOES do is to create the conditions necessary for your body to prioritize fat metabolism when you are in a caloric deficit.

Tabata (the real version of Tabata) is meant to develop superior cardiovascular capacity. That’s it. It’s not a tool for fat loss and it’s not a tool for muscular development (well, maybe smooth cardiac muscle, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It is one of several exercise modalities that professional athletes use to endure longer in their sports. The cardiovascular fatigue Tabata or even a more moderate HIIT routine creates competes with your ability to create the type of anabolic stimulus necessary to force your body into fat-burning mode.

Take-away: just stay away from HIIT, lift heavy, and reduce your calories if you want to lose fat.

Don't be this guy

Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part I — Cardio = Gumby Body

It’s absolutely amazing to me how the gates of the Ripped Palace opened wide when I began doing literally the exact opposite of what I (and I think most people) think is the way to get it done. In the following three-part series, I’ll detail what I consider the top three actions that defy logic on the surface, but make complete sense when explored more deeply.

Do No Structured Cardio

Take a pair of twins. Same body type, same age, weight, height, bodyfat %, metabolism, caloric requirements, etc. They both want to drop fat, so they both create a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories. Twin #1 creates the deficit by engaging in vigorous cardio for an hour. Twin #2 does no cardio, lifts very heavy weights for 40 minutes (let’s say that burns around 200 calories), and cuts caloric intake by 300 calories. Twin #2 loses fat much more quickly than twin #1 and develops a more muscular physique in the process. What gives?

I’ll get straight to it: cardio creates hunger and and diverts precious resources from muscle retention and development processes. I’ve said in many past posts that I was a chronic cardio addict until only a couple of years ago. During that time, I struggled to hold muscle. Cardio was why. When you put your body into a chronic energy deficit, it wants to do whatever it can to reduce its energy needs to accomodate the deficit. Analogy: your body is a cargo plane. You’re half way across the Pacific Ocean, full of cargo when you realize that one of the fuel tanks is punctured. The puncture is your energy deficit and the more cardio you do, the bigger the hole. You can do one of two things: dump your cargo or dump your fuel. Simple choice, right? Dump the cargo to preserve the fuel you have so you don’t splash into the ocean, which is exactly what your body does when you engage in chronic cardio, but the cargo is your muscle. MUSCLE. Your body requires energy to hold muscle, but requires virtually nothing to hold fat. Fat = fuel. So in an effort to reduce energy demand, your body happily scarfs down muscle before it burns fat (it’s not all-or-nothing, but the majority of what’s metabolized will be muscle). Fat is precious to your body because it’s pure energy, and very energy dense, so–get ready to have your mind blown–your body will attempt to retain fat at all costs. This explains “skinny fat” syndrome, i.e. when an individual looks slim but carries less muscle and more fat as a result of putting his or her body into a caloric deficit and either lifting no weights, or not lifting the right way. Accordingly, the body has no reason to retain muscle, so it dumps as much as it can and retains fat for what it’s treating as an emergency (the energy deficit). Since there’s a lower limit to muscle loss because muscle is used for everyday activities (like walking and washing your hair), the body will have to spare a base amount of muscle. But the bodies of people who engage in chronic cardio without hitting the heavy weights will shed mainly muscle until the next best option becomes fat (think of Gumby. Gumby is slim, but, well… gumby.). But even if a person who performs heavy cardio also lifts heavy weights, the body will still burn more muscle than it will when lifting heavy in the absence of heavy cardio. I think it’s clear now why Twin #1 is having a problem losing fat and shaping up.

So if you’re truly interested in dropping fat, try your best to ignore “common sense” and forget the structured cardio. Don’t get me wrong–activity is still really important for general health (lymph movement, overall mobility, sanity) which is why walking throughout your day is more beneficial, easier, less stressful and more productive overall than banging out an hour of hard cardio out in the gym. Just get your 10,000 steps.

Best Ways To Stay Weak

Like many working people with families who frequent the gym, I have limited time for it. So I make damned sure that my top priority is to use the time I have there as efficiently as possible. I spend no more that one hour at the gym on any given day (on weekdays, that’s even pushing it a little). With less than an hour a day, six days per week, getting into amazing shape is easy. Here are the things I never do because they help weakness grow.

