Understanding Anaerobic Exercise for Every Athlete

Nate Boyle
anaerobic exercise
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Anaerobic exercise requires short, fast, high-intensity workloads where the body does not need to use oxygen as a source of energy. And it is a great way to build muscle, lose weight, and train for sustained bursts of speed or explosive power

Who needs oxygen?

Anaerobic exercise creates energy without oxygen as a prerequisite. The upside for an athlete creating energy “without oxygen” is it is more easily accessible. The downside is that immediate availability has metabolic waste that limits sustained output.

In practice, this means that anaerobic exercises are harder but shorter than aerobic workloads. The biochemistry of anaerobic metabolism involves glycolysis, where glucose converts into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy source for cellular reactions.

Lactic acid is produced more frequently during anaerobic training, which causes it to accumulate quickly. Accumulation of lactate above the lactate threshold, also known as the anaerobic threshold, contributes significantly to muscle fatigue. So, coaches and athletes can use proper load training to help build stamina, muscle strength, and strength.

Add anaerobic exercises to your workout

Anaerobic workloads typically come fashioned as interval training or dynamic strength training options such as:

  1. Plyometrics
  2. Powerlifting
  3. Tabata Training
  4. High-Intensity Interval Training
  5. Fartlek Training

A more challenging path requires a purposeful aerobic and anaerobic mixture of work—very high-intensity bursts to a regular steady-state workout.

For instance, while running on a treadmill, jog at a conversational speed for two to six minutes. Then try 20 to 40 seconds of intense full-body anaerobic bursts like:

  1. Burpees
  2. Plyo Lunges
  3. Mountain Climbers

Maximal exercise requires near-maximum effort

Intensive training that lasts longer than four minutes, such as a mile run, can still cause significant anaerobic energy expenditure.

An example is high-intensity interval training, a strategy performed under anaerobic conditions with intensities reaching 90% of the maximum heart rate.

Some methods estimate the anaerobic exercise component by determining the maximum accumulated oxygen deficit or measuring lactic acid formation in muscle mass.

In contrast, aerobic training involves activities of lower intensity performed over more extended periods. Activities such as jogging, rowing, and cycling require oxygen to produce the energy needed for prolonged exercise, i.e., aerobic energy consumption.

In sports that require repeated short bursts, the aerobic system acts to replenish energy stores during recovery periods to generate the next energy boost. Therefore, training strategies for many sports require the development of both aerobic and anaerobic systems.

What is happening underneath all this effort?

In anaerobic glycolysis, glucose and glycogen are used exclusively in the absence of oxygen as fuel, or more precisely when ATP requires quantities higher than aerobic metabolism.

As a result of such rapid glucose degradation, lactic acid, or its conjugated base lactate, is formed at biological pH. Physical activities lasting up to about twenty seconds rely primarily on the ATP-PCr system. 

Also, both aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis-based metabolic systems are used.

As the metabolic waste of anaerobic glycolysis, lactate has traditionally been believed to be detrimental to muscle function.

Increased lactate levels are just one of many changes that occur within and around the muscle cells during intense workouts and can lead to fatigue.

Fatigue, i.e., muscle failure, is a complex issue that depends on more than just lactate concentration changes. Energy availability, oxygen intake, pain sensation, and other psychological factors all contribute to muscle fatigue.

Anaerobic exercise requires attention to detail

Because oxygen is not the primary fuel source for anaerobic pathways, large glycogen stores are a prerequisite to anaerobic exercise.

When glycogen is being utilized by the muscles, muscle perfusion increases—glycogen stores anaerobic exercise energy within the body via the muscle fibers. When you use this energy, it feels like a natural high because of the increased blood flow to the muscles.

But no matter how much fuel you have, running on empty will lead to less energy and less effort. The body simply needs to refill its glycogen stores to replenish natural high levels of blood flow and energy.

To challenge this paradigm, Consider using intervals, aerobic with some bursts of anaerobic exercise mixed in periodically to improve endurance, fitness levels, and weight loss goals.

Aerobic with anaerobic work for every body

An understanding of the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise will give you a better understanding of what exercise is best for the body.

The Anaerobic and Aerobic systems are two different parts of the body’s metabolism. The aerobic processes occur in the cells using oxygen and produce energy without a buildup of lactate.

An exercise that is “anaerobic” is short and explosive and results in a big lactic acid, or hydrogen, buildup. Your muscles are, in fact, getting damaged, but this is usually followed by a short recovery time, also known as the “oxygen debt,” where the muscle can be repaired at a cellular level.

The longer this recovery takes, the more intense the detraining effect is likely to be. The anaerobic system needs carbohydrates (blood glucose) for energy. Even though it has a faster recovery time than aerobic muscles, it still needs both carbohydrates and oxygen to produce energy.

Breakdown of anaerobic exercise

Recent findings suggest that high-intensity anaerobic workloads lead to oxidative improvements of the macromolecules mentioned above in skeletal muscles and blood.

Furthermore, it appears that chronic anaerobic training can induce adjustments that mitigate the oxidative stress induced by exercise.

