What is anaerobic exercise? | Exercise.com Learn: Your Fitness Business Resource

What is anaerobic exercise?

Tyler Spraul is the director of UX and the head trainer for Exercise.com. He has his Bachelor of Science degree in pre-medicine and is an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist. He is a former All-American soccer player and still coaches soccer today. In his free time, he enjoys reading, learning, and living the dad life. He has been featured in Shape, Healthline, HuffPost, Women's...

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UPDATED: Aug 25, 2020

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  • Anaerobic exercise is an intense exercise that requires the body to use other sources of energy besides oxygen to fuel the muscles.
  • Anaerobic exercise is not for everyone.
  • Anaerobic exercise is used by athletes who compete in very short duration, yet high-intensity sports, such as sprints or weightlifting.

You’ve heard the term at the gym and you are wondering, what is anaerobic exercise?

Is it something I should be considering? Is it healthy? How does it differ from aerobic exercise?

Anaerobic literally means “without air,” so anaerobic exercise is an intense exercise that requires the body to use other sources of energy besides oxygen to fuel the muscles.

Certain circumstances require the body to produce energy faster than oxygen delivery can take place. In these cases, other energy sources must be used.

Anaerobic exercise is used by athletes who compete in very short duration, yet high-intensity sports, such as sprints or weightlifting.

It promotes strength, speed, power, and muscle mass.

Anaerobic exercise leads to increased performance for a very short duration and is appropriate for very intense activities that only last between fractions of a second to two minutes, after which oxygen tends to take over as the primary source of fuel.

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What Is Anaerobic Exercise and How Does It Compare to Aerobic Exercise?

Types of exercise fall along a continuum of intensity from very low intensity to exercises that require the maximum effort a person is able to exert. This continuum looks like the following:

  • Maximum effort exercises
  • Anaerobic exercise
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Weight control/General fitness exercises
  • Moderate activity fitness maintenance or a warm-up

With aerobic exercise, the body uses oxygen to fuel the muscles. With anaerobic exercise, the body briefly must use substances other than oxygen in the body to cause a very short energy burst. In this case, glucose is the primary energy source that is broken down into a substance called pyruvate leading to increased energy for a short time period. Contrary to this, aerobic exercise consists of lower intensity activities that last for a longer period of time such as distance running, swimming, or bike riding.

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What Is Anaerobic Exercise and Who Should Engage in It?

Anaerobic exercise is not for everyone. If you engage in activities or sports which require pacing and endurance then anaerobic exercise is not for you. However, if you require training for a sport which requires you to have a short burst of intense energy for a very limited time period, training using anaerobic exercise will be beneficial.

Sports such as these include the 50 or 100-meter dash or clean-and-jerk weightlifting. It also may be appropriate for sports such as football, soccer, hockey, and basketball, which, while generally requiring endurance and aerobic fitness conditioning, also require short bursts of intense energy at times, making anaerobic conditioning appropriate.

Types of anaerobic exercises include sprinting short distances, doing sit-ups, push-ups, or chin-ups in very quick succession for a short period of time, or engaging in intense weight lifting. Often athletes will target a certain problem area of the body using very intense weight training for that portion of the body only.

What Is Anaerobic Exercise and Can It Be Unsafe?

Anaerobic exercise should not be attempted by just anyone. A very specific subset of people engages in anaerobic exercise to improve performance. Anaerobic training is highly demanding both physically and psychologically. You must build up to this level of training or serious injury could result.

When engaging in anaerobic exercise, athletes and fitness buffs also must be concerned with something termed the Anaerobic Threshold. This is the intensity at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the bloodstream. This is also frequently called the Lactate Threshold.

With anaerobic activity glucose metabolizes into pyruvate but, with sustained lack of oxygen in the body, pyruvate turns into lactic acid to produce more energy. This can build up in the bloodstream. This leads to muscle weakness and fatigue which is counterproductive to the workout. It is actually the body’s natural defense system taking over to prevent you from overexerting your muscles.

Your Anaerobic Threshold can be improved with practice and conditioning. Often an athlete’s Anaerobic Threshold is the measure of their personal level of fitness.

It is usually best to combine both anaerobic and aerobic exercises within a workout program in order to get the greatest outcome and prevent injury. The best way to combine aerobic and anaerobic exercises is through interval training. Here you engage in aerobic activity for a sustained period of time, followed by an anaerobic, intense, exercise for a minute or two.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How many days a week should I work out?

A minimum of three days a week is recommended.

Can I do anaerobic exercise every day?

It is best to only engage in anaerobic exercise two to three times a week. 

What are some examples of anaerobic exercise?

Sprints, HIIT, plyometrics, and powerlifting are all examples of anaerobic exercise.

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