It takes only a quick visit to Dee Assael's Tabata class to realize that the form of high-intensity, interval training she teaches is not for the faint of heart.
As LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" wails away on the stereo, the energetic, 47-year-old fitness instructor guides 18 frazzled, but very game, adults through a flurry of exercises at Pleasant Hill's Irvin Deutscher Family YMCA. In brief, all-out bursts -- followed by even briefer periods of rest -- they jump rope, perform push-ups, do squats, burpees and several other gasp-inducing moves, all while straining to keep up with their super-buff leader.
It's not long before her charges are drenched in sweat. They're wincing. Bent over.
"Smile!" Assael shouts gleefully. Yes, smile through the pain.
Devotees use such adjectives as "brutal," "hard-core," "nauseating" and "tortuous" to describe Tabata, which is a hot trend these days at many health clubs and gyms. On the other hand, they also call it "fun," "efficient" and, most importantly, "effective." The fitness magazine Shape has even labeled Tabata as the "four-minute fat-burning miracle workout."
"It's caught on like wildfire," says Assael, who, after reading about Tabata a year ago, incorporated it into her exercise boot camps and then broke it out into a class of its own. "People are always looking for the next new thing to try. They get bored easily. But Tabata is never boring. And it allows you to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time."
Tabata has been around since the mid-1990s. Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata developed the protocol while working with his country's Olympic speed skaters. He discovered that athletes using a rotation of short bursts of maximum effort, followed by abbreviated periods of rest, could achieve better fat-burning, endurance-building results than with longer, less-intense workouts. (Think: an hour on an elliptical at a moderate speed.)
Cassandra Threatt, 48, of Martinez, is a firm believer, proudly saying that she has dropped two dress sizes since starting Assael's classes in June.
"I've done various workouts for years, but (Tabata) has done more to boost my metabolism," she says. "And I can really tell the difference. I've tightened up parts of my body that I couldn't before."
Though purists insist that a true Tabata workout entails only cardiovascular exercise (no biceps curls, please), its basic principles have been adapted to a number of different exercise routines. But no matter what form it takes, the two keys to a successful workout are timing and intensity.
Basically, the idea is to cycle 20 seconds of maximum-effort cardio activity with 10 seconds of rest, and repeat as many times as you want or can. Usually it's recommended to stick with eight cycles, producing a workout of four minutes in total. The Tabata protocol can be applied to any kind of activity that is intense enough for an individual's purposes. With running, for example, it would be 20 seconds of sprinting as fast as you possibly can and 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times.
Lance Miller, a general partner and trainer with CrossFit San Jose, incorporates a version of Tabata training into his sessions. The effectiveness of such a workout, he says, is determined by how long a person can maintain the intensity.
"You constantly push yourself as hard as you can," he says. "You put the pedal to the metal 'til you tank out."
That's what makes Tabata "the most intense way you can work out," according to Maximus Lewin, owner of CrossFit East Bay in Oakland, who points out that its benefits that go beyond the aerobic and anaerobic enhancements devotees experience.
"The workouts are short, so there is less wear and tear on your body," he says. "You don't have as much pounding on the knees and joints."
Moreover, the duration of a typical Tabata workout is a huge selling point in this rapid-paced era of jam-packed schedules. Assael's Tabata classes, for example, last only 25 minutes, including warm up and cool-down.
But as with any new workout routine, someone just jumping off the couch to embrace Tabata needs to proceed with caution.
"Because it doesn't take much time, you might be fooled into thinking it's relatively easy," Lewin says. "Even a sedentary person can get up and do a quick, 20-second set of squats and think, 'Wow, this is a breeze.' But keep doing that -- at full-speed -- and you'll soon be dragging."
That's precisely why newcomers need to take things at their own pace before building up to those manic speeds.
"Tabata was originally designed to make very fit and fast athletes even more fit and faster," Miller says. "If you're just starting out, you should track your progress to see what's working and how you feel. Eventually, you want to get to the point where you're putting out the same effort in Set 8 as you did in Sets 1 and 2. But until then, you need to listen to your body. It will tell you when to put on the brakes."
Just in case some bodies are slow to speak up, Assael keeps a vomit bucket constantly at the ready during her three Tabata classes a week. No one has had to use it yet, "but we've had a few come real close," she says.
Hoping to avoid that bit of ignominy is Steve Beall, one of Assael's faithful students. The 43-year-old Walnut Creek resident has been doing Tabata since March. Like a lot of people, he struggled in the early going; in the time since, he's lost weight and gained more energy and endurance. He now calls the Tabata the highlight of his day.
"I just push myself until I can't," he says. "It's extremely challenging, but in a good way."
Experts say Tabata should be used as part of a well-rounded regimen that includes cardiovascular, strength and flexibility workouts. A basic Tabata is 20 seconds as fast and intense as you can go, then 10 seconds of rest. Repeat eight times. A few tips: