Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise: Low Intensity vs High Intensity | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise: Low Intensity vs High Intensity

Aerobic exercise seems to be a core component of many fitness programs, especially beginners workout routines.  However, should they incorporate anaerobic exercise as well?  A fundamental question centers around aerobic vs anaerobic exercise and the benefits that each offer.  It’s really a difference of low intensity vs high intensity.  Generally people think of aerobic training as low intensity cardio performed in the “fat burning zone.”  There is less familiarity with anaerobic exercise.  Anaerobic exercise encompasses high intensity training such as a strength training routine or HIIT routine.  This chart breaks down different exercise zones by heart rate (aerobic is light orange, anaerobic is dark orange).

Read on to find out how and why both aerobic and anaerobic exercise should be incorporated into a fitness routine.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise

Aerobic literally means “with oxygen.”  Oxygen is required to keep muscles in motion for a long period of time.  Muscles use this oxygen to burn fat.  Aerobic exercises include activities that are long duration and low to moderate intensity, including jogging, swimming, cycling, or skiing.

Just as aerobic means “with oxygen,” anaerobic means “without oxygen.”  While you obviously need oxygen to perform anaerobic exercise, your muscles do not receive enough oxygen to generate energy to maintain a high intensity exercise.  Instead, the muscles utilize glycogen, which ultimately comes from carbohydrates.  Activities that are short and intense are considered anaerobic exercises, including sprinting and weight training.

Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise has a number of health benefits.  At least 30 minutes of daily activity can help improve your heart, lungs and blood flow which ultimately lead to a longer life.  Here are some other benefits:

  1. Weight loss
  2. Increased endurance
  3. Improved immune system
  4. Reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer
  5. Improved cardiovascular system and circulation
  6. Increased good cholesterol, decreased bad cholesterol

Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise

Anaerobic exercise also offers quite a few benefits.  Anaerobic exercise makes your muscