What Is Anaerobic Exercise?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on July 20, 2023
3 min read

Anaerobic exercise is similar to aerobic exercise but uses a different form of energy — quickly and immediately. Anaerobic exercises include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weight lifting, circuit training, and strength training.

This type of exercise offers many health benefits. It’s a great way to improve your cardiovascular endurance as well as build and maintain muscle and lose weight. Along with aerobic (or cardiovascular) exercise, anaerobic exercise should be a regular part of your weekly workout routine.

Aerobic means “with oxygen,” and anaerobic means “without oxygen.” Both are important for your overall health because they challenge your body in different ways.

Anaerobic exercise involves short, fast, high-intensity exercises that don’t make your body use oxygen like it does for cardio (or aerobic) activities. Instead, anaerobic activities break down glucose that's already in your muscles for a form of energy. Aerobic exercises rely on energy stored in your body from carbs, fat, and the oxygen you breathe:

You usually repeat anaerobic movements for 10 or 15 seconds before moving on to another type of movement. Aerobic exercises are easy to do for longer times, depending on your physical abilities.

There's often a gray area where aerobic and anaerobic exercise overlap. Your aerobic exercise may turn into anaerobic if you raise the intensity past the point where you're able to sustain that activity. 

For example, if a runner’s pace is too fast, they won’t be able to keep a consistent speed for long, turning their aerobic workout into an anaerobic one.

Crossfit is another fitness regimen that meets in between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. It combines the fat-burning power of aerobic activities with the strength training of anaerobic exercise.

Examples of anaerobic exercise include:

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Strength training and weight lifting that challenges your body‌
  • Calisthenics like jump squats, box jumps, and plyometrics

Anaerobic exercise isn't easy, so it’s important to find a certified personal trainer to help you develop a routine and learn proper form. Many gyms also offer classes that include anaerobic workouts.

Once you’re ready to begin, follow these basic tips to get started:

  • Spend at least 5 minutes warming up.
  • Focus on your larger muscle groups before moving to smaller muscles.
  • Aim for three sets of eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise. 
  • If you feel like you could do more after the last repetition, raise the intensity or weight.
  • Rotate through eight to 10 exercises in a routine.
  • Remember that technique is more important than speed. ‌
  • Mix it up and incorporate different exercises over time to challenge your body in new ways.

Talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise routine. They can help you find a good regimen based on your fitness level and medical history. An injury could set you back weeks or months. Start slow and build up over time as you boost your endurance.

Anaerobic exercise offers a number of health benefits. It can:

  • Strengthen bones
  • Burn fat
  • Boost muscle development‌
  • Help you keep muscle mass as you age

After age 27, you start to lose about 1% of your muscle mass each year. You can slow this loss by staying active and including anaerobic strength training in your exercise regimen.

Muscle burns more calories than fat. By building up muscle mass, you ensure more fat-burning potential on a daily basis, even when you’re not working out. This also helps raise your energy level for everyday activities.‌

How Much Anaerobic Exercise Do You Need Per Week?

The CDC recommends an average of 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, along with 2 or more days of strength training (or anaerobic exercise).

This breaks down to about 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, 5 days per week, along with 2 days of strength training.

Strength training is just as important as cardio for your health. Remember that you’re more likely to stick to an exercise routine if it’s something you enjoy doing. If you try an anaerobic exercise and don’t love it, try something else. Also, consider switching up your routine on a regular basis so you continue to challenge your body while keeping yourself from getting bored.‌