Anaerobic exercise is very hard on your body, but you’ll get a lot of benefits in a short space of time. Sounds tough? It is, but here are seven benefits of anaerobic exercise you should definitely know, and which we’re sure will convince you to feel the burn!
What Is Anaerobic Exercise?
Whether your workout is aerobic or anaerobic depends on how oxygen gets to your muscles - it’s all in the science. In an aerobic exercise, typically a ‘steady state’ or ‘long and slow’ type of workout, you never let your muscles get into oxygen debt. That means your rate of breathing and heart rate stay at a level where you can feed your muscles with what they need to keep working, and any by-products of the work can get cleaned away by your bloodstream. Walking, hiking, some swimming, long distance biking, low weight-high rep strength workouts can all be examples of aerobic exercise. Basically, you are keeping your heart rate low enough that you can keep going for longer. Aerobic workouts are great for building endurance, stamina, and for a steady state type of calorie burn, but they take time to really get the benefits. Anaerobic workouts are very different, and pack a lot more punch into a short space of time.
In an anaerobic workout, you will push your muscles harder than your heart and lungs can feed them. That means your muscles will need to work in a temporary state of ‘oxygen debt’, where they use easy-to-access energy stores (typically fat!) to keep going. However, this intensity means that the muscles create a byproduct called lactic acid, and your bloodstream just can't clean that away fast enough. The result? Muscle fatigue - the dreaded ‘burn’. An ideal exercise program will have a combination of aerobic and anaerobic workouts, with the ratio depending on your fitness levels, your goals, and even things like residual injuries or underlying conditions. However, as long as you doctor says it’s okay, you should consider having a pretty heavy dose of anaerobic workouts in your program.
Anaerobic exercise usually takes the form of ‘high intensity interval training’ or HIIT. This is a well researched, scientifically proven method, where you use short periods of extreme effort, interspersed with rest. You can do a HIIT workout with almost any activity - running, weight training, circuits, swimming - whatever you enjoy. The important thing is to make sure that when you work hard, your work really hard. Don’t tone it down to keep going for longer - the whole point of anaerobic exercise it to push right to you ‘lactate threshold’, where your muscles just can't go anymore, and then you take your rest period.
However, HIIT workouts aren't something you should plan to do every day. Mix your HIIT workouts with some easier, steady state, aerobic workouts, and aim for no more than three anaerobic workouts per week.
Benefit #1: Anaerobic Workouts Burn More Calories In Less Time
If weight loss is your goal, then anaerobic workouts are exactly what you need. Most people starting weight loss programs are also looking for a program that will get quick results and will fit into a busy schedule. Again, anaerobic is where it’s at if that sounds like what you need! So, how does it work? Remember where we talked about what happens when your muscles are working too hard and too fast for your metabolism to feed them with oxygen? That’s when your body looks for energy sources - otherwise known as fat - to keep your body going. When you push yourself to your absolute limit, even if it’s just for a short time, your body has to work extra hard to cope, and even harder to adapt. That response means an intense calorie burn. HIIT workouts also have the added benefit that you let your body recover, then kick start it from that recovery phase back into intense effort. That up and down pattern of an anaerobic circuit means your body is working even harder, and burning more calories.
What’s even better about anaerobic workouts for weight loss is that they also keep burning fat after you stop. You’ve essentially sent your body into ‘panic mode’ where your metabolism is looking around for available energy sources to meet the demands you've just thrown at it. Not only will you find that you feel more energetic for quite a while after an anaerobic workout, your metabolism just keeps looking for fat to burn hours after a HIIT session. So not only have you hit a hefty calorie burn - if you do it right - in a workout that might be as short as twenty minutes, you’ll also get the fat burning perks even after you finish!
