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Brenton Barker

Anaerobic Exercise: Everything You Need To Know

Crunched for time but still want a fat-burning workout? Try anaerobic exercise. With bursts of energy and short rest, this activity burns fat, boosts your mood, and builds muscle.

skipping jumping rope

In recent years, anaerobic exercise has become an increasingly popular training method, particularly for those crunched for time. But it’s not just those short on time who can benefit from anaerobic exercise.

Whether you’re looking to burn fat, build muscle or supplement your current training program, anaerobic exercise is for you. Commonly known as high-intensity interval training or HIIT, the workouts involve short, intense periods of work followed by short periods of rest.

In this article, we’ll look at the benefits of anaerobic exercise and provide some valuable tips on the types of activity suited to HIIT.

What is anaerobic exercise?

Anaerobic activity is an exercise that is performed without oxygen. Compared to aerobic exercise, which uses oxygen as its primary energy source, anaerobic exercise involves intense bursts of energy that contract the muscles before oxygen is supplied.

Because an alternate energy source is required, your body utilises glycogen stored in your muscles. In the absence of oxygen, muscle cells break down the glycogen into glucose (sugar). The glucose is further broken down in a process called lactic acid fermentation to provide energy to the muscles.

The first of the two steps is glycolysis, where the glucose molecules are transformed into pyruvic acid to help unleash energy. Finally, the pyruvic acid is converted into lactic acid resulting in that burning feeling we’ve all experienced while working out.

Because of that burning sensation in our muscles, anaerobic exercise can only be done for short periods. E.g., 15 seconds of high-intensity work followed by 30 seconds of rest.

Five health benefits of anaerobic exercise

Anaerobic exercises are well worth the effort. They offer several physical and mental health benefits that can make you fitter and stronger and improve your daily life.

1Burns fat

The intensity at which you work out determines which energy source your body utilises; glucose, stored glycogen, or fat. For instance, when you work at lower intensities, your body burns fat, and when you train at higher intensities, your body taps into your glycogen stores.

The biggest fat-burning advantage of anaerobic exercise doesn’t come while performing it but rather once you’ve finished. One study showed that although HIIT uses less energy than steady-state training, HIIT continues to burn fat long after finishing.

Another study showed that women who performed HIIT for 15 weeks reduced their belly fat by a whopping 48% compared to those who performed steady-state training.

2Builds muscle

Anaerobic exercises use the energy stored in our muscles, which can help support and maintain muscle strength and size. Additionally, we lose our muscle mass as we age, so performing light variations of HIIT workouts could prove valuable.

A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that a group of young athletes who performed 250-meter sprints at 80% intensity significantly improved their strength and muscle mass.

3Overall health and longevity

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that people who lifted weights or engaged in some form of resistance training twice weekly had a 20% lower all-cause mortality rate compared to the general population.

Interestingly, the study also revealed that individuals who performed both aerobic and anaerobic exercise displayed a 41% lower all-cause mortality rate.

4Increases your metabolism

Get the best of both worlds by combining short periods of anaerobic work with your aerobic exercise. Doing so increases your metabolism and helps to shred that unwanted belly fat. One study showed those who combined 5 minutes of HIIT with 25 minutes of aerobic activity significantly increased their metabolism without changes to their glucose levels.

5Boosts your mood

We all know that going for a walk outside or riding our bike is a great way to boost our mood, but did you know that anaerobic exercises can also increase your mood and happiness?

One study published in the National Library of Medicine showed that anaerobic exercise was just as effective at boosting mood and relieving stress as traditional aerobic exercise. Participants in the study reported feeling less angry, less depressed, happier and were in much better spirits more often.

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If you’re new to fitness, starting slowly before gradually increasing your intensity, frequency, and duration is a must. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is not for the faint-hearted: not only do you need a strong heart, but you have to be willing to push past your comfort zone. Rest and recovery are critical aspects of HIIT, and we highly recommend that beginners allow their bodies 1-3 days to recover before their next HIIT workout.

Types of anaerobic exercise

While there are many different types of anaerobic exercises and training methods that you can perform, let’s take a quick look at the two most popular; resistance training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Resistance training

Resistance training is any type of training that requires pushing or pulling against a force. The most common type of resistance training is weightlifting. In weight training, you push against the force of gravity by loading up barbells or dumbbells with added weight. You can also perform bodyweight exercises using your body weight as resistance.

The great thing about weight lifting is that you don’t need to lift massive amounts like bodybuilders to get the maximum anaerobic effect. Research shows that lifting weights is anaerobic because it requires short bursts of energy to push or pull the weight. That’s what makes it anaerobic, not the amount of weight you lift.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training is a popular exercise method that requires you to perform short bursts of high-intensity work followed by a period of rest, usually twice as long as the work phase. You may know this training method as HIIT.

Generally, the work phase can last anywhere from 10 seconds to 45 seconds, with the duration and intensity largely dependent on the participant’s fitness level. The recovery phase is typically double the work phase. For example, you work at high intensity for 15 seconds and then rest for 30 seconds.

If you’re crunched for time, HIIT is a great way to ensure you get the most out of your workout in the least amount of time.

Other anaerobic exercise methods include:

  • Tabata training

  • Plyometric training

  • Fartlek Training

Anaerobic exercises you can perform:

  • Skipping rope

  • Burpees

  • Push-ups

  • Indoor cycling

  • Indoor rowing

  • Squat jumps

  • Star jumps

For example, next time you’re at the gym on the indoor spin bike, hop off every 3 minutes and perform 30 seconds of squats jumps. Then hop back on the bike, spin for another 3 minutes, repeating the process 5 times. That’ll be sure to really get your heart pumping.

Sum it up

Anaerobic exercise has health benefits that go above and beyond just building muscle and burning fat. You only need as little as 15 minutes for a total body workout that shreds fat, improves cardiovascular health, and boosts your immune system.

For those beginners in anaerobic training, start slowly and gradually increase the intensity, frequency, and duration of each workout. Remember, the last thing you want is an injury from pushing too hard,  too early.

Take your time, be patient with your fitness gains, and most of all, enjoy the process.

Want to learn more?

Below is a very informative 7-minute clip from Dr. Eric Berg, a renowned expert in nutrition, health, and fitness. Dr. Berg discusses the pros and cons of anaerobic and aerobic exercise and takes a look at the role intensity plays in muscle gain, fat loss, and heart health.


Healthypedia FAQ

Anaerobic exercise is effective for fat loss and can be performed in less time. Many fitness buffs prefer it to aerobic exercise, which typically takes longer to perform. Anaerobic exercise is also highly adaptable, meaning you can perform any number of activities, such as running, cycling, rowing, and resistance training.

Anaerobic exercise is great, but it does place quite a bit of stress on the body. Because of this, it's best to avoid daily anaerobic training. However, if you keep your anaerobic exercise to 15 minutes, you should be able to perform it 4-5 times a week. Just don't forget to warm up and cool down correctly and set time aside for stretching and foam rolling.

As with anything in life, there are always pros and cons to consider. Performing anaerobic exercise results in a quickening of lactic acid build-up, which fatigues the muscles much more quickly than aerobic training. Another disadvantage is that anaerobic exercise requires a good base fitness level to get the most out of it. Start at your own pace before incrementally increasing the intensity.

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