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When most people think about working out, they probably picture an aerobic workout:
A long, slow jog on the treadmill
30 minutes on the bike
A session with light weights and a lot of reps
Group fitness classes at medium-to-low intensity
As a trainer, it’s important for you to teach clients the difference between these important aerobic workouts and equally important anaerobic workouts.
For maximum fitness and health benefits, clients need to engage in both types. We’ll help you out by providing some information you can share with clients, the benefits of anaerobic exercise, and some workout ideas for improving anaerobic endurance.
First, make sure your clients understand what anaerobic means. The easy answer is that aerobic means “with oxygen” and anaerobic means “without oxygen.” But, your clients will need you to break it down a little more:
When you’re engaging in aerobic activity, the body uses oxygen to supply energy. There is no need for energy from anywhere else. As you exercise this way, your heart rate goes up and you begin breathing more heavily to get oxygen to muscles for aerobic energy production.
Lower-intensity, slower-paced endurance activities like running, cycling, and low-intensity strength training are aerobic. These workouts are beneficial in many ways. An important benefit is that aerobic exercise burns fat, so it can help change body composition and with weight loss.
When you push your body to a higher intensity it gets to the point that the aerobic system of using oxygen to generate energy just isn’t adequate. At this point, your muscles switch to the anaerobic system.
Anaerobic exercise uses glucose, not oxygen, to produce energy. Muscles store a small amount of glucose to provide short bursts of energy for intense activities. Glucose is metabolized in a process called glycolysis, which does not require oxygen.
Glycolysis also results in the production of lactic acid. It’s the buildup of this chemical and hydrogen ions in muscles that creates fatigue and the burning sensation we’re all familiar with when working really hard. This is what limits the time you can engage in anaerobic exercise. But, with proper training, you can better tolerate lactic acid and improve anaerobic endurance.
This post on the ISSA blog breaks down how aerobic and anaerobic workouts change the body.
Research has connected anaerobic exercise with many benefits. They include:
Greater speed and agility. A 2021 study looked at 45 college women. Some did anaerobic exercise. Others were in the aerobic exercise group. Those doing anaerobic exercise ended up with greater speed and agility. So, these benefits were attributed to anaerobic exercise. To be fair, aerobic physical activity was superior in other ways. For instance, it was better at building cardiovascular endurance.
Improved cardiorespiratory function. A 2022 study found this to be particularly true for sedentary women. This research involved women whose only physical activity was housework. Their cardiorespiratory health was analyzed before and after anaerobic exercise. The anaerobic exercise provided positive effects.
Healthier lipid profiles. Anaerobic activity helps reduce fatty acids according to a 2017 review. This equates to healthier cholesterol levels. It also had another positive effect: a reduced body mass index.
Better muscle health. A 2020 study found that anaerobic exercise upregulates some myokines and downregulates others. Both help support muscle health maintenance. This highlights the value of prescribing anaerobic exercise for senior clients.
Higher levels of lean muscle mass. This was the finding of a 2019 study involving postmenopausal women. The effects of anaerobic exercise were compared with aerobic activity. Anaerobic activity was better at creating lean muscle. It also had more positive effects on estradiol levels. Estradiol is a form of estrogen that promotes ovulation.
Reduced appetite. A 2020 study looked at 12 obese subjects. Each did anaerobic exercise for 14 weeks. They also reduced their calorie intake. When combined, subjects reported a greater suppression of appetite. This can lead to greater weight loss.
Any high-intensity, shorter workout that involves quick bursts of energy and activity will trigger the anaerobic system and build endurance. Make sure you ease beginning and intermediate clients into these workouts. Anaerobic exercise is intense and challenging. Start slower with clients as needed and also make sure they have a good level of aerobic fitness before beginning these workouts.
Sprinting is not just for 100-meter runners. This is a fun way to work on anaerobic fitness and to change muscle composition. For a truly anaerobic running workout, you need to really sprint, running all out at your fastest pace. That means that a sprint workout will involve short distances.
If you have access to a track, sprints of 50, 100, or 200 meters with walking or jogging recovery in between is a great anaerobic workout. Running some hill sprints outdoors is also a good way to change up this kind of workout. Start with shorter distances and fewer reps for your beginner clients and work up to tougher workouts.
A good sprint session is a type of high intensity interval training (HIIT). If your clients don’t like running or you want to introduce more variety, use any type of cardio activity in a HIIT format for an anaerobic workout.
