Anaerobic exercise is any type of activity that doesn’t use oxygen to break down glucose for energy. It comes with some significant benefits for health! HIIT training, pilates, yoga, and weightlifting all fall under the anaerobic umbrella.
There’s a wide world of physical activities out there, from handball to ice skating to salsa dancing (just watch the Olympics late at night if you need any proof). And even though the particulars of how you move your body can vary, you might think all exercise uses the same energetic pathways. But in fact, that’s not quite true.
Anaerobic exercise, for example, differs from other types of activities in the way it uses energy.
Unlike aerobic exercise (better known among gym-goers as cardio), anaerobic exercise breaks down glucose for energy without using any oxygen in the process. Some forms of anaerobic exercise include sprinting, HIIT training, squats, and vinyasa yoga. Engaging in anaerobic exercise can burn fat, strengthen your bones, elevate your mood, and more.
Want in on the many benefits of this type of movement? Read on for your guide to all things anaerobic.
Let’s geek out on word origins for a moment, shall we? The word anaerobic means “capable of living without oxygen,” from the Greek an (“without”), aēr (“air”) and bios (“life”).
This etymological root describes anaerobic exercise accurately. Whereas aerobic activity uses oxygen to break down glucose molecules in the blood, anaerobic activity contracts your muscles faster than the rate your body can supply oxygen.
So how exactly does this work? Join us for geek-out phase two, this time for science.
Your body stores glucose (from carbohydrates in the foods you eat) in your muscles in the form of glycogen. In anaerobic exercise, muscle cells access glycogen and break it down into individual glucose molecules. These are then used for energy via a process called lactic acid fermentation.
Though this method of using glucose for energy is effective, it doesn’t produce as much energy as aerobic exercise. This is why most anaerobic exercise happens in short bursts, like the power it takes to lift a heavy barbell over your head or get low in a deep squat.
Anaerobic exercise differs from aerobic exercise in that it doesn’t involve oxygen in its quest to supply energy for movement. As explained above, it uses a different process to tap into that all-important glucose.
Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, uses the oxygen in the air you breathe to fuel your workouts. In aerobic activities like jogging, swimming, or cycling, your breath deepens, and your heart rate increases. Your blood vessels even dilate to allow extra oxygen-rich blood to reach large muscle groups like the ones in your legs, arms, and chest.
Because aerobic exercise involves a constant cycle of breath and freshly oxygenated blood, it can be performed over longer periods. (Think: marathoning or swimming the English channel — or, for us more middle-of-the-road folks, a 30-minute bike ride around the neighborhood.)
Even though anaerobic exercise happens in small bursts, it can come with major benefits. Here are some of the awesome outcomes of fueling your workout out sans oxygen.
May help with weight loss
You’d be hard-pressed to find a form of exercise that won’t promote weight loss — after all, using your muscles in just about any way takes energy, using up calories you’ve taken in from food.
That said, for weight loss, anaerobic activities have historically taken a backseat to aerobic ones. But newer research shows that anaerobic workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be just as effective as cardio sweat sessions for shedding pounds.
A 2021 analysis that assessed 12 reviews and 149 studies, for example, found that there was no difference between aerobic and HIIT training in weight or fat loss, as long as energy expenditure was equal.
Other research from 2015 showed that, though weight loss was greater when obese adults participated in aerobic workouts, they still experienced significant weight loss when they only performed anaerobic workouts.
Supports bone health
What do weightlifting, yoga, and jumping rope have in common? They’re all anaerobic resistance exercises that can help build strength and density in your bones.
When you put stress on your bones through activities like these, it prompts the body to stimulate bone-forming cells, ultimately strengthening your skeleton.
Could elevate your mood
If you’ve been feeling down, anaerobic exercises might clear away some of the clouds.
Regular weight training substantially reduced anxiety symptoms in a small 2020 study on young adults. And a 2021 study that included 33 randomized clinical trials found that resistance training exercise was associated with significant reductions in depressive symptoms.
May protect your heart
Sure, cardio is great for your heart — but (surprise!) anaerobic training has advantages for your cardiovascular system too. Research shows that this type of exercise can improve lipid profiles, which are correlated with the risk of heart disease.
Trains your posture and balance
The concentration and focus it takes to stay in eagle pose or bench press your max aren’t for naught. Anaerobic activities like these challenge your balance and can help you develop a healthy posture. Choose anaerobic exercises like yoga, pilates, and weightlifting to see results in your physical equilibrium.
In anaerobic exercise, your body demands more energy than your aerobic system can supply. This type of activity can be performed in short bursts of high power. Some examples of anaerobic exercise include:
- HIIT training
- Lifting weights
- Vinyasa yoga
- Bodyweight exercises like pushups, lunges, squats, and pull-ups
You won’t be racking up any fitness gains if an injury lands you on the sidelines. Staying safe while performing anaerobic exercise is critical. Some general guidelines include:
- Wear clothing that fits well and won’t catch or snag on gym equipment
- Select athletic shoes with good tread (and replace them as they wear out)
- Work under the guidance of a trainer until you feel confident in your abilities and knowledge
- If strength training, always use a spotter
- Stay hydrated, especially if working out in warm weather
- Warm up with stretching prior to diving into strenuous activities
- Stop the activity if you don’t feel well
For their myriad benefits, anaerobic workouts totally deserve a place beside your usual cardio (aka aerobic) activities.
The more you engage in this type of exercise, the more your body will acclimate to it, ultimately making it feel less strenuous. And you might be surprised at how strength training or a regular yoga flow yields major results for issues like weight control, heart health, and posture.
So grab some free weights or a pull-up bar and get to cranking out some bite-sized bursts of energy! They may not use oxygen, but they can sure be a breath of fresh air.