When it comes to our workouts, we tend to compartmentalize them into strength training or cardio (with a little stretching and recovery thrown in for good measure). But another way to think about them is whether they are aerobic (things like jogging, spinning, etc) or anaerobic (a Tabata workout, for example). The most basic way to describe the difference lies in the oxygen consumption associated with each. “Aerobic exercise is when you exercise with oxygen, and anaerobic exercise is done without oxygen,” says Luke Milton, celebrity trainer and founder of Training Mate.
To understand how each impacts your body and your fitness game, we’ve asked fitness trainers to give us the down-low on aerobic vs anaerobic exercise, plus how much you should be getting of each.
Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise
“Your body has the ability to create energy in order to produce motion and activity without the need for consuming oxygen,” says Fhitting Room trainer Ben Lauder-Dykes of anaerobic exercise. “Aerobic is the opposite, so these are activities and energy systems, which can only be created when oxygen is present.”
As you could imagine, operating without oxygen can’t last for that long of a time (considering the fact that we need oxygen in order to, um, live). “If you want to pick something heavy up really quickly, your body uses the anaerobic system, because it can produce power quickly,” says Lauder-Dykes. “You can lift a few items where you’re not relying on that lag time, waiting for your body to consume oxygen. So, when our bodies are using muscular function to produce force, we have an energy system that allows us to produce more power and do that without relying on the external energy source of oxygen being present.”
To put this into perspective, the shorter the burst of energy, the more likely you are to have anaerobic exercise, while the longer your form of fitness stretches, the more likely you are to switch into aerobic exercise. “Think about going for a run and going as fast as you can,” says Lauder-Dykes. For about 10 to 30 seconds, he says, you’d be able to maintain the highest level of intensity, but then your heart rate would shoot up and that energy would be depleted, and you’d need to re-oxygenate your cells. “This is when you go into aerobic training, where the intensity is lower and you’re not exhausting the muscles,” he says. “It involves running on a continuous loop where you have time to inhale oxygen and transport it throughout your body.”
The benefits of each in fitness
To get a sense of the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, respectively, it helps to think about them this way: Aerobic is more about endurance, and anaerobic is more about power. Here’s how to further differentiate them.
Aerobic exercise: “When you’re doing aerobic exercise, it’s about endurance and creating a workout that you can maintain a certain level of quality throughout,” says Lauder-Dykes. This means that distance running, cycling, walking, and rowing fall under aerobic fitness, since you’re moving at a moderate level for a longer period of time.
“During longer, less intense exercise, there is a greater risk of injuries caused from things like dehydration and fatigued, so be prepared with hydration and proper nutrition in order to provide enough energy to complete your workout,” says Milton. Lauder-Dykes also points to overuse injuries with aerobic training. “This would include injuries like tendonitis, and usually more joint pain than muscle pain,” he says.
Anaerobic exercise: Anaerobic workouts are really challenging, but brief—think sprinting, HIIT, and heavy weight lifting. “Anaerobic exercise improves your power, which encompasses speed, strength, and force,” says Lauder-Dykes, and Milton adds that these workouts are great for building muscle.
Since you’re generating more power in anaerobic exercise, Lauder-Dykes says you can experience issues with your muscle tissue rather than your joints. “There can be a higher risk element in this case because you’re working so much closer to your maximum, which means you’ll get fatigued sooner. This can lead to doing one or two not-so-good reps… and those reps can create a lot of force and impact on the body.” That means proper warm-ups are key. “It’s important to have your body warmed up and prepared to execute the short, sharp, and intense tempo that’s required,” says Milton.
How much of each does your fitness routine need?
For the most well-rounded fitness regimen, trainers recommend incorporating both aerobic and anaerobic exercise into your workouts. “Aerobic exercise recommendations are about 150 minutes per week, or 30 minutes per day for five days a week,” says Rick Richey, DHSc, MS, Everlast Trainer and co-founder of RēCOVER. “Research also shows that the 150 minutes per week can be done in any interval throughout the week, so as long as the culmination is that amount, you’re fine.” Anaerobic is recommended at 75 minutes per week, he says, and it “can be deducted from the time of aerobic activity,” he says.
There are crossover benefits between the two types of exercise, too, which gives all the more reason to do both. “Improving your anaerobic capacity is going to help you produce more power so that you can perform more repetitions when training endurance style,” says Lauder-Dykes. “And as you improve your endurance, this is going to allow you to do more within your workouts.” If you’re just looking to perform well in your workouts, he says to try and get about 65 percent aerobic exercise and 35 percent anaerobic.
Or, you can just look to workouts that work both systems in one class. “A HIIT class is the most effective and efficient way to keep the body healthy and athletic, engaging both aerobic and anaerobic exercises,” says Milton.
To get sweating, try this at-home HIIT workout:
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