What You Need to Know About Anaerobic Exercise

Woman jumping onto box
Getty Images/Pete Saloutos

If you've ever gotten completely breathless or made it to about 90% to 100% of your maximum heart rate, you know what anaerobic exercise feels like.  It feels like there isn't enough oxygen to go around.  That's appropriate since the word 'anaerobic' literally means without oxygen.

Anaerobic exercise means you're working at such a high level of intensity, that your cardiovascular system can't deliver oxygen to the muscles fast enough.

Because muscles need oxygen to continue exercising, anaerobic exercises can only last for short periods of time, for which you are thankful if you're trying it.  And because it's a tough way to train, anaerobic workouts are shorter, giving you a great way to get in a timesaver workout.

Types of Anaerobic Activities

Anaerobic activities can involve any number of movements - Cardio exercises, like sprinting, or dynamic strength training like kettlebells or powerlifting.  Some good examples of activities that can take you breathless include:

Why Go Anaerobic?

While this used to be something that only athletes did to increase performance, regular exercisers can also benefit from this type of training. When you train at high levels of intensity, you increase your anaerobic threshold, which means you can work harder for longer periods of time, all while burning more calories.

The benefits include:

  • Raise your anaerobic threshold, which means you can work harder for longer periods of time
  • Burn more calories - The harder you work the more calories you burn in less time
  • Build endurance - Do some anaerobic training and you'll notice your other workouts, say elliptical training or jogging, get easier
  • Improve your VO2 Max - That just means your body can consume more oxygen, which allows you to exercise longer
  • Build stronger muscles
  • Give you an efficient way to work hard in a short time - If you only have 20 minutes, you can get a great workout - Just alternate one minute of high intensity with 30-60 seconds of a recovery interval and repeat until time's up.

But, It Isn't For Everyone

By it's very definition (i.e., 'without oxygen') you can see that this is a very challenging way of exercising, so you wouldn't want to start with this type of training if you're a beginner.  Going too hard and fast could put you at risk for injury and, certainly misery, so work you way up to this and start with more aerobic interval training, as in this Beginner Interval Workout.

Another important point is that this type of training is very strenuous on the body and you'll need full recovery after each workout, so you should only do this workout about 2-3 times a week with rest days in between.

Add Anaerobic Training to Your Workouts

You don't have to sprint or powerlift to go breathless.

  One option is to add bursts of very high intensity cardio to a regular old steady state workout.  For example, say you're on a treadmill - Hop off every 5 minutes and do 30-60 seconds of the following exercises, repeating throughout the workout.

Anaerobic Exercises

Anaerobic Workouts

If you want more ideas for anaerobic or high intensity training, try one (or all!) of these workouts.

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