A good general pattern for these workouts is to complete the exercise at about 90 percent of maximum heart rate for 10 to 15 seconds, followed by 30 to 60 seconds of recovery. Cycling, running, and rowing are all good activities for HIIT workouts.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t do HIIT workouts? Find out by reading this ISSA blog post.
Plyometric training is often used for power development, but it can also be a great anaerobic workout. Plyo moves done at high intensity and that get the heart rate up to 80 or 90 percent of the maximum, can also serve as a HIIT workout.
For beginner clients, you can ease into plyometric workouts with jump roping. This is a great way to start conditioning the body and preparing the joints for the jumps and landings used in plyo, not to mention practicing coordination to avoid injuries. Here are some plyometric moves you can build into a tough anaerobic workout:
Squat jumps. Start with just a few and allow beginner clients to rest a second or two in between jumps. For more advanced clients do more jumps with no hesitation between each one.
Lunge jumps. Only slightly more difficult is jumping between lunges. Progress your clients from jumping squats to jumping lunges.
Box jumps. For intermediate and advanced clients, bring in the box. You can start small and work up to higher boxes, jumping onto it, quickly off, and back up again. Add in one-leg jumps to progress.
Low hurdles. Use low hurdles to do a series of jumps, progressing from pauses to no pauses between jumps. You can also use the low hurdles to do lateral jumps.
All of your clients should be doing strength training regularly, but there are some important factors to consider in making lifting a more anaerobic activity. Essentially, you need your clients to lift heavier, more challenging weights to get into the anaerobic zones. So if you have those who like to do a lot of reps with little weights, push them to do fewer reps with bigger weights.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this for it to be effective. A 30-minute session that hits all of the major muscle groups with challenging weights can be a great anaerobic workout that will improve endurance over time.
Like with any exercise, warming up is critical. This helps prepare the body for anaerobic exercise. After the workout, a proper cool down is also a must. Allow the heart rate to return to normal slowly. Stretch the muscles worked during the cool down. This aids in greater muscle flexibility and range of motion.
When doing anaerobic exercise, the key is to keep the intensity bursts short. Interval training is the perfect setup. High intensity exercise alternates with low intensity recovery periods. Each bout of high intensity only lasts 10 to 15 seconds. Recovery periods are slightly longer.
Remember that anaerobic exercise is higher in intensity. So, adequate recovery between sessions is also important. Limit this type of workout to three days per week. Beginner exercisers can start with one or two sessions weekly. Once they build their strength and endurance, they can add to their training schedule.
Also, vary anaerobic workouts to target different muscle groups. Involve the upper body, lower body, and core. You can do this by working on each area on different days. Or you might do a slightly longer full-body session. Just be sure to add variety. This can help keep the exercise program interesting. It also reduces the risk of losing motivation due to boredom.
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Tamilselvan, G. & Dharmarajan, Nandagopal & Giridharaprasath, R.G.. (2021). Effect of aerobic and anaerobic exercise programme on selected physical fitness components among college women. 8. 157-163.
Tenas, E. V., & Oguleye, D. A. V. (2022). Effects of a five-week anaerobic exercise on anthropometric, Motor Performance and cardiorespiratory indices of women in Isiokpo, Rivers State. Global Academic Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 4(1), 19–28. https://doi.org/10.36348/gajhss.2022.v04i01.004
Patel, H., Alkhawam, H., Madanieh, R., Shah, N., Kosmas, C. E., & Vittorio, T. J. (2017). Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World journal of cardiology, 9(2), 134–138. https://doi.org/10.4330/wjc.v9.i2.134
Kwon, J. H., Moon, K. M., & Min, K.-W. (2020). Exercise-induced myokines can explain the importance of physical activity in the elderly: An overview. Healthcare, 8(4), 378. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare8040378
Razzak, Z. A., Khan, A. A., & Farooqui, S. I. (2019). Effect of aerobic and anaerobic exercise on estrogen level, fat mass, and muscle mass among postmenopausal osteoporotic females. International journal of health sciences, 13(4), 10–16.
Elerian, A. E., Ali Abdeen, H. A., Elmakaky, A., & Mostafa, M. S. (2020). Efficacy of gender, anaerobic exercise and low calorie diet on leptin, ghrelin hormones and hunger perception: A comparative study. Obesity Medicine, 18, 100213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obmed.2020.100213