Fitness goals can vary considerably. Some of us simply want to get fit and trim and stay healthy. Others are working toward building serious muscle. Still, others need to build stamina for endurance sports.
Our overall goals will determine whether we need to focus on anaerobic vs aerobic workouts. The main differences between anaerobic vs aerobic exercise have to do with the ways that we use oxygen during workouts.
Aerobic exercise mainly consists of cardiovascular conditioning. The so-called “cardio” workouts elevate heart rate and breathing for sustained periods. Anaerobic exercise relies mainly on short bursts of exercise that are done with maximum effort.
The choice between anaerobic vs aerobic will depend on your overall goals. How we make use of elevated heart rate and respiration differ between aerobic vs anaerobic exercises and this alters the way your muscles and cardiovascular system are conditioned.
This guide will provide the information you need to choose between anaerobic vs aerobic exercise. What is anaerobic exercise, and what is aerobic exercise? What are the benefits of anaerobic vs aerobic exercise? How do we get the most out of our workouts to meet our fitness goals?
What is anaerobic exercise?
Anaerobic exercise involves conditioning that breaks down glucose in the body without using oxygen. This is the root of the word anaerobic: without oxygen. These are shorter workouts that utilize maximum exertion and strength for a burst at a time.
The biochemistry of anaerobic exercise means that the body relies on a process called glycolysis in which glucose is converted directly into a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the main source of energy for the body.
The waste product from anaerobic exercise is lactic acid. This tends to build up in the muscles and is the source of fatigue associated with anaerobic exercise. The “burn” we get from anaerobic exercise is the sure sign that it is working correctly. Anaerobic exercise is primarily for building endurance, muscle strength and muscle mass, and power.
What is aerobic exercise?
Aerobic exercise relies on activity that is generally low to moderate intensity. This type of exercise utilizes the free flow of oxygen to sustain the exertions. Thus, aerobic means to utilize oxygen, it tends to involve longer sustained workouts that develop endurance and stamina. It also relies primarily on the cardiovascular system rather than the direct conversion of energy. In this way, the process of converting energy becomes part of the focus of the workout.
Types of anaerobic exercises
Because anaerobic exercise is meant to cause the body to break down glucose quickly for energy, it generally consists of short bursts of exertion with maximum intensity. By exerting muscle groups at their fullest for a short time, the body must convert glucose directly into energy without using oxygen.
The idea is that these short burst condition muscles and the cardiovascular system to build muscle that is equipped for bursts of power. This results in muscle protein synthesis that provides lean strong muscles.
Some examples of anaerobic exercise include workouts that involve short bursts of energy such as:
Weightlifting is probably the most common form of anaerobic exercise. But anyone who has done cycling sports knows that this produces a serious burn because of the sustained exertion that comes with cycling. HIIT is a form of exercise that uses short repetitions of common workouts with short rest periods in between.
All of these workouts will cause your body to convert glucose to ATP without oxygen. The result is strength and serious muscle.
Types of aerobic exercises
Aerobic exercise is often referred to as cardio since it relies primarily on elevating the cardiovascular system. These types of exercises require a steady flow of oxygenated blood to deliver energy to the muscles. Aerobic exercises should elevate your breathing and heart rate.
Examples of aerobic exercise include:
- Cross country skiing
Notice that each of these exercises take time. These are not short bursts of energy exertions, but, rather, exercises that involve long forms of endurance.
Anaerobic vs Aerobic
Your fitness goals should determine whether you go anaerobic or aerobic for your workouts. You should also consider how long you have been working out. Your stamina level and overall health will determine which type of exercise you are best equipped to try.
Anaerobic exercise demands that your body produce and release immediate energy. These types of exercise will force your body to convert stored energy sources into usable forms for immediate exertions. This is the process of glycolysis in which stored glucose is turned into energy.
Because anaerobic exercise requires a certain level of endurance to begin, it is best for people who are already in fairly good physical shape. Anaerobic exercise will require a minimum level of stamina and endurance to do it correctly and effectively. Still, anaerobic workouts are great for shedding weight quickly, but you will need to have a long-term plan to keep that weight off.
Anaerobic workouts are especially good for people who need to build serious muscle. The short bursts of exertion require your muscles to maximize energy output and rebuild that capacity with enhanced glycogen stores and muscle protein synthesis.
For muscle, weight training is one of the best anaerobic workouts. To lose weight quickly, try HIIT since it tends to rely on workouts you are familiar with. If you are new to working out, you may want to focus on aerobic exercise to build up the stamina you need to sustain other kinds of workouts. One of the advantages of aerobic exercise is that you can ease into these types of workouts. You can begin with something as simple and low-intensity as walking. Aerobic workouts are ideal for endurance athletes. What endurance sports require is sustained exertions that require maximum oxygen flow to the heart and muscles.
