Tabata protocol training in the martial arts

This “Tabata protocol training in the martial arts” post can be placed in the “Get off my lawn!” category as I increasingly become a grumpy, old Personal Trainer. Go here to read my previous one.

For years, I’ve seen people claim they do, and worse, actually teach their version of interval training as Tabata protocol. Some people don’t know any better, but others should. Especially if they claim all the benefits of Tabata training, but can never deliver these with what they have you do. Then they’re just ordinary snake oil salesmen. It’s one of the many reasons I dislike the fitness industry I’ve worked in for several decades now:

  • Discover something excellent and effective.
  • Distort it into something it is not.
  • Sell it to people who want to believe there are magical shortcuts.

Unfortunately, the same is true for the martial arts community I’ve been in even longer: people claim they are doing Tabata but they’re not even close. At best, they’re doing some form of high-intensity interval, and though that is worth doing in its own right, that *doesn’t* make it Tabata. In fact, Dr. Tabata has expressed his concern about the incorrect use of his research in the past.

People don’t care…

Tabata protocol training: what it is not.

For the record, none of these videos here below qualify as Tabata training:

None of the exercises are able to generate the intensity required.

Not only lacking intensity but Tabata is a) not a beginner’s protocol and b) not something pregnant women should do. Unless you think risking miscarriage is a good idea…

Not even close to the VO2 max requirements…

Slow-motion kicking… I’ve got nothing.

Leg scissors?  Pointless for Tabata.

Aside from the poor technique: Anything that takes 30min. to complete has cannot be Tabata training by definition.

I could go on and on and show you many more examples, but you get the point.


What is Tabata protocol training?

Short explanation: after a light warm-up of about 10min. you do 7-8 sets of intense exercise with 10sec. rest breaks inbetween.

When it comes to what intense exercise means, an easy rule of thumb to see if something is Tabata protocol or not is:

If they are still standing and can easily talk at the end, it isn’t.

Dr. Tabata used world-class speedskaters and put them on a bicycle for his original test. They were exhausted at the end of it. As in: couldn’t do anything else but try to breathe and recover. None of the people in these videos are in that state, far from it. So all their claims of Tabata protocol are nonsense.

The intensity requirements are clear: approx. 170% of VO2 max. And you have to hit that every single set. Not just in the last one, every single one. That means you push yourself hard for each set, despite the fatigue building up exponentially.

For an idea of what that looks like, check out the last few seconds of my training session here:

To be clear: the reverse-pyramid interval training I do here is not Tabata protocol either. But the point is that none of the people in the above videos are coming anywhere near my level of intensity. So they’re full of it if they claim they’re doing Tabata.

Doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is not worth it. It only means they don’t know what they’re talking about or are lying to you on purpose. Neither one of these is a good thing.



Words matter. Definitions matter. Even if you don’t fully understand or even know them. This applies everywhere.

E.g.: would you buy a car from a manufacturer when their interpretation of “quality control” is to drive the car for a few minutes and if it doesn’t break down, it’s good to go?  I doubt it. “Quality control” means something specific in that industry and you expect that standard to be met when you buy a vehicle.

Why would you expect anything else from coaches, trainers, and teachers?

In my previous rant, I mentioned that I read a lot of studies. Like, tons of them. If you make any claims about Tabata protocol, I suggest you do the same. Start by reading the original research here and here. And then read this overview here. Then at least you will have some basic understanding of what Tabata training actually is and if you even want to use it for your martial arts practice. Perhaps you will even become a better trainer or coach by applying it as originally intended. At the very least, your own training sessions will improve as there is more to Tabata training than just doing the workouts correctly. What’s more, there are many other high-intensity interval protocols that are perhaps more interesting for you and/or your students. So you might end up looking into those as well.

It gives me a small measure of ironic pleasure to finally be able to use one of the most obnoxious things young people say nowadays:

Educate yourself…




Martial arts internet experts are everywhere but are they worth listening to?

This article was originally published in my Patreon newsletter of February 2018. To receive the newsletter, you can join up here.


I posted this meme a few months ago on my Facebook page. It’s from one of my favorite movies, “By The Sword”, starring Eric Roberts as an arrogant fencing champion and F. Murray Abraham as, well… Just watch the movie and find out. Suffice it to say, he isn’t a great fencing instructor when the two men meet for the first time. In that scene, Roberts asks to demonstrate some basic techniques and after viewing the result, he delivers that line.

Before I go on about that, something else first: I was recently interviewed for Randy King’s podcast “Talking to Savages” and we talked about all sorts of topics to do with martial arts and self-defense. One of the things I mentioned was that when I started training, there was very little choice; you picked from what was available. In my case, I had the choice of judo and jujitsu when I started at age 14. A few years later, kung fu became available and I went with that because I liked it better. Those were the only choices I had, there was nothing else. For many people, training was exactly like that: you took the class that you could attend because it was close to you or within traveling distance.

There was also precious little instructional material. There were some videotapes available, but the selection was rather limited. What’s more, the books and videos on offer were most often from the same instructors. So you were usually only exposed to the same sources on any given art. As a result, the knowledge you could gain was also limited. Speaking only for myself, I tried to compensate that by training as much as I possibly could and that includes outside of classes I attended. I got home after class and then trained some more because I was afraid I would forget the techniques. Then I trained the next day as well and so on until the next class. I did that for many years and continue to do so to this day.

