Anaerobic vs Aerobic Explained
In order to fully understand what anaerobic exercise is and how it benefits you, its first important to know about aerobic exercise. Aerobic, by definition, means “living, active, or occurring only in the presence of oxygen”. Let’s take a look at how this applies to exercise.
When you workout, there is an energy demand that your body requires to be met, and how this energy demand is met determines whether exercise is aerobic or anaerobic. Aerobic exercise meets energy demands by oxygen – the exercise you do is within means of your body producing enough oxygen to provide the muscles. Exercises like jogging, light weightlifting, rowing, and cycling are great examples of aerobic exercises. The key distinction of what makes them aerobic is that they are performed at a low enough intensity that they can be done for a sustained period of time, for example 30 minutes to 2 hours. When you can continuously perform an exercise over a longer period of time, it is considered aerobic.
What makes an exercise aerobic or anaerobic is more a factor of how it is performed rather than the exercise itself. This is important to note because as you will see, these exercises are capable of being anaerobic depending on how you perform them. Generally speaking though, jogging, swimming, or cycling for extended periods of time will fall into the aerobic category. So the question remains, what makes them different from anaerobic exercise and why would you want to perform anaerobic exercise anyways?
Anaerobic Exercise: The Basics
As we mentioned above, you can continuously perform aerobic exercise over a period of time, generally at least a few minutes, without becoming fatigued or running out of breath. Anaerobic exercise differs in that only after a very short time (generally 2 minutes max), you will be unable to continue at the same level of performance you started at. Sprinting, heavy weight training, or “going all out” as one might say incurs an anaerobic response from the body. What happens then?
If aerobic exercise requires oxygen from your body, anaerobic is the opposite: there is no oxygen present. After a short sprint, running up stairs, or lifting very heavy weight, you will likely be out of breath, and hence the anaerobic process will begin. When your body requires more oxygen than is available, it depends on energy which is already stored in your muscles. This leads to muscle fatigue and the formation of lactic acid, which is why you can only perform these exercises at a high intensity for short periods of time before requiring a break, allowing them to recover. If it sounds tough, you’re right: it is. So one might ask, what benefits are there to anaerobic exercise instead of just coasting along with the regular jog or weight training session?
The Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise
The major benefits to anaerobic exercise are the build up of your strength, speed, power, and muscle mass. It also boosts your metabolism, which will help with ongoing fat loss and an overall reduction in body fat. A higher metabolism means that you will need less work to burn off the fat as your body will naturally burn more calories. Unlike aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise actually boosts your resting metabolic rate so that you continue to burn calories at a higher rate for a period of time after your workout, up to a few hours.
A lot of people looking to tone up stubborn areas will find anaerobic exercise is the perfect solution. Building up muscle through anaerobic exercise is just as important as burning fat with aerobic exercise in order to stay lean and fit. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the best ways to exercise anaerobically in order to reap these benefits.
High Intensity Interval Training
High intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, is a form of training where you alternate between bouts of intense exercise and then short periods of cooldown. As we learned above, anaerobic exercise eventually depletes the muscles of oxygen, making them go to fatigue. A short rest allows them to recuperate, allowing you to once again push them at an intense level.
For example, picture a football field: aerobic exercise would have you jog the entire 100 yards a few times. Anaerobic exercise utilizes HIIT, which means you would alternate between intense exercise and periods of rest. For example, you might sprint 30 yards, lightly jog for 20 yards, sprint for 30 yards, and lightly jog the remaining 20 yards.
This sort of training is also called “fartlek” – Swedish for speed play. How effective you train your anaerobic system is a direct result of how intense you make your HIIT sessions.
Intensity is the keyword here. If you aren’t pushing yourself enough, you might not even be hitting your anaerobic system at all. Everytime you push yourself to the max for 30 seconds to a minute, you earn a rest period where you allow yourself and your muscles to recover. Rest is as integral to working your anaerobic system as is intensity. If you aren’t resting, you aren’t giving your muscles a chance to recover, which means that you can’t push yourself again.
Due to the nature of HIIT, most sessions usually last around 20 minutes, but can go a bit longer depending on a number of factors, such as your own fitness level, amount of rest, intensity, and personal goals. Typically you want to rest as long as your bout of intensity, which may be anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. People that are newer to HIIT can rest twice as long in order to recover – for example, 2 minutes of rest for every 1 minute of intense exercise. Active rest is key, such as walking.
There’s a lot of body weight exercises and movements which can be combined in an HIIT manner to be anaerobically beneficial. Sprints are the most common way. However, consider jumping jacks, burpees, stair climbing, ellipticals, rowing, and even a mix of body weight exercises. For example, you could do intense 1 minute sessions of push ups, sit ups, lunges, and jumping jacks, followed by 1 minute of walking.
Anaerobic exercise is great because you will inevitably train both your anaerobic and aerobic systems. It’s even more important to get your rest between anaerobic sessions to give your body adequate time for recovery – usually a minimum of 24 hours is recommended. Two to three sessions per week should be a good goal for most people, as a supplement to regular aerobic training.