Learn What Anaerobic Exercise Is and Why It's Beneficial

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An Asian woman lifting a barbell while looking at herself in the mirror

An Asian woman lifting a barbell while looking at herself in the mirror

Makiko Tanigawa / Getty Images


Anaerobic exercise is any exercise that doesn’t use the oxygen in your body as its main source of energy. Therefore, anaerobic exercises require short sudden bursts of energy. For example, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weight lifting, circuit training, Pilates, yoga, and other forms of strength training.

Keep reading to find out how aerobic and anaerobic exercises differ, plus how to add them to your routine.

Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Exercise

The word aerobic means “with oxygen,” and anaerobic means the opposite—”without oxygen.” Anaerobic exercises are generally higher in intensity than aerobic exercises and, therefore, are shorter in duration. 

Some examples of anaerobic exercises include:

  • Sprinting
  • Weightlifting
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Plyometrics

That doesn't mean that anaerobic exercises don't require oxygen, because, of course, you need it no matter what kind of exercise you do. What it means is that anaerobic exercises don’t make use of oxygen in the same way that cardio (or aerobic) activities do. Instead, anaerobic activities break down glucose that's already in your muscles as a form of fuel, instead of using oxygen you inhale during your exercise.

Glucose is the main source of energy in your body, and you get it from carbohydrates that are then broken down into glucose by enzymes in your body. Your liver also produces glucose when it is needed by the body as fuel. Breaking down glucose produces lactic acid, the chemical that gives your muscles that burning sensation while you're working out.

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Aerobic exercise is any physical activity that maximally delivers oxygen to your muscles and uses oxygen to create energy for your body. Generally, aerobic exercises use large muscle groups and can be done for a long duration, like swimming and dancing. Many of the activities are focused on endurance because the goal is to maximize your body’s oxygen usage by increasing your heart rate and breathing. 

Aerobic and anaerobic exercises have similar benefits:

  • Improve blood circulation
  • Strengthen your heart muscle
  • Improve lipid profile—reduce bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol
  • Burn calories and help with weight loss
  • Increase metabolism
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve mood

The biggest difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise is that anaerobic exercise has the capability to build muscle. Doing anaerobic exercises like weight-lifting causes micro-tears in your muscles that, over time, rebuilds to help your body get stronger.

Anaerobic Exercises to Do

Anaerobic exercises are meant to be intense and uses an energy pathway called anaerobic glycolysis. Anaerobic glycolysis is the transformation of glucose to lactate when limited amounts of oxygen are available. 

This leads to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, which is responsible for that “burn” you may feel in your muscles during anaerobic activity. When this buildup happens, you have to let your body recover and replenish the oxygen in these areas, which is why you can’t sustain the exercise for long periods of time.

Weight Lifting

Weight lifting, also known as strength, weight, or resistance training, is a type of strength training for developing the strength, size of skeletal muscles and maintenance of strength. It uses the force of gravity in the form of weighted bars, dumbbells or weight stacks to work against, or resist the weight.

It may not seem like an intense activity if you’re not moving super heavy weights—as you would  in powerlifting or with mass-building exercises. But it’s not the amount of weight that makes an exercise anaerobic. It’s the need for a large burst of energy over a relatively short amount of time that makes the exercise anaerobic. 

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a type of interval training that alternates between very short bursts of intense activity at a near-maximal (“all-out”) effort, and short recovery times.

Typically, the period of intense activity can go from 30 seconds to three minutes but can be as short as eight seconds. The recovery time is usually equal to or longer than the work time at a complete rest or doing a low-intensity movement.

HIIT is a great way to make the most of your limited time. During HIIT, you’re working at your near-maximal capacity, so even if you’re doing only a few exercises, you’re burning the most energy possible.

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Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise

Anaerobic exercise gives you all the benefits of aerobic exercise, with the additional advantage of increasing your muscle power, mass and strength, as well as helping to improve your blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity. Overall, anaerobic exercise can help you improve your blood circulation and cholesterol, strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, help with weight loss, and enhance your mood.

Increases Your Fitness Level

Much like anything you start brand-new, anaerobic exercise can be difficult at first, particularly if you're exerting yourself in a way you haven't done before. However, as you continue doing anaerobic exercises, your body adapts, and the movements get easier. You will be able to move more weight, increase the number of repetitions, or shorten your rest time before you feel the burn-out.

Improves Your Heart Health

You’ve probably heard that doing aerobic exercises like walking and jogging is great for preventing heart disease, improving blood pressure and cholesterol, and strengthening your heart. However, it’s also recommended that adults, including those with chronic conditions, do anaerobic activities at least two days a week to improve cardiovascular health. This is because your body composition changes the most when you do a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercises—both types of exercise promote fat loss, while anaerobic exercise promotes gaining lean muscle mass.

Helps With Glucose Management

Anaerobic exercise is also good for blood sugar control. Resistance training and increasing muscle mass helps with blood glucose control by increasing your body’s sensitivity to insulin and glucose tolerance. 

Insulin receptors are found on the surface of the liver, fat, and skeletal muscle cells. More lean muscle means more muscle fibers to respond to insulin and use the glucose in your blood more efficiently.

A Quick Review

Anaerobic exercise uses glucose as energy, instead of oxygen. Anaerobic exercises involve short bursts of high intensity and short periods of low intensity, so your workout can be done in a shorter amount of time than doing aerobic exercise.

Aerobic and anaerobic exercises share many benefits, but only anaerobic exercises can increase lean muscle mass and strength and improve power. Any physical activity will improve your health, but anaerobic exercises can also improve fitness, cardiovascular health, and blood sugar control.