The Tabata Protocol


There aren’t many activities more physically demanding than fighting a working fire.  Advancing hose, crawling through a dark, smoke filled building, climbing stairs and ladders, and pulling ceiling are all common fire fighting tasks.  Now consider that fire fighters do these things in full gear and SCBA in a superheated environment.  Most of us work near max heart rate for the duration of our SCBA bottle.  How can we expect to perform well under these conditions if we don’t include high intensity exercise as part of our physical training program?  It is important to understand that jogging on the treadmill and working on the bench press are not adequate in the absence of high intensity training.

Take a look at Tabata training if you want to condition your body to work near max heart rate, recover quickly, and continue working.  The Tabata protocol is a high-intensity training regimen that produces remarkable results. A Tabata workout is an interval training cycle of 20 seconds at maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest.  The cycle is repeated without pause 8 times for a total of four minutes. You can keep score by counting how many exercise reps you do in each 20 second period. The period with the lowest number is your score for the 4 minute round.

Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan examined this training protocol.  Their groundbreaking 1996 study, published in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, provided documented evidence concerning the dramatic physiological benefits of high-intensity intermittent training.  After just 6 weeks of testing, Dr. Tabata noted a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity in his subjects, along with a 14% increase in their ability to consume oxygen (V02Max). These results were witnessed in already physically fit athletes. The conclusion was that just four minutes of Tabata interval training could do more to boost aerobic and anaerobic capacity than an hour of endurance exercise.

Talk about bang for your buck!  The improvement in aerobic and anaerobic capacity is exactly the training effect fire fighters need to be more effective on the fire ground.  Four rounds of Tabata protocol with a one-minute rest between rounds (4 different exercises for 4 minutes each following the 20/10 work to rest ratio) is a very efficient and effective way to train.  This 20 minute workout simulates the time that most fire fighters get out of each SCBA bottle.  Try basic body weight exercises such as squats, burpees, etc., or  multi-planar exercises utilizing kettlebells, dumbbells, and clubbells.  This is a great way for the crew to work out together, as each fire fighter will train at their own pace.  Make sure that you warm-up and cool-down properly.  It helps to have access to a clock with a visible second hand to watch your time, or pick up an interval timer such as the Gymboss.

Check out this tactical fitness video utilizing the Tabata protocol:

Ryan Provencher has a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education (Exercise Science Emphasis) and a Minor in Nutrition from Washington State University.  He is certified as a CST Instructor and a TACFIT Team Leader.  He is currently a Fire Captain and fitness trainer with the Bellingham Fire Department.