Featured Researchers

Prof. Izumi Tabata | College of Sport and Health Science

Interview with the Founder of the World-Renowned Tabata Protocol

Professor Tabata, well known for his research into high-intensity intermittent training, is a former researcher at the National Institute for Health and Nutrition and currently a professor and researcher at Ritsumeikan University’s newly established Faculty of Sport and Health Science. Please visit the Faculty of Sport and Health Science's English Website for more details.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

Aside from my education in Japan, I studied for two years in Norway, and for a year in the United States at Washington University in St Louis. During this time I learned a variety of analysis techniques that I could use to develop my own research in sport and health science. Later on, I worked as a training coach for the Japanese speed skating team. At the time, the head coach had developed a training technique where the athletes would exercise in short bursts of high-intensity, and I was asked to analyze the effectiveness of this training regime. Now that I am at Ritsumeikan I can contribute to furthering research into such regimes, since my former position at the National Institute for Health and Nutrition did not allow for a great amount of freedom in researching this subject.

You are perhaps most famously known for the “Tabata Protocol,” could you explain a little about this training regime’s origin and characteristics?

During my time working with the Japanese speed skating team, the head coach, Mr. Irisawa Koichi, had me analyze the effectiveness of his training regime that involved a rotation of short burst of maximum effort followed by short periods of rest. Although Coach Irisawa pioneered the idea, somehow it became named after me (laughs). The current regime consists of repetitions of 20 seconds of intense work, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This means that, excluding warming up and cooling down, the exercise can be completed in only 4 minutes if repeated 8 times, more than enough to make even a fit person exhausted. The idea has become bigger than I imagined and now if you search this on Google, you will get about 200,000 hits.

In general there were two types of exercises, low-intensity exercises for longer periods of time that improved endurance, and exercises such as sprints that improve your ability to sprint, but have no effect on aerobics or endurance. In contrast, the Tabata Protocol draws on the advantages of each.

One of the papers you contribute to, entitled “Metabolic Profile of High Intensity Intermittent Exercises,” has been cited over 100 times in academic journals, and been referenced in popular American textbooks. Why do you think this training regime has become so extraordinarily popular?

Originally I thought this type of training was just for speed skaters or other highly motivated athletes because it is very painful and tiring. However, I found that there were groups of people interested in building muscle and therefore doing short high-intensity exercises that trained their muscle, but not those exercises that improved their aerobic training. When this regime came along, they began to realize they could train both at the same time. Moreover, this exercise takes just a few minutes.

I found this exercise can improve the aerobics and aerobic metabolism of athletes, but I must continue to collect data. Many people theorize its positive effects, but we don’t absolutely know for sure, thus I came to Ritsumeikan to further the body of research into such exercises.

How do the new facilities help with your research?

One example would be a chamber in our building that measures oxygen intake. Normally this would be done using a small hose and mouthpiece, but here we have a large room that acts essentially as a big mouthpiece. Air flows constantly through this chamber, allowing for constant measurements of the consumption of oxygen, and the output of carbon dioxide. Here we can measure the difference of consumption over a longer period of time in an environment that’s comfortable for the test subject. Often textbooks say that when you do low-intensity exercises you can consume more fat, but when you do high-intensity exercises you consume primarily carbohydrates. My plan is first to have subjects perform the exercise, then have them rest in this room and measure differences in energy consumption in different states. Research subjects often spend some time here, eat dinner and then stay overnight, remaining until about noon the next day. Since they don’t have to constantly wear a mask it’s much easier on them.

In addition to this chamber, we have rooms that can become hypoxic, where less oxygen is available, or hyperoxic, where oxygen is increased. Here we are capable of testing how this affects the performance of athletes.

In addition to affecting athletes, what kind of research have you done that has implications for the general public?

One subject I am interested in is the production of glucotransporter 4, a protein found in skeletal muscles, and how it can benefit diabetes patients. When one exercises, this glucotransporter moves from inside the muscle to the membrane of the muscle, facilitating the entry of glucose into the muscle. This is important for diabetes patients as it can improve their glucose metabolism, hence why diabetes patients are encouraged to exercise. In my research I have been using rats to study the effects of the Tabata Protocol on the movement of glucotransporter 4 by having the rat perform 20 seconds of intensive swimming, allowing ten seconds of rest, and repeating this as necessary. What we found in these trials is that high-intensity exercises are also effective for producing more glucotransporter 4. In one study it was shown that people with twenty-one days of bed rest decreased the glucotransporter 4 in their thigh muscles by twenty percent whereas those who performed just ninety seconds of resistance training daily showed an increase of twenty perfect. My colleagues also found that in diabetic patients this kind of training increases glucotransporter 4 and glucose metabolism.

For the aging population in Japan, how would these kinds of exercises be applicable?

Such high-intensity exercise is exhausting, so it’s not good for those simply interested in general promotion of their health. We had another exercise where we made a rat swim only three times only and found glucotransporter 4 increased the same amount, whether the exercise was repeated three times or eight. I think this is because the biochemical signal for an increase of glucotransporter 4 is based on the activity of enzymes which increased to the same level regardless of the decrease in repetitions. Now I’m trying to do lower intensity tests on humans as well.

In other words, you have first performed tests on animals, and now you are moving onto humans?

Since the exercise is a little bit dangerous for those other than seasoned athletes, I would advise beginners to start at a low intensity, and stay within their comfort zone. Once they feel they are getting stronger, they can then increase the intensity little by little.

Do you have any words for international students interested in your research?

We have plans to recruit many international students, particularly from East Asia, but I also hope that some post-doctoral students will come and join us as well. We hope to learn alongside such new students and we hope they will learn a lot from being here as well.

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