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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

As a person with good aerobic capacity, Iím not interested in "killing myself to gain slightly more." Richard Winett, PhD, Master Trainer

Tabata vs. GXP

A number of people have asked me about my friend Dick Winettís switch from the Tabata protocol to the moderate-intensity Graded Exercise Protocol (GXP). I believe Dick was the first American to "discover" Dr Tabataís research in Japan and the amazing improvement in aerobic fitness achieved with very brief, high-intensity interval training (see article 10 above). I learned about the Tabata protocol from Dick.

As many of you know, the GXP calls for five minutes of warm-up, five minutes of steady state at about 85% of heart rate maximum, and a five minutes cool-down. The Tabata protocol is generally the same in terms of warm-up and cool-down, but the work period is different: 6-8 very high intensity reps of 20 seconds separated by 10-second rest intervals. The protocols are similar in their brevity. The differences are intensity and steady state versus intervals.

Dick explained the reasons for the change in the June, 2003, issue of his newsletter, Master Trainer.

Interferes with Resistance Training

Dickís first reason for not doing the Tabata protocol: "The extremely high intensity...can play havoc with recovery from resistance training..." On a similar note, he says, "Doing hard intervals also requires a great deal of muscular adaptation that may not be desirable" for one primarily interested in resistance training.

That would, no doubt, be true if one did the protocol five days a week as in Dr. Tabataís study. I donít know of anyone who recommends that for those who train for strength as well as endurance. Twice a week is the most Iíve ever done or recommended. Two weight sessions and two high-intensity interval sessions is about right for most experienced trainers. That allows time for recovery from Ė and adaptation to Ė both forms of training, especially in a periodization program. 

What's more, I believe that high intensity intervals may actually be more compatible with weight training than  steady state work at 85% on heart rate maximum. (See article 12 above and "The Aerobics Problem/Solution" in Ripped 3.)

Two weight and two interval sessions per week is probably not going to build a physique like Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler, but most people would be happy to settle for the look of world class sprinters, such as Maurice Green or seventeen-year-old, 200-meter sensation Allyson Felix. According to Sports Illustrated (June 9, 2003), Felix added 13 pounds of muscle on a program of weight training and high-intensity, low-volume workouts. "She seldom runs more than 800 meters, cumulatively, in a training session," says SI, "all done at high intensity."

Injury Risk

"Very hard, rapid movements can create musculoskeletal problems such as soreness in knees," Dick writes. "I donít want to risk an injury doing something that is a secondary priority." Dick says he does cardio mainly for health reasons.

He has a point. Someone with bad knees or a bad back, for example, should not do high-intensity intervals without discussing the pros and cons with their physician. And everyone should begin intervals slowly and increase the pace only as their condition warrants. A thorough warm-up and extended cool-down is mandatory.

In my experience, however, Tabatas on the Airdyne or the Concept 2 rower are easier on the muscles and joints than high-intensity weight training. The action on both machines is smooth and non jarring. To me, it feels good. Knock on wood, I've never suffered an injury on either machine. (I'm careful to maintain proper form, of course. Injuries are certainly possible.)

Running on a track or treadmill might be another story. Anything that jerks or pounds the joints can definitely cause problems. "If it hurts donít do it," is always a good policy.

Iíve found that high-intensity intervals actually dissipate the soreness from weight workouts. I usually do weights on Saturday and intervals on Sunday. I always feel too sore to do high-intensity intervals the day after a hard weight session. But I prove myself wrong week after week. Not only can I do Tabatas at a very high level, I have less soreness the next day when I do. Iíve tried resting on Sunday and I feel better on Monday when I do hard aerobics. I may be unique, but I donít think so. (I rest longer before trying for a personal best on the rower, of course.)

Cardiac Event

"The extreme high intensity of the Tabata protocol presents a risk even for a person with none of the common heart disease risk factors," says Dick. "Why risk a major cardiac event in the name of preventing heart disease."

