Knowledge is power and also the key to a more powerful body. Understanding the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training can help you make more informed decisions on the best kinds of training for your body and goals. You might even choose a combination of both training styles. Let’s see, shall we?
The word aerobic tends to invoke images of spandex-clad women star-jumping to 80s music – which is perhaps why the term’s true meaning has become muddled.
Aerobic actually means with air, and refers to a state where your body produces energy WITH the use of oxygen. It’s generally used to refer to any exercise that lasts longer than a couple of minutes in duration. The exercise doesn’t need to be vigorous – in fact, most vigorous exercises are actually anaerobic, which we’ll look at next.
As the opposite of aerobic, anaerobic training means ‘without air’. This doesn’t mean you lose or hold your breath during the exercise! Put simply, it just means that the cellular tissues in your body produce energy without a supply of oxygen to them.
You may well be breathing more heavily, though – anaerobic training refers to exercises that require higher levels of effort and intensity (looking at you, HIIT and Tabata). Basically, any exercise where you use between 80-90% of your maximum heart rate and feel your muscles burn is anaerobic. That ‘burn’ is the feeling of lactic acid building up to provide you with more energy, maintaining your hard efforts during a workout.
Typically, most aerobic exercises are what we know as ‘cardio’. They include jogging, swimming, cycling, and classes such as Zumba or kickboxing. On the more intense side is anaerobic training: think high-intensity interval training, heavy weightlifting, sprinting, and calisthenics like plyometrics or explosive jump squats.
Each style of training comes with its own benefits. Think about your fitness goals: are you looking to build endurance, running or swimming longer distances with progressive respiratory function? Maybe you wish to lower your risk of heart disease by normalising your blood pressure? Aerobic training is best for you – it’ll allow you to train harder as your lungs become stronger. Or, perhaps you’ve already achieved a solid level of aerobic fitness and are ready to take your functional training up a level? Blast more fat, boost your metabolism, get faster and stronger, with more muscle mass and joint strength? Anaerobic exercise is your friend.
Absolutely. Depending on the level of effort you put into an exercise, many physical activities include a mix of both anaerobic and aerobic training. Consider hybrid cardio or tennis. A casual game might include a slow build-up of serving and volleying, which is mostly aerobic. However, there may be very fast, short bouts of volleying, using explosive power to dash around the court. This is anaerobic activity – intense effort in one quick blast.
Likewise, head to a spinning class and you’ll generally experience aerobic activity. But dial up the resistance level for a minute or two and you’ll feel the burn in your thighs similar to weight training – hello, anaerobic training!
Now that you know the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training, you (hopefully) have a better idea of the types of activity you need to progress with your fitness goals. Time to hit the gym!