Do You Know Your Aerobic from Your Anaerobic Exercise?


Even if you are not a hard-core fitness aficionado, you have probably heard a thing or two about aerobic and anaerobic exercises by now – but do you know what each of these stands for and what benefits they entail? Both an aerobic and anaerobic training promotes weight loss and muscle strength, but their effects figure- and health-wise are quite different. While aerobic exercises will get you lean, strong muscles and enhance your endurance, anaerobic trainings will help you build bulk and expend more energy over shorter periods of time. In the fitness world, knowing when to switch from aerobic to anaerobic routines can improve both your health and muscle building results – and here are the basics of aero vs. anaero workouts.

The ABC of aerobic workouts

In essence, aerobic workouts are light to moderate intensity exercises which promote blood flow, facilitate oxygen exchange in the cells, boost cardiovascular system functions, and increase heart rate. The list of aerobic activities includes running, jogging, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing, cardio, and other low-intensity trainings that can be sustained over extended periods of time. The key difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercises is that during aerobic exercises the body’s need for oxygen is satisfied during the workout itself, which is not the case with anaerobic exercises. Only when they have run their course are oxygen levels normalized.

Aerobic training benefits

Since aerobic exercises are lighter than anaerobic training, they can be sustained for hours on end. For this reason, aerobic workouts are a byword for increased calorie and fat burn, weight loss, improved cardiovascular system health, strong lungs, reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes type 2, and boosted endurance, metabolism, and mood.

Anaerobic workout basics

Unlike aerobic exercises, anaerobic trainings are aimed primarily at building muscles other than your heart. Also known as resistance training, anaerobic routines include high-intensity interval training, sprinting, weight training, calisthenics, circuit training, and other intense exercises which in normal conditions cannot be sustained for long periods of time.

Perks of anaerobic routines

Anaerobic training promotes muscle strength and growth, and it also facilitates weight loss and glycogen breakdown. In addition to that, anaerobic routines increase levels of testosterone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, i.e. hormones essential to muscle building. Unfortunately, anaerobic exercises involve an increased buildup of lactic acid, so engaging in lengthy intervals of these exercises can lead to energy drain after glycogen has been depleted. This may in turn trigger muscle soreness and extreme post-workout fatigue.

A different outlook

For a simple example of the different effects aerobic and anaerobic workouts produce on the physique, take a quick look at the body of a marathon runner and a sprinter. Since longs runs require sustained effort, marathon racers have a wiry, slender shape, whereas sprinters are stockier and have bigger muscles. For this reason, fitness coaches recommend incorporating both aerobic and anaerobic exercises in a training regime – but the length and ratio of aerobic and anaerobic workouts will primarily depend on your individual fitness goals.

Striking a balance

People looking to lose weight and improve overall health should start training focusing on aerobic exercises, and gradually work their way up to anaerobic workouts. By exposing your body to longer periods of light to moderate physical strain, you will burn fat more easily and build endurance gradually without the risk of muscle strain or injury, which will result in a well-toned body, lower body fat levels, and stronger muscles.

In case you are already fit and eager to increase muscle mass fast, anaerobic trainings are a better option than aerobic workouts. During short bursts of high-intensity movements, your muscles will be expending higher quantities of carbohydrates, and granted you follow a proper dietary program, you will begin to notice an increase in muscle bulk within the first couple of weeks. Still, make sure you do not push your limits too far or too soon – resistance training normally spans from 30 to 60 minutes, and it should incorporate short breaks so that your muscles could rest briefly before resuming intense activity.

For optimal fitness results and health effects, try combining 30-45 minutes of aerobic exercise with 30 minutes of anaerobic training. You can distribute your workouts across the week, but try to alternate aerobic and anaerobic workout days to allow your body sufficient time to recover after tough trainings. A balanced workout regime incorporating both aerobic and anaerobic exercises is best suited to healthy muscle mass increase which will not disrupt your hormonal balance or cause chronic fatigue. Of course, if you are new to trainings altogether, you should leave anaerobic exercises for later: in addition to draining your muscles of energy, intense workouts can annihilate your motivation, so it is always better to take baby steps until you learn to sprint.


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Samantha has a B.Sc. in nutrition, and has spent two years working as a personal trainer. Since then, she has embarked on a mission to conquer the blogosphere. You can read more of her posts at