What is aerobic vs anaerobic training

Phil Goulding Phil Goulding Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer
Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer Phil Goulding explains the difference between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and their associated training types.

'Aerobic' and 'anaerobic' are terms used to describe how cells within the body produce energy and refer to energy systems. But what is the difference?

Every movement we make requires energy to be created and there are three main ways that this is done, one with oxygen and two without oxygen.

Aerobic means ‘with air’ and refers to the body producing energy with the use of oxygen. This typically involves any exercise that lasts longer than two minutes in duration. Continuous ‘steady state’ exercise is performed aerobically.

Anaerobic means ‘without air’ and refers to the body producing energy without oxygen. This is typically exercise that is performed at a higher intensity. There are two ways that the body can produce energy anaerobically.

Energy bursts and slow release

One anaerobic energy system is known as the ATP-CP system and provides immediate energy for instantaneous burst of exercise such as for a throw, sprint or jump and can last from 0 - 10 seconds.

The other anaerobic system, known as the lactic acid system, provides energy for very hard efforts lasting roughly 10 - 120 seconds and is associated with the feeling of burning in your muscles due to the build-up of lactate and other metabolites within your muscles.

Whilst it is convenient to look at these energy systems in isolation, when you are exercising energy will be derived from all three systems, but the emphasis will change depending on the intensity of the exercise relative to your fitness levels.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training refers to which energy system you are trying to improve during your training session and it’s structure and intensity will be very different depending on which one you are trying to improve.

Aerobic training will typically fall in the range of 60 - 80% of your estimated maximum heart rate and can be done continuously for prolonged periods of time, anaerobic training will fall between 80 - 90% of your estimated maximum heart rate. But once you push so hard that you cannot continue to exercise at the same intensity, you will have to drop back into the mainly aerobic energy production system.

What are the two training types good for?

Aerobic training is good for building endurance and improving your cardiovascular and respiratory function. This means that your heart and lungs become stronger and more efficient, enabling you to train harder and longer as your fitness levels improve.

Anaerobic training is performed at a harder intensity than aerobic exercise, typically between 80 - 90% of your maximum heart rate and is a fantastic way of improving your fitness levels once a baseline aerobic level of fitness is achieved.

The best aerobic exercises


Running is a classic aerobic exercise that has incredible benefits for your cardiovascular health and endurance. You can start with jogging and gradually increase your pace. If you’re new to running, Parkrun is a great place to start.

The elliptical

Also known as the cross trainer, this machine is great for those who aren’t fans of running but want all the cardiovascular benefits it offers. The elliptical provides a low-impact option for those with joint issues. The repetitive rocking motion of the machine is great if you have hip, shoulder, or upper back issues and need to avoid running.


You can start cycling indoors at the gym or outdoors on a road bike. Spin classes are a hugely popular way of developing lower-body strength and cardiovascular fitness.


Swimming is a versatile, low-impact exercise that’s perfect for individuals who suffer with joint pain. Whether you’re swimming lengths or playing with family in the pool, moving in water makes for a great full-body workout.

Brisk walking and hiking

Aiming for at least 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can have a drastic impact on your overall health and wellbeing. Accessible for almost everyone, you can walk anywhere and everywhere. 

Getting out into nature for a hike is a great way to reap the benefits of aerobic exercise whilst getting some mental refreshment in the great outdoors.


Rowing makes for an intense workout. Whether you’re using a rowing machine at the gym or you’re out on the water, the unique back and forth movement involved makes for a great full-body workout. Rowing gets a nice burn going in your legs and you’ll find your cardiovascular limits are pushed to the limit.

An effective full-body workout that engages both the upper and lower body while improving cardiovascular fitness

The best anaerobic exercises

Strength training and weightlifting

Strength training involves using weights or resistance bands to build muscular strength. Popular exercises include squats, deadlifts, and the bench press. Lifting weights involves a short and powerful movement that causes the muscles to contract.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

HIIT refers to training programs that involve intervals of high-intensity exercises (e.g., sprinting, burpees) followed by short rest periods. This modern training technique is hugely popular as classes are relatively quick to perform and HIIT can help improve cardiovascular fitness and burn fat.

Circuit training 

Circuits are a collection of workouts where you move between different stations to get a full-body workout in. A combination of strength and aerobic exercises are performed inside a circuit. Circuit training typically includes bodyweight exercises like push-ups, lunges, and planks.

Calisthenics training

Calisthenics is another word for bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. These movements improve strength and endurance and can be done in public parks or at the gym.


Short, high-intensity sprints are an effective way to build muscle and improve anaerobic capacity.

Last updated Monday 23 October 2023

First published on Wednesday 17 February 2016