High Intensity, Heavy Hands, and the Conundrum of More Gain, Less Pain


Nausea. Seeing stars. Sucking wind. This is how you know you’re doing a Tabata [high intensity] workout correctly. Shape.com

And most would agree… you can’t be working out at “high intensity” unless you are on the verge of tears, right?. Anything less and it’s just some more of that “low intensity cardio” right?

Well perhaps yes, perhaps no.

In practice – that is in the gym and in the fitness tabloids – a “Tabata” has been reduced to a short workout with 20 second bursts of activity that may or may not reach the intensity levels found in the research Dr. Tabata performed (linked to above).

There, intensity was determined by athletes in question performing at a level of 170% of VO2Max. Check the article at the link and you’ll realize that VO2Max isn’t measured subjectively (by whether someone is nauseous, for instance). Instead:

Measuring VO2 max accurately requires an all-out effort (usually on a treadmill or bicycle) performed under a strict protocol in a sports performance lab. These protocols involve specific increases in the speed and intensity of the exercise and collection and measurement of the volume and oxygen concentration of inhaled and exhaled air. This determines how much oxygen the athlete is using.

Not being able to workout like athletes in a lab, people try to mirror the effects of a “Tabata” workout by simply trying to exert an “all out effort” for 8 – 20 second sets with 10 seconds rest in between.

Is true Tabata intensity reached in most instances? It’s hard to tell without working out in a lab. It’s roughly possible to compare a given heart rate to VO2Max to find an equivalent using online calculators (but be warned, they probably don’t go over 100%!).

The linked calculator says that at whatever age… “100% of VO2max corresponds to 102% of maximum heart”. How did the Tabata subjects reach 170% of VO2Max for these experiments? They must have been well conditioned in advance! Most of the overweight, middle aged readers being encouraged these days to try “Tabata’s” likely should NOT try to jump into this form of exercise without extensive preconditioning at much lower levels of exertion until a significant base of fitness has been achieved it seems prudent to observe.

Dr. Leonard Schwartz work on HeavyHands started coming out long before the Tabata research was published of course. As a psychiatrist he recognized most people aren’t (at least at first) going to be able to use or stick with (or survive?) a regimen that tries to get them to approach 100%  of their heart rate and which, in practice, is equated with severe discomfort! As a medical doctor fascinated with fitness, Schwartz was intent on achieving the type of VO2Max of cross country skiers in a way that could be approached by virtually anyone, anywhere while starting from “scratch”.

His findings create something of a conundrum in the current fitness environment. He found consistently that 4 limb “panaerobic” exercise that seeks to workout using as much muscle as possible INCREASED VO2Max thereby increasing the “intensity” of ordinary walking or jogging as measured by VO2Max, while DECREASING the perceived intensity!

That finding is counter-intuitive… It describes a situation where there is MORE GAIN but LESS RELATIVE PAIN, let alone the discomfort used to describe if so-called “Tabata’s” are being properly done.

In other words, “panaerobic” exercise makes it easier for the person working out to improve their fitness without the sensations equated with “intensity” in the popular fitness press because the work done is diffused by using the whole body to drive aerobic activity.

You can use HeavyHands or other Panaerobic strategies to do 20 second “all out sets” in training. Don’t be surprised if they’re not quite as agonizing as expected for the reasons stated. Choose a maximum training heart rate with your physician’s guidance, and then use a heart monitor or other objective tool to determine if your training is effective in increasing VO2Max, not simply subjective “guesstimates” based on relative discomfort other methods may cause!

2 thoughts on “High Intensity, Heavy Hands, and the Conundrum of More Gain, Less Pain”

  1. As I understand it, Tabata’s work was done with Olympic caliber Japanese speed skaters. Certainly not your weekend warrior. And, again IIRC the athletes were left gasping, in some cases nauseous after the protocol so it not easy for them. Although the protocol was set up for 8 repeats, the repeats were stopped when the athletes vo2 fell below the 170%. This sometimes happened before the 8 repeats as the athletes could not maintain the required intensity.

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