With the rise in popularity of interval workouts in recent years, many gym goers have begun to debate the merits of aerobic vs anaerobic training. Long, slow cardio has been a long favorite of bodybuilders for getting lean, as well as everyday exercisers to improve their health. However, HIIT (high intensity interval training) proponents say it’s not only shorter, but produces better results. Here is a quick look at aerobic vs anaerobic workouts, and which might be better suited for you.
Before you can discuss aerobic vs anaerobic training, you have to first know the difference. Anaerobic (meaning “without oxygen”) training is easiest thought of as interval training – short, intense bouts of exercise, immediately followed by a short rest, then repeated multiple times. There are two types of anaerobic training – alactic (bouts lasting 10 seconds or less) and lactic (bouts lasting 10-75 seconds).
Aerobic (meaning “with oxygen”) training is the opposite end of the continuum. Instead, of short, hard bouts of exercises, aerobic work is longer and much easier. Though biologically speaking, an activity only needs to last 75+ seconds in order to be considered “aerobic”, this type of work is usually best characterized by slow cardio done for 30-60 minutes or more.
Many trainees questioning aerobic vs anaerobic benefits, do so because they’re interested in which is better for fat loss. While long, slow cardio has been the proverbial “old standby” to lean down, many have switched to interval training since studies began showing the benefits of EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). Simply put, hard interval training works the body so hard, that it continues to burn calories long after the session is over.
There are two issues with this. The first is that interval training has to be done as intensely as possible to illicit such a response. However, many trainees simply don’t work hard enough. On a theoretical scale of 1-10, if slow cardio is done at a 4 and interval training should be done at a 9-10, they are really only working at a 6.5-7 or so. This means not stimulating proper EPOC while not burning as many calories during the workout.
At the same time, a 2006 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences showed that the effects of EPOC so many clamor about may have been overrated. The truth is that in the best case scenario, interval-based EPOC only ends up burning an additional 14% of calories or so. This would mean that if your workout burned 400 calories, you’re only burning an additional 56 over the next 18-36 hours. This just isn’t enough to make any real significant difference on its own.
However, for aerobic training to be effective, you really just have to do a lot of it. To burn noticeable amounts of fat, you’d have to perform a cumulative 5-7 hours or more every single week for several weeks in a row.
Your best bet is usually a mixed approach to get the best of both worlds. Do 2-3 long, slow aerobic workouts as well as another 2-3 hard, anaerobic interval workouts each week. Another option would be to do “hybrid” workouts where you start off with intervals, only to follow it up with aerobic cardio. For instance, you could do 15 minutes of 30 seconds on/30 seconds off, then go right into another 30 minutes of steady-state aerobic work.
The other major area where aerobic vs anaerobic training is examined is when designing strength and conditioning programs for athletes. However, unlike the body recomposition goals reviewed above, there really is no “grey area” here. This is because your training should be based solely on the needs of your sport or activity.
Dr. Mel Siff pointed out in Supertraining that pretty much every athlete is going to perform poorly if they don’t have sufficient cardiovascular capability. As such, aerobic conditioning should form every sportsman’s base. However, whether or not anaerobic conditioning should be employed will depend on the sport itself.
If it is contested in or includes short, intense bouts (e.g. – baseball, American football), then anaerobic training has a place. If the sport is mostly endurance-based (e.g. – distance cycling, mud runs), then sticking with aerobic work only is usually fine.
In the end, you should pick whichever best suits your goals. If you’re an athlete that needs anaerobic capability, then you should do at least some HIIT work. And if you’re taking a hybrid approach to fat loss, you’ll want to do some, too. Otherwise, sticking with just the long, slow, steady-state conditioning will likely suit you. Regardless, make sure you do them both correctly. Aerobic work is going to need sufficient total volume and anaerobic work must be done as hard as possible.