Walking Guide

Reference Guide to Anaerobic Exercise

SparkPeople’s Exercise Reference Guides offer an in-depth look at the principles of fitness.

We often hear a lot about aerobic or “cardio” exercise and how it improves fitness, reduces one’s risk of lifestyle diseases, and helps with weight management. What we hear much less about is another type of cardiovascular exercise known as anaerobic exercise.

What is Anaerobic Exercise?
While “aerobic” means “with oxygen,” anaerobic means “without air" or "without oxygen." Anaerobic exercise is short-lasting, high-intensity activity, where your body’s demand for oxygen exceeds the oxygen supply available. Anaerobic exercise relies on energy sources that are stored in the muscles and, unlike aerobic exercise, is not dependent on oxygen from (breathing) the air. Examples of anaerobic exercise include: heavy weight-lifting, all types of sprints (running, biking, etc.), jumping rope, hill climbing, interval training, isometrics, or any rapid burst of hard exercise.

What are the Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise?
Anaerobic exercise uses your muscles at a high intensity for a short period of time. As a result, it can help:
  • Develop stronger muscles
  • Improve your VO2 max (the highest amount of oxygen one can consume during exercise) and thus improve your cardio-respiratory fitness
  • Increase your capacity to withstand the buildup of waste substances (such as lactic acid) and remove them from the body. This means your endurance and ability to fight fatigue will improve.
Overall, anaerobic exercise burns fewer calories than does aerobic exercise and may be somewhat less beneficial for cardiovascular fitness. However, it is better at building strength and muscle mass and still benefits the heart and lungs. In the long run, increased muscle mass helps a person become leaner and manage his weight, because muscle uses large amounts of calories.

How Does Anaerobic Exercise Work?
When you begin to work out vigorously, there is a temporary shortage of oxygen being delivered to the working muscles. Lactic acid is a by-product of producing energy anaerobically. When lactic acid accumulates at high levels in the blood, it causes muscular fatigue. This is why anaerobic exercises cannot last very long.

But with training, the body becomes better equipped to handle lactic acid. Several efficient changes occur that result in decreased production of lactic acid and increased removal of it from the bloodstream. The body also produces “buffers” that delay the onset of fatigue during anaerobic exercise. Studies have shown that with anaerobic training, the muscle’s buffering capacity is increased by 12% to 50%. With this increased buffering capacity, more lactic acid can accumulate during high intensity exercise without causing fatigue.

How to Add Anaerobic Training to Your Program
Anaerobic interval training is primarily reserved for those who are very fit and desire to increase speed, lactate threshold, and overall aerobic power. Such training usually results in greater lactic acid concentrations in exercising muscles and is accompanied by greater muscular discomfort. This can be a very intense type of training and should not be attempted by a beginning exerciser. Before you train anaerobically, always do a considerable aerobic warm up first, and stretch before and after vigorous activity.

Interval training is a great way to incorporate anaerobic exercise. It can be done with many types of exercise (for example, running, biking, or swimming). An interval is done by increasing your pace for a short period of time (for example, between 10 to 60 seconds) then having a slow recovery period that is at least 3 times as long as the interval. Learn more about basic interval training and a more advanced form known as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
  • If you are new to exercise, do not immediately start with high intensity activity like anaerobic exercise. Beginners should start with lower-intensity aerobic exercise for several weeks to build a base level of fitness.
  • Always check with your doctor before adding anaerobic exercise to your fitness program.
  • Anaerobic exercise is not recommended if you are pregnant.
  • Always warm up before starting any anaerobic exercise, and cool down for 5-10 minutes after your workout session.
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Member Comments

Thanks Report
Great reminder of rge importance of noncardio or intense cardio workouts Report
good info Report
I just bought three DVDs. Now to get with it. Report
Reading this article,made me realize I too rushed to do Anaerobic, didn't quite prepare or gradually move to it. Looks like I've to review back my training program. Report
This New York Times Article from 2006 offers a different take on what Lactic Acid is..http://www.ny
6run.html?_r=1 Report
I've been doing this kind of exercise for a long time and didn't know it had a special name. Thanks for the good info. Report
Great article. Interesting that you talk about lactic acid building up in the muscles. My high school daughter was in advanced biology and she said "Do you know a "body" gets STIFF, because of the lactic acid that is in it at death?" She went on to talk about the Krebs Cycle and how her teacher told them about lactic acid. No wonder it makes us "sore" when we exercise. Report
Walking Guide

About The Author

Jen Mueller
Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist, behavior change specialist and functional training specialist. She is also a RRCA-certified running coach. See all of Jen's articles.