Benefit #2: It Builds Strength And Muscle Mass
If you think you need to power out heavy lifts to get stronger and lay down muscle, think again. Sure, if you want to build muscle bulk, then low-rep, high-weight lifts will be central to your program. But if you want to develop functional strength, to be generally stronger, and to lay down muscle fibers that give you that lean, toned look, then anaerobic workouts are what you need. The intensity of the HIIT workout, where you push your muscles to the absolute limits, creates a physiological response that triggers your metabolism to build smooth muscle fibers - those are the ones that give you the lean muscles that look so good.
Basically, the effect of a HIIT anaerobic workout isn't dissimilar to a high weight lifting session. In both the muscles are pushed to extremes, experiencing microdamage that is repaired during rest and recovery through the development of new muscle tissue. The difference is that in a high-resistance weightlifting program, you are targeting specific muscle groups in an aerobic environment, whereas in an anaerobic workout you are typically working combinations of muscles, and with the added pressure of oxygen debt. That means that the metabolic response is to lay down more of the smooth, long muscle tissue rather than a ‘bulk’ muscle building response. That means if you don't want to bulk up, you don't need to worry with an anaerobic program!
Benefit #3: Improves Cardiopulmonary Health
Improving your fitness usually means working in three things: strength, cardio, and flexibility. We’ve just talked about how an anaerobic workout builds strength, but it’s also a serious cardio workout. Forget about hours slogging away on the treadmill - an anaerobic workout gets cardio results, and fast.
What’s happening in the high-intensity efforts of your anaerobic workout is an improvement to your ‘VO2’ max, which is the ability of your body to utilize oxygen and feed your muscles during exercise. It’s a great indicator of the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and your cardiopulmonary health. Pushing your body to the limits of your current VO2 max, like during HIIT, encourages adaptations in your lungs and your heart muscle. In other words, it makes your heart and lungs get fit too. The repeated stresses of the intervals in your anaerobic workout stimulate the metabolic changes you need to help your heart and lungs work more effectively. You’ll see this over time if you monitor your heart rate both at rest and when you work out.
Improvements in your cardiopulmonary health will appear as a reduction in your resting heart rate - your heart rate measured when you first wake up - and your maximum heart rate when you work out. Keeping an eye on your heart rate during workouts will tell you whether you are getting fitter, and your resting heart rate is one of the best indicators of improvements to heart health from your workouts!
Benefit #4: Increases Endurance
How can a short, intense workout actually increase endurance? Well, let’s take a look at the science. In an anaerobic, HIIT workout, during the efforts, you should be pushing yourself right to your limits. You’ll feel that characteristic ‘burn’ where lactic acid builds up and you just can’t ask your muscles to do any more. That lactic acid is a lot of what limits your endurance. By routinely pushing yourself right to your ‘lactate threshold,’ that point where you have to stop, your body will eventually learn to adapt. With regular (like three times a week) HIIT workouts, and if you take them seriously and really put the effort in, you’ll find that over time you don't get tired as soon as you used to. That’s your lactate threshold improving, and you’re reaching a ‘fitness plateau’.
Of course, what that means is you’ll have to keep changing up your workouts as your fitness improves, and what used to be killer sessions starts to feel a little easier. You can do that either by changing the type of workouts you're doing, like swapping plyometrics for some weight lifting circuits, or adding in some hill sprints. You can also try changing your intervals. If you’ve been doing intervals of two minutes, try switching to sessions with intervals of only thirty seconds, but with shorter rest intervals. Little changes like this can shake up your metabolism and get your fitness improving again, and they also keep your workouts interesting!
Benefit #5: Builds A Lean, Toned Body
Your goal might be to lose weight, or it might be to get stronger or fitter. Either way, you're after a lean, well-defined and toned body, even if that’s the by-product of your goals. Of course, to get the strength benefits of an anaerobic workout you’ll want to look for HIIT workout programs that involve some resistance movements. It doesn't have to be a lot of weight - even a bodyweight program will provide enough resistance under the intensity of an anaerobic workout to build whole body strength and improve muscle tone. And another benefit? Whole body strength also improves your posture - and that means you look and feel even better!