And then we get to today…

We are now in the age of Internet wisdom and YouTube experts. It’s been going on for a while, but if you go online or visit YouTube, it’s incredibly easy to look up instructional material. There is a wide variety of quality levels to be found, ranging from the impressive to the horrible. I’m not going to criticize any individual instructor, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is which for your own tastes. That said, I’m sure you can agree with me that there is some rather poor quality instructional material available on the Internet.

It gets worse…

When you search for pretty much any self-defense or martial arts topic in your preferred search engine or on YouTube, the results that rise to the top have changed tremendously in the last few years. Today, the results are almost always from “YouTube experts.” All too often these are people who have some training in a specific martial art or self-defense system and clearly some passion and dedication to promote it. Most of all, they possess excellent marketing and promotional skills. They make the kind of videos that follow the best practices of the moment when it comes to video length, choice of title, keyword research, thumbnail layout, and all the other factors that are important to rank high. Notice that quality of instruction is not a part of that equation…

The result is that we now have a truckload of people who are seen as experts by the public when in reality they only have a fairly limited amount of training and experience. This, in turn, dilutes the quality of the information that is passed on to the viewer who looks to these people for advice, knowledge, and understanding. One way in which this manifests is in an oversimplification of instruction:

These experts answer questions along the lines of “How to beat any opponent in the street” or “The best technique to beat a larger opponent” in videos that are typically between 5 to 10 minutes long (because that’s what YouTube likes.) There’s nothing against that, I make videos like that myself. The real issue is that they tend to promote what they show as an absolute; there is no nuance. Because they make such outrageous claims in their clickbait titles, there really isn’t any place for nuance either. Instead, they play upon the desire of the uninformed to find a quick solution to whatever problem worries them. As a result, the information that gets passed along is extremely incomplete which in turn leads to misinterpretation and misuse of the techniques shown.

Given as there are more and more of such YouTube experts gathering a huge following, the appeal to copy this approach is high for beginning instructors. Which turns this into a vicious cycle.

It’s a free world and everybody is perfectly allowed to become an entrepreneur and sell his services. This includes promoting them in whatever way they see fit. It’s not my place to tell them what they can or can’t do given as I wouldn’t accept that kind of meddling myself. The reason why I mentioned it, is to point out how difficult it has become for novices to find solid information. Because in contrast to how things were when I started training over 30 years ago, there is now a massive overload of instructional material. This makes it virtually impossible for the beginner to know what is worth learning and what is complete nonsense.

There are no answers to this problem, at least none that I am aware of that don’t involve some form of censorship. That shouldn’t even be up for discussion; censorship is wrong, full stop. The only alternative I see is to try and do a better job myself. I do my best to offer nuances, caveats and hopefully in-depth information in my books, videos, and blog posts. I am fortunate to not have to make a living online, having a full-time job already: I don’t have to cater to whatever latest quirks the algorithms of Google and YouTube force upon content creators. I can just do as I please and will continue to do so. That means continuing to train and study so I have something to teach that is nuanced and worthwhile.

And that’s why all my stuff tends to be longer to read and view than whatever comes up first on an internet search. That doesn’t automatically make me right and them wrong. But I will stand up and say it does raise the level of quality of the instruction.

P.S.: Iain Abernethy and I also discuss this topic during a bonus podcast episode.

The realization that changed my martial arts and self-defense training forever

A long time ago, I had a paradigm shift that changed my martial arts and self-defense training forever. To explain this correctly, I need to give you a little bit of background information:

Many years ago, I started reading the Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett. Though these books take place in a fantasy world, the stories they tell are deeply rooted in our own. If you haven’t read them, go ahead and give them a try. They’re tons of fun. Here’s the reason why I bring this up:

Mr. Pratchett wrote a series of accompanying books called “Science of the Discworld“. These alternate a story set in the Discworld universe with chapters explaining how science works. In one of these books, he mentions “emergent dynamic systems” and “complex systems“. These concepts are hard to explain quickly, but I’ll post some resources at the end if you want more in-depth information.

For a layman’s explanation, you can view it like this:

Complex systems examine how the multiple components of a system interact with each other and cause the system to behave a certain way, but also how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment.

The “emergent” part means that complex systems and patterns are formed out of relatively simple interactions.

When you combine these two, it means you can look at a system and create laws and theories of what you see happening and these may be true. However, you cannot recreate an outcome from these laws and theories alone. The specific elements involved and their interactions can give rise to radically new dynamics and behavior, completely unpredictable from previous occurrences. Or put differently, new patterns (and therefor laws and rules) become apparent as the system keeps going, instead of sticking to the previously established rules.

My paradigm shift was viewing fighting and violence as an emergent dynamic system.

Picture a MMA or boxing match: you know the rules and allowed techniques upfront, you know the strengths and weaknesses of both fighters, along with their past performances. You can even do a statistical analysis of all these factors. Despite all that, you can never predict with 100% accuracy who the winner will be, because differences in seemingly insignificant elements or unexpected developments can alter the outcome completely: [Read more…]

Podcast episode 30: Interview with Dr. Alexis Artwohl

This is perhaps one of the best episodes of the podcast I’ve done so far. I spent about 1h45min. talking to Dr. Alexis Artwohl and she generously shared her expertise on training for lethal force incidents, dealing with the aftermath and PTSD among other topics. She has also agreed to come back on the show later this year, so we have a lot to look forward to.


Podcast interview with Dr Alexis Artwohl on lethal force, preparation, resilience and PTSD

Dr. Alexis Artwohl

1) Introduction

2) Preparing for a lethal force incident

3) Resilience

Dr. Artwohl’s website

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