Aerobic Exercise versus Anaerobic Exercise

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenic

February 21, 2020

There is a distinctive difference between aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise because depending on which one you do, your body utilizes one fuel (fat) or another (sugar). And this is especially important when you create a training plan to support your fitness goals. The distinction lies in oxygen consumption and how you utilize it to fuel your body when exercising and not in the type of exercise you engage in necessarily. Aerobic it’s done with air while anaerobic is not. Very often, you can do an exercise aerobic or anaerobic depending on the speed and intensity you workout.

As the intensity or speed goes higher and higher, you can’t breathe in enough air to keep up, and that’s when you move to anaerobic exercise:

The Differences Between Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

When you train at low and moderate intensity, you can keep up for a very long time because, in that stage, your body primarily uses fat for fuel. Your body has plenty of fat reserves and fewer sugars required to sustain a high-intensity task. It’s a reason why you can walk and jog for hours but do pull-ups for a short period only.

Burning fat is a long process and once you increase the speed a lot and you can’t breathe normally anymore, your body switches to burning sugars as it’s converted more rapidly. The only cost when you train intensively and utilize sugar burning, it’s that it produces lactic acid.

For instance, every time I do my leg workout consisting of ten sets of 50 squats, after a while, it becomes a lot more challenging to breathe, and lactic acid kicks in. My muscles start to burn, and from that moment on, it’s not long until I have to stop entirely. If I checked my heart rate soon after I finish a set, it’s well over 140 bpm, beyond the starting point for anaerobic exercise. So I guess high rep bodyweight squats isn’t so much cardio as many claim to be.

Another considerable difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise is the stress-induced. Aerobic exercise is a low-stress exercise, and that’s why it relaxes you so much. I utilize cardio training as a way to actively recover the days after my vigorous and stressful calisthenics sessions and not only for weight loss purposes.

To runners and most specifically to trail runners, it gives them that hype or natural high. It’s very addictive and what makes us come back to the mountains and run again. Good thing that it has no side effects!

On the other hand, anaerobic burning sugar is a high-stress exercise. You raise your blood sugar and produce more of it for that emergency fuel.

When Does Aerobic Exercise Begin and When You Switch to Anaerobic?

When you do bodyweight dips, you utilize sugar as energy so it's anaerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise relates to your heart rate. If your bpm is beneath 120, then you are in that spot. Your breathing should be pretty much comfortable, and if you jog, then at this rate, you should be able to make conversation while you run. It happens because you catch up with oxygen consumption.

Once your heart rate goes over 120 (depending on your fitness), you slowly start to breathe more difficult. You have a high demand for oxygen but can’t keep up with the metabolism. You are practically falling behind. It’s the spot when you move more to sugar burning fuel or anaerobic training.

But we are different among ourselves, and depending on your fitness, you may do the switch to a higher bpm, maybe to 130. Me, for instance, when I do my trail running sessions, I can run for a long time having over 150 beats per minute. 120 bpm feels too easy for me, and honestly, in my effort to burn fat more effectively, I had to raise my heart rate target at every workout almost, to over 150 and keep it there for at least 40-50 minutes. I had a lot of fat and sugar burned off too!

How to Target Fat Loss with Cardio Training?

If you target fat loss, then generally focus your training around aerobic exercise, also called cardio training. It’s important because you activate the cardiac muscles known as slow-twitch muscle fibers and they utilize aerobic metabolism. It means these muscles utilize oxygen capacity and they help in prolonged cardio sessions. They are built to resist a steady, low-intensity, low-contraction and force but to a very high training duration.

The less stressful your body is when training, the more likely it will be to sustain the activity for longer, providing more weight loss benefits. Take a monitor for your heart rate if you will, or if not, use the breathing signs I talked about earlier. Then mix up and see what works best for you. If 110 or 120 feel too low, then you can also include intervals where your heart rate can exceed 160 beats. Once this becomes stressful, then slow down and walk or do something like Jumping Jacks or Jumping the Rope to ease your heart. Do it until it goes under 120 and hit an interval once more if you want.

Moreso, aerobic metabolism not only engages the required muscle fibers but increases the cardiovascular system too. Remember that cardio it’s done with the air consumption and hence, your lungs will have to breathe out the burned stored fat while running or cycling. You can read more about this physiological process: Where Does the Fat Go When We Lose It? Mathematics of Weight Loss.

About Anaerobic Exercise and Metabolism

During anaerobic exercise, you train the whole muscle fibers more effectively than when you do cardio training solely. It’s when the larger muscle fibers are engaged and they also utilize oxygen depending on your fitness but more glycogen (sugar).

Strength training, lifting heavy, or doing calisthenics is an anaerobic exercise. High-intensity training or sprints intervals are also anaerobic exercises.

You should know that high-intensity training causes sugar craving, and thus, your appetite for sweets and carbs pops-up quickly after. So, as a general rule of thumb, pay attention to the types of carbs you eat. Focus more on low-GI carbs.

Nonetheless, high-intensity training or strength training induces beneficial stress. Aerobic training is usually more for health, and it’s a green zone kind of training with benefits more for keeping lean and fit. You could sustain this activity for hours. Between 120 and 160 bpm is anaerobic training. Depending on the fitness level, you could keep this exercise for over 20-30 minutes as I do in my pretty intensive uphill running. This particular training method will beat you hard and leave you sore maybe the days after.

Above 160 bpm is what I call the most strenuous and most challenging type of exercise. No matter what you do here, it could be sprints, double-unders, or full burpees, but it drains you in seconds. This is the red zone! It’s where you can hit your maximum heart rate and that’s why it stresses your mind and body both.

If you asked me, you need all these three training mechanisms. But focus more on one or another depending on your fitness goals, on how fit and healthy you are, age, possibilities, and so on. And remember that exercise does not build you up. It breaks you down! It’s your nutrition and recovery that builds you back up and maybe even stronger to perform better in the future.

Training in the red zone, even if it’s stressful, provides many benefits. Your body becomes stronger and better. You consume more nutrients and exhaust your body more, which increases the demand for proper recovery. By doing it regularly, your body adapts eventually to keep up with the task. It’s why I got muscular and strong, for instance. It was a consequence of severe training that broke me so badly at all times.

Most importantly, the growth hormone’s impact on aerobic is very low in comparison with when you do high-intensity training. It increases because there is a challenge and stays so for many hours after. And of course that this ultimately impacts your mood and has even weight loss benefits.

So listen. The older, heavier, and physically weaker you are, the more you have to stay in the aerobic exercise with little moderate and high-intensity training. That can change once you improve, and then you can add more of the challenging workouts. More intensive training pumps more blood and increases circulation even if you exercise a little over 140 bpm, which is great if you can keep it so for half an hour. It will improve your fitness tremendously.

The variety of exercises is endless, and you have to find your own. If you have particular pains and can’t sprint or do calisthenics circuits, then maybe you can skip the rope and do double-unders or use a stationary bike instead. It all comes down to how you dodge these variables to stay protected but work in the zone targeted. My training programs include all these types of workouts, and you can check them up if you want.

Therefore, I hope I clarified these things for you and I wish you success in your fitness journey!

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