There's more to it than just burning calories and laying down new muscle. There’s evidence that anaerobic workouts actually target certain types of fat, particularly belly fat. Not all fat stores are created equally, and some fat stores are more easily converted into energy than others. Belly fat is one of the first places your body will look for easy-access energy stores during a HIIT workout, and in the hours afterward. Ever wondered why it sometimes seems easier for men to lose weight than women? Well, here it is. Men typically store fat as belly fat - it may develop more quickly than fat in other areas, but it also burns more quickly too. Women typically lay down fat more evenly over their whole body - but that subcutaneous fat is harder for the body to convert and burn. The good news is that while belly fat is a known risk factor for some major health conditions, at least it’s easier to target when you start your anaerobic workouts.
Benefit #6: Anaerobic Exercise Increases Your Metabolism
It’s a pretty well-known fact, muscle burns more calories than fat, even at rest. This means that if you can increase your muscle mass, you’ll increase your overall calorie burn all day, not just when you work out, making it easier to stay at your optimal weight. You might also find that as you continue with your workout programs and get fitter, that you actually have more energy. That’s because maintaining all that muscle keeps your body working a little bit harder. You’re experiencing one of the perks of improved muscle mass - an increased metabolism - and that translates into feeling more energetic!
There’s even more to it than just the metabolic benefits of increased muscle mass. Anaerobic training actually increases the body's ability to access energy from fat - your ‘glycogen stores’. This means that your body gets better at finding the energy you need, not just for your workouts but for your everyday life as well. You’ll feel more energetic, and you won’t get tired as easily as you used to. And of course, your body will be getting so good at turning fat into energy, it’s easier to stay at a healthy weight too!
Benefit #7: Prevents Disease
We’ve talked about how anaerobic workouts are great for fighting fat and burning calories, and we already know that weight loss is a key factor in improving health. We’ve also looked at how anaerobic training can improve overall cardiopulmonary health. However, anaerobic workouts also target some other serious health conditions worth knowing about. First, anaerobic workouts can help prevent the onset of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and even manage the condition of those who suffer from RA.
Of course, fat loss helps with reducing the strain on joints that can aggravate RA, but anaerobic training goes further than that. The improvements to metabolic function - the increase in metabolism both during and after workouts - improve circulatory health. Increasing circulation helps to prevent and reduce inflammation in the joints caused by RA, bringing pain relief, protecting joints from the damaging effects of inflammation, and improving joint mobility. Of course, if you have RA, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about how anaerobic training might help before you start on a program, but there are lots of low-impact HIIT options available so chances are you and your doctor can find a program that works for you.
Anaerobic exercise also has a complex but beneficial effect on preventing and improving some types of diabetes. HIIT, and the metabolic changes it causes, reduce insulin resistance - a key factor in diabetic response. That means anaerobic training improves your body’s ability to manage and respond to insulin production. Again, getting to, and keeping at a healthy weight help prevent and manage diabetes, but anaerobic training also does much more, causing significant metabolic changes that prevent and improve diabetes.
Hopefully these seven benefits of anaerobic exercise you should definitely know have persuaded you to give anaerobic workouts a try. You might be asking if anaerobic workouts are so beneficial, why isn't everybody doing them? Why do I still see lots of people pounding out miles jogging on treadmills? Well, there are two reasons. First, there’s a place in your program for steady state, aerobic workouts. They have their own fitness benefits. But also, let’s face it, if you do them correctly, anaerobic workouts are hard. Pushing yourself to your limits doesn't feel great. Sure, there's an exhilaration to going all out, but your muscles will burn, you’ll sweat buckets, and you might even feel a little nauseated. It's tough, but as you can see, it's worth it.
There are a lot of options to anaerobic workouts available, and chances are you can find a HIIT circuit that works for you. Best of all, the great thing about anaerobic workouts is they are never boring - you don't have to work out at the same thing for hours. A circuit or interval program of just twenty to thirty minutes, three times a week is enough to get great results in how you feel and how you look.
Have you got a favorite anaerobic workout or a great HIIT program to share? We’d love to hear about it!