These may be specific to increased antioxidant defenses and/or may contribute to reducing the formation of prooxidants during and after exercise.

And while, it is difficult to draw specific conclusions about the exact extent and location of oxidative damage, in addition to the adjustments resulting from regular anaerobic exercise their presence provides an assumption that anaerobic exercises and oxidative stress are related.

As such, it is important to present both the acute effects of a single training session and the adaptation potential resulting from chronic anaerobic training.

Benefits of anaerobic exercise

While anaerobic work used to be done primarily by athletes to increase performance, everyday athletes can also benefit from this training type. Exercise at high intensity can increase your anaerobic threshold. And this means you can work harder over more extended periods.

Improved VO2 max as the body learns how to utilize oxygen more efficiently from challenging VO2 peak. An increase in VO2 allows for sustained training sessions and faster recovery between intervals. 

A byproduct of the mechanical workload of great technique during anaerobic training is stronger musculature. The body uses energy stores in the muscles during anaerobic exercise. This means that it helps to maintain and improve muscle mass.

Change in the composition of muscle fibers

Aerobic exercises are usually based on slow-twitch muscle fibers that contract more slowly and at a lower intensity.

These fibers are essential because they enable endurance work over long periods before fatigue sets in. Aerobic training increases the recruitment of these Type I muscle fibers, which improves endurance performance.

In contrast, anaerobic training also converts Type IIx fibers to Type IIa. IIx fibers are fast-twitch and occur in unusually high quantities among sedentary people.

They can be quickly recruited for strength and strength bursts but are usually also destroyed as soon as they are used. By converting IIx fibers into IIa fibers, athletes can improve their fitness and increase reusable fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Fast-twitch muscles, when compared to slow-twitch muscles, work most economically with anaerobic metabolism. So using fast glucose muscle fibers increases anaerobic energy expenditure.

Specificity matters

Anaerobic exercises are more immediately strenuous, requiring you to push your abilities’ boundaries. Rather than the mile-long jog that requires the body to pace its effort, the anaerobic exercise would repeatedly sprint 100-meter intervals to prepare for one lap of the track.

In addition to spiking the heart rate, anaerobic exercises should also rapidly increase your breathing rate. This intense physical activity causes an increase in excess post oxygen consumption that may help burn training adaptions and weight loss even at ‘rest.’

A study has shown that high-intensity intermittent training, i.e., interval training, can be more effective than an aerobic activity to help any athlete burn fat.

Lifting weights is another common example of an anaerobic workload. Different from the above examples, low repetition weight lifting and plyometrics require even more immediate energy resources from a subset of anaerobic metabolism known as ATP-CP. 

Even intense resistance training can improve bone density and strength, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.

With these increased levels of skeletal muscle, a natural rise in blood lactate concentrations is expected. The overall economy of the anaerobic system is improved by challenging the anaerobic and lactate thresholds, as well as the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA).

And like aerobic exercise, anaerobic training has been shown to lower basal metabolic rate (BMR), reduce depression, tension, and anger.

Periodization plans for potential

Anaerobic exercise should be periodized into macro, micro, and mesocycles to gain the best benefits from the intensity. In simplest terms, a high focus on these workloads two to three times a week with 24-48 hours of recovery between each is sufficient if unfamiliar with training periodization.

Because there are so many forms of anaerobic exercise, no matter what you’re working out for, it’s impossible to say that anyone’s workout is better than another. Each form of anaerobic exercise has a different purpose and time commitment and requires specific recovery time.

Recovery time also depends on the intensity of your workouts, which can be expressed by how much resistance you’re using (light, medium, or heavy). If you’re using heavy resistance, you’ll need longer to recover.

Warmup with goals in mind

Before training anaerobically, always do a functional, dynamic warm-up first. Static stretching after may assist short term recovery, but may also inhibit sport and event-specific gains. Make sure as intensity and focus increase, so does any attention to proper preparation and ‘cool-down’ periods.

And while many like to prepare and workout with music, a study found

No significant differences were found between fast and slow music conditions in terms of anaerobic power outputs, blood lactate, and heart rate values…

T Atan

But for coffee drinkers, another study examined

caffeine (5 mg/kg body weight) vs. placebo during anaerobic exercise. And with competitive athletes, the total weight was lifted with the chest press, and greater peak power was obtained during the Wingate test.

Kathleen Woolf, et al

Recovery for short and long term gains

When training at this intensity level for short bursts of energy, athletes create what is called EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. This elevated breathing can be between intervals, at the completion of a set, or even an entire workout.

Proper rest intervals and days between anaerobic bouts ensure specific adaptation.

Fitness testing to challenge gains

The most popular laboratory test for sustained anaerobic power is the above referenced Wingate test. Named for Israeli researcher Max Wingate, the test is also known as a “30-second all-out cycling test”.

Or, for more strength-oriented workouts, athletes can calculate a one-rep max (1RM) for any lift. The one-rep max is the max weight one can lift for a single repetition. The result can then be extrapolated out for high rep workouts.

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