A few years ago I went through a battery of fitness tests. I ran an obstacle course and a mile and half timed run. There was also a one-minute pushup test, a flexibility test, and situp test, as well as a 300-meter sprint. The mile and a half was challenging as I was running a pretty fast clip for me. The pushups and situps weren’t too problematic, as I am pretty lean and have a decent strength to weight ratio. I’m flexible, too, so that part wasn’t bad, and the obstacle course, while difficult, was actually kind of fun. By far the toughest was that 300-meter sprint. I felt like I was literally running for my life and was going to keel over and hurl at any minute. After completing the sprint I was gasping for air and my body was cramping. My sides hurt and my lungs burned. Sounds fun, huh?
As a coach, I have touted the benefits of anaerobic exercise for years. Clients always want to know which form of exercise reigns supreme, cardio or strength? As a generality, weight loss clients and especially women tend to favor cardio, while men tend to favor the weights. Both are obviously important, but my response to this question has always been that it’s how we do both that is more important. Meaning, do anaerobic exercise. It’s not a popular answer because of the scenario described above – it hurts!
How could something that feels so bad be so good for us? Well, it’s like eating kale or broccoli – certainly not as tasty as ice cream, but much more beneficial. We know this truth deep down, but still, we will go to almost any length to avoid hearing an answer we don’t want to hear. If you want the body most want – toned and defined, not too muscular and not too lean – and if you want to achieve optimal fitness, then anaerobic exercise reigns supreme.
What Is Anaerobic Exercise?
When I am coaching novices on getting their sprint on, I ask them to imagine a blood thirsty Rottweiler (not to pick on Rotties) trying to take a gash out of their hamstring – run like that. Or as a sign I recently read said, “Run like you stole something.” That is what it means to run anaerobically. You can’t do it for long. Why? Because training anaerobically means training without oxygen. Anaerobic exercise is defined as short duration, high intensity exercise lasting anywhere from merely seconds up to around two minutes. After two minutes, the body’s aerobic system kicks in. Examples of anaerobic exercise are ones that use fast twitch muscle fibers such as jumping and sprinting. By using and developing those fibers we enhance that musculature.
The Eyeball Test
Most people want a lean, yet toned body, but they train partially like a bodybuilder and partially like a marathoner thinking they’ll end up in the middle. Perhaps for a minute they’ll get there, but not in a sustainable way. You want a body like a sprinter, dancer, or gymnast? Guess what? You have to train like one. There is, of course, a chicken and egg debate here. Are sprinters born with their bodies, enabling them to become sprinters, or does participating in years of sprinting help them get those bodies? To which the answer of most such dilemmas is ‘yes.’ Like anything, it’s not nurture versus nature, but rather both happen. The key is to control your fifty percent.
What Anaerobic Training Does
The anaerobic effect happens in the body when we exert ourselves at 84% of our max heart rate and above. When we train in this level of intensity for short bursts of energy, we create what is called EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. In essence, EPOC is an after burn effect of calories burning at rest for up to 38 hours post exercise.1 This type of training can be incorporated into both our cardiovascular exercise as well as our strength routines.
With cardiovascular exercise we can do sprint intervals and we can go anaerobic in a strength application by doing explosive jump squats. The residual effects are numerous: burning more calories at rest, developing strength, a more efficient use of time, a more lean and defined body, and an increased VO2 max. And there are even studies that correlate anaerobic training to loss of belly fat and increased growth hormone.2
With all of the science and research behind anaerobic exercise, why isn’t it all the rave and sweeping the nation by storm? I’m guessing it has something to do with the fact anaerobic training is hard. Very hard. It’s not what people want to hear, so fitness professionals don’t always tell you. Generally, it’ a better business practice to tell customers what they do want to hear, and so trainers develop fun exercise programs. Anaerobic exercise isn’t like that. It’s not fun and takes a monstrous effort. It also feels terrible at times.
With such effort intensity comes an intimidation factor, as well as issues in and around safety. I would highly recommend good coaching and a safe environment before you head off on your own to the track to do sprint work or into the weight room to do jumping push ups. As with any plan, preparation is key – this means conditioning to condition, laying the proper foundation and base. It also means proper maintenance is required: deep tissue massage, proper stretching, myofascial release, and the use of heat and ice, for example. If you’re looking to become more athletic or toned, and I cannot frankly imagine someone who deep down wouldn’t want both, go anaerobic and your body will thank you.
1. Schuenke MD, Mikat RP, McBride JM (March 2002). “Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management.” European Journal of Applied Physiology 86 (5): 411–7. doi:10.1007/s00421-001-0568-y.
2. Irving, B., Davis, C., et al. “Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.” 2008. 40(11), 1863-1872.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.