Thatís true. Thereís some danger in any form of exercise, especially high intensity. Most experts agree, however, that sedentary living presents an even greater risk. "The risk that someone will have a heart attack while exercising, or just afterwards, is small," New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata writes in Ultimate Fitness (see article 111). "Sudden death is about 17 times more likely with vigorous exercise; but even so, the risk is minuscule, with one death per 1.51 million vigorous exercise sessions," she adds. "The risk is greatest in men [and women] who rarely or never exercise, and least in those who exercise five or more times a week."

If you are out of shape or have heart disease, the Tabata protocol is probably not for you.

GXP Safer and Just as Good

The "take home message" from Dr. Tabataís research, according to Dick, is that "precision and overload," not duration, has the greatest impact on aerobic capacity. "The GXP is another more benign illustration of the same principles," Dick maintains. Whatís more, "Thereís really no evidence that being super fit somehow makes you immune to all sorts of health risks," he writes.

Itís true that a little fitness goes a long way. A remarkable multi-year study involving 10,224 men and 3,120 women done at the Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas showed that moving from the least-fit category (bottom 20%) to moderately fit (middle 60%) conferred the greatest benefit. Those in the high-fitness group (top 20%) were only slightly less likely to die than the middle category. Still, there is some additional benefit to being very fit. The least fit men had a mortality rate 3.44 times higher than those in the best shape. The least fit women had a mortality rate 4.65 times greater that the most fit. (For more details, see Lean for Life.)

It may also be true that doing the Tabata protocol once or twice a week (compared to 5 times in the study) will produce little more improvement, if any, in fitness than five minutes at 85% of HR maximum, as called for in the GXP. As Dick observes, both are "far harder than most people train." 

I believe that doing the Tabata protocol once or twice a week is better for fitness and fat loss, but no comparative studies have been done at that frequency; no one knows for sure. Having done my share of both types of training, I can say that you feel the aftereffects of the Tabata protocol longer. 


"I like interval training," Dick frankly admits. "But, not everything we may like to do is the best thing to do."

True. But no fitness program will work if you donít enjoy it and wonít stick with it. (Dick will stick with it, of course, but he's unusually committed.) 

To me, moderate-intensity steady-state training is an unpleasant bore. Interval training is more interesting, more challenging, and more fun. It's exciting. Ask my friend Wayne Gallasch. (See Success Stories 4)

Motivation is an important consideration.

The 10-second rest periods in the Tabata protocol are important, both physically and mentally. Not only do they allow partial recovery, they also provide psychological relief. Steady state work is like a pressure cooker relentlessly building steam; thereís nothing to do but think about the minutes and seconds of discomfort remaining. Tabata intervals keep the lid on, so to speak, by releasing steam every 20 seconds. Intervals keep you busy and your mind off whatís to come. Switching back and forth from work to rest makes the workout less aversive. Plus, it allows you to train at a higher level of intensity, which is really what intervals are all about. Itís a win-win proposition.

Done properly, both types of training are hard, but rest periods make the Tabata protocol less onerous Ė and more effective.

Itís a mistake to do the Tabata protocol so hard that it becomes repugnant. You want to look forward to the next workout, not dread it. The trick is to make it hard, but not so hard you donít want to do it again. As Bill Pearl has so wisely said, "Always leave a little for next time." 

The ebb and flow of periodization helps you do that. You build to a peak, and then back off and start over again. (See article 8 above and Ripped 3.) Donít train so hard that you destroy your motivation. 

Dr. Tabata told Dick Winett that the subjects in his study, all college varsity athletes, were lying on the floor gasping for air at the end of the workouts. I donít do that (see demo on our video). Itís not necessary in order to produce good results. Start at a pace you can handle comfortably, and then increase the intensity a little at a time. Experiment and find a level of intensity thatís acceptable to you. Do that and youíll keep training and gaining cycle after cycle.

You donít have to kill yourself doing the Tabata protocol. Train progressively Ė and at a pace that makes you want to keep coming back for more.

Those are the arguments for the two types of training. Both are good. Decide which one suits you best -- maybe neither one -- and go for it.

(For more information on the Tabata protocol, see articles 10, 11 and 12, Challenge Yourself and our Ripped video. For details on the GXP, visit Dr. Winettís website: www.ageless-athletes.com. For his response to this article: http://www.ageless-athletes.com/cur_faq.shtml)


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