If losing weight or simply staying fit are your goals, aerobic exercise is ideal for burning calories and toning your entire body. For the best benefits, try incorporating something like HIIT with your aerobic training.
Anaerobic and aerobic exercise benefits
Anaerobic and aerobic each have their advantages, and both provide benefits. Some of these benefits overlap, but others are specific to the types of exercises that make up these categories.
Benefits of Anaerobic exercise:
- Increase bone strength and bone density: Anaerobic exercise increases the strength of your bones. It also increases bone density which can decrease the risk of osteoporosis.
- Maintains weight: Most studies have found that anaerobic exercise is most effective for losing weight and maintaining weight loss. HIIT, for example, is ideal for burning stomach fat.
- Increase strength and power: It is a fact that anaerobic workouts increase power and strength. A study from 2008 demonstrated that baseball players who utilized anaerobic workouts as part of their training increased their power by as much as 15 percent throughout a season.
- Increases metabolism: Anaerobic exercise builds lean muscle. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn during your exercise sessions. This means that your metabolism increases to keep pace with your physical output.
- Increases lactic acid threshold: This is especially important to weight lifters and other athletes who require serious strength. The lactic acid threshold is the level at which your muscles can withstand the buildup of lactic acid. Anaerobic exercise increases this threshold which means you work out longer and harder the more you train.
- Reduces depression: It may seem unlikely, but anaerobic exercise fights depression. Research on the effects of exercise on moods demonstrates that anaerobic exercise boosts your moods.
Benefits of aerobic exercise:
- Improves cardiovascular health: Aerobic exercise pumps oxygen into and through your muscles, lungs, and heart. It is almost by definition good for your cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association and most doctors prescribe aerobic exercise as part of a lifestyle that promotes cardiovascular health.
- Lowers blood pressure: One of the main causes of high blood pressure is poor cardiovascular health. To combat this problem, aerobic exercise increases the capacity of blood vessels and boosts the overall health of the circulatory system. This results in lower and healthier blood pressure.
- Helps regulate blood sugar: It is well-known that regular physical activity helps regulate insulin levels and lowers blood sugar. Regular aerobic exercise is known to improve the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. It can also prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.
- Reduces asthma symptoms: Aerobic exercise helps people who suffer from asthma. Studies show that regular aerobic activity can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks in people who suffer from asthma.
- Reduces chronic pain: Aerobic activity can reduce chronic pain. Low-impact cardiovascular exercises like swimming and aqua aerobics reduce chronic pain. Aerobic exercise also helps you lose weight, and this contributes to the decrease in chronic pain.
- Regulates your weigh: Exercise and a balanced diet are the keys to losing weight and keeping it off. It turns out that aerobic exercise is the best way to maintain a healthy weight. Studies show that aerobic activity helps with weight loss better than any other type of exercise. Aerobic exercise can help you lose weight even without making significant changes to your diet.
- Boosts the immune system: All available research has proven that regular moderate aerobic exercise provides a significant boost to the immune system. Researchers compared people who were largely sedentary with those who engaged in moderate aerobic exercise and found that those who exercise had significantly stronger immune systems than those who led sedentary lifestyles.
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The most basic way to improve your ability to delay this type of fatigue is to train within the lactate threshold (push the limit of your ability to perform at a high intensity). For most of us, that sounds like a daunting task, and probably more than we signed up for but for advanced athletes, finding a supplement to improve performance during high-intensity training is a game-changer.
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Both anaerobic exercise and aerobic exercise are beneficial. Indeed, for all-around fitness, a case can be made that we should be doing some combination of both. While anaerobic workouts tend to build muscle and strength and aerobic workouts tend to build endurance, both forms of exercise balance and enhance each other toward things like weight loss and overall health. Anaerobic exercise will put on the lean muscle.
The short bursts of exertion force muscles to expand and create the conditions for muscle protein synthesis. Anaerobic exercise also burns calories fast and reduces your weight. For athletes who need power and muscle, anaerobic is the right workout.
Aerobic exercise pumps oxygen to the heart and muscles. Your heart and lungs benefit while they get a workout from aerobic exercise. Long-distance runners, cyclists, and swimmers will need aerobic workouts. For people who after general fitness, aerobic exercise takes off the weight and keeps it off while it keeps you fit.
The takeaway from all of this is that it is true that certain types of athletes will benefit more from one type of exercise over another but the choice between anaerobic exercise vs aerobic exercise would point toward a combination of the two. Choose both.