1. Engage in structured cardio
As a former cardio addict, this idea and especially the practice was tough to get used to. But once I did it, everything began to make sense and my body composition started to change like magic. After years and years of exercise and doing the wrong things, I now know what’s right. I believe that structured cardio is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive for losing fat. It made me hungry and it also made me weak. It did absolutely nothing for my strength and size and zilch for functional ability. Replacing structured cardio with heavy weight lifting was one of the most productive things I’ve ever done in my life. I very strongly believe that cutting calories from the diet is far more effective than cardio for dropping fat. Don’t get me wrong–I’m still a proponent of activity, and I always make sure to get 10,000 steps per day (according to the FitBit in my pocket). That’s around 500 calories worth of stepping spread over the day during the process of living and working. I almost always go out for a walk mid-day. I take the stairs up eight flights to my office, I bike to and from work. That’s plenty. The body can only divert so much energy to repairing itself; I’d rather that energy go into lifting and fixing the damage I do to my muscles during my lifting sessions (getting stronger and bigger) than be wasted just for the sake of it. Here’s an analogy: an hour on the elliptical is like dumping a gallon of kerosene onto the street and igniting it, while an hour of heavy lifting is like using that same gallon of kerosene to heat water that spins a steam turbine that powers a machine that builds muscles (I think the analogy fell apart at the end there). This is no knock on people training for sports and marathons and the like–it’s a statement that [in my opinion] for the average person like me, doing cardio to get a cut/ toned/ strong body is fantastically unproductive and a waste of precious time.
2. Engage in bullshit lifts
Compound lifts are where it’s at. All forms of barbell squatting (back, front, Bulgarian split, hack), all forms of deadlifts (American, Romanian, stiff-legged), good mornings, barbell (and a little dumbbell) pressing (i.e. flat & incline bench, overhead), and big pulls (Pendlay rows, t-Bar rows, dumbbell rows, weighted pullups, cable rows [alternatively, deadlifts can fit in here as well]). That’s it. They get more of the muscles and joints working in the way they’re supposed to move and contract in relation to one another than any other crap lifts. Isolation lifts are for champion bodybuilders who are already extremely low on body fat (like 4%) and are looking to extract supernatural definition from very specific muscles. My only exception to the rule is six to ten WEEKLY sets of assistance work for the triceps and six to eight WEEKLY sets of assistance biceps work. Zero direct abdominal work because none of the muscles that are part of the abdominal/ core complex are meant to contract eccentrically as their primary function, which is what happens during a crunch or sit-up or whatever other useless “exercise” is touted as being a great ab stimulator. If you don’t believe me, look at my abs on the home page. I haven’t performed a single direct repetition for my abs in years, yet I still have a strong, defined core. It’s simply a combination of low body fat % and performing the big lifts. They all require very powerful isometric core contraction, which is exactly how our abdominal muscles are built to work.
3. Lose focus
I do my best before each set to focus on making it an all-out animalistic effort with the knowledge that the second it’s over I can completely relax for a couple of minutes. That’s the reward. I think about it this way: an hour-long lifting session probably boils down to around 20 or 25 minutes of very intense effort and that I won’t have to generate even 10% of that effort for any of the remaining 1,415 minutes [of the day] outside of those 25 minutes.
4. Rush lifts
I mentioned earlier that my lifting sessions last an hour. Sometimes a lift might be so taxing that I need extra time to recover between sets. That’s fine. That’s good. It means the set was tough and my body will respond by adapting to it providing I give it the rest it’s asking for. Inevitably, as a result, there are some sessions during which I realize I’m running out of time to complete all sets of all lifts that I set out to take on. The constant is that I must be out of the gym on time. The variable is how I choose to use my remaining time. I could do one of two things: 1) rush to complete the remaining sets, or 2) continue to take my time, but not complete the remaining sets. I choose #2 every time. Rushing and lifting stand in diametric opposition to one another. I’d rather eat a pint of ice cream before rushing a lift. Ice cream feels better going down. If I have six minutes left in the gym and I still have, say, four sets of a lift to complete, I’ll simply continue on my pace, putting every ounce of effort I have into the sets I’m able to complete in that time and forget about any sets I might have missed. Intensity is way more important than getting everything done.
5. Ignore the importance of tracking progress
Could there be a correlation between the number of people who lift without recording their progress and the number of people who make little progress? I think so. Journals are good. When my goal isn’t losing fat, I aim to improve every lift every session. If it means one more rep at the same weight or the same number of reps at a greater weight, or the same number of reps at the same weight but at a faster pace, it’s all good to me. That virtually impossible to track without a journal.