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Anaerobic Vs Aerobic Exercise: Differences, Benefits & Examples

There's a lot that separates anaerobic and aerobic exercise. We take in in-depth look at their differences, individual health benefits and examples of each.

An athletic woman practising an anaerobic sprint session at the start line of a track.

The Difference Between Anaerobic And Aerobic Exercise

Anaerobic and aerobic exercises use different energy systems. Whilst aerobic exercises (such as jogging or steady cycling) primarily rely on oxygen to generate energy, anaerobic exercises (such as sprinting) force the body to use existing stores of glucose or high-energy phosphates.

There are actually two kinds of anaerobic respiration, the alactic system (lasting up to around 10 seconds) and the lactic anaerobic system, which will last a little longer (up to 30 seconds).

Put simply, anaerobic exercise is so intense that the body can't get enough oxygen to the muscle via the blood, so it has to use stored energy reserves to power the muscle instead.

Anaerobic respiration to power exercise lasts between 10 and 30 seconds, but the intensity is very high. Aerobic exercise is performed at an intensity where you last much longer.

Aerobic Vs Anaerobic Exercise Examples

Long Distance Running (Aerobic)

Steady Swim (Aerobic)

Cycling (Aerobic)

Cross-Country Skiing (Aerobic)

Weight Lifting (Anaerobic)

100m Sprint (Anaerobic)

Calisthenics (Anaerobic)

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Sports

Certain sports and activities inherently lean more towards aerobic or anaerobic energy systems. A marathon runner will be highly adapted aerobically due to the long, steady duration of his training. A sprinter, on the other hand, will be much more anaerobically fit.

Certain activities, such as boxing, cut right down the middle, challenging both aerobically and anaerobically. Boxers must go the distance (aerobic) but also be ready to deliver short bursts of intense power when their aerobic system has nothing left to give (anaerobic). This is reflected in their training programmes.

Whilst certain activities may invite more aerobic or anaerobic respiration, it's ultimately intensity and duration that will dictate the nature of your workout. If the intensity is so high that you won't get enough oxygen via the blood, the activity becomes anaerobic. This applies to resistance training, flexibility, mobility, balance and all other kinds of physical activity.

Anaerobic Exercises For Beginners

Anaerobic exercise is inherently intense. Since it's only in use when aerobic respiration won't suffice, it has to be. For a lot of beginners, starting with sprint training or a HIIT class will be a recipe for nausea and not coming back. It's very easy to become overwhelmed, and there's no 'easy' beginner anaerobic exercise. If you're a beginner with anaerobic exercise, try these exercises to start on the right foot:

Step 1: Full Body Resistance Training

The first anaerobic exercise a beginner should try is full-body resistance training. Unlike sprints, they'll push your body to respire anaerobically without putting a massive strain on your heart. Aim to be in the prime 'muscle-building' zone, meaning 3-4 sets of 6-12 repetitions. You should have no more than one or two repetitions left in the tank at the end of each set and take around 2 minutes of rest before going again.

If you haven't trained in a long time, take it easy in session one. The delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from resistance training can be tough to handle. You also don't want to do excess damage to your muscle fibres.

Step 2: Incorporate Short Sprints Of Maximal Cardio

One of the best anaerobic training methods is to use resistance training to build your anaerobic base and some explosive strength. Then, you can start to incorporate very short bursts of intense cardio into your resistance training workouts. For example:

  1. A set of lunges followed immediately by a maximum effort 5-calorie burst on an air bike.

  2. A set of bench presses followed by a 10-calorie best-effort sprint on the rower.

  3. A set of deadlifts, sit-ups and a 100m sprint on the curve treadmill.

You can build steadily from there, which reduces the chance of nausea and becoming mentally overwhelmed. At that point, you'll probably fare much better in a HIIT class than you would have before.

If you're not a fan of the gym, you can add short bursts of intensity to any current aerobic workouts. If you're already jogging, for example, you can incorporate anaerobic training by:

  1. Adding a 15-second burst of all-out speed in the middle of your run. That's all it takes to activate the anaerobic system. As you build confidence, you can add it to the beginning and end of your run too.

  2. Incorporating a 20-second best effort interval of 'high-knees', before resuming your jog.

A final tip: just get started! Once your heart starts pumping and adrenaline gets to work, you'll find the idea of just one more sprint actually sounds fun. Respect your body and recover at your own pace.

Health Benefits Of Anaerobic Exercise

Short Term

The immediate benefit of anaerobic training is the massive endorphin rush. Regardless of how often you train, that will always follow your workout. You'll also benefit from EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) which leads to a short-term boost in metabolism after your workout.

Medium Term

For most people, sprinting twice per week with intervals totalling 20-30 minutes will be more than enough to see mental and physical results, including:

  1. An increase in VO2 Max (the volume of oxygen your blood can carry)

  2. Improved Cardiovascular Endurance

  3. Faster Recovery Period

  4. Fat Loss

  5. Muscle Development (particularly when coupled with Resistance Training)

  6. Increased Metabolism

How Often Should I Sprint?

As mentioned earlier, sprinting twice per week for 20-30 minutes (including rest time) is enough to bring a number of benefits.

48 hours of rest in between anaerobic sessions will give your muscle fibres time to recover and repair so that you can improve in your next session. Initially, you may even need 72 hours.

Sprinting two or three times per week also supports the increase in muscle mass that goes hand-in-hand with anaerobic training. More muscle mass means a higher base metabolism, appearing leaner and feeling stronger.

If you're not feeling confident about a 20-minute session, incorporating a few 10-second bursts of intensity into a gentle aerobic workout (such as jogging) can be a great way to boost endorphins and build your abilities.

If the intensity is there, it doesn't take long.

Who Should Check With Their Doctor Before Attempting Anaerobic Exercise?

Before reaping the benefits of anaerobic exercise, those with medical conditions or risk factors should consult their doctor. These include but may not be limited to:

  • Heart disease.

  • Diabetes.

  • Joint issues.

  • Irregular blood pressure & high cholesterol.

  • Irregular bone density or formation.

  • Those prone to fainting.

When Should You Get Advice From A Pro?

If you've hit a plateau in either your aerobic or anaerobic training, you might benefit from professional input. Sprints can be particularly mentally challenging, and having a personal trainer to help motivate and offer approachable routes to PBs can be a major asset. Beginners can also benefit from a directed programme to maximise their effort-to-reward ratio. If you're looking to up your cardio game, you can get in touch for a pressure-free chat and I'll do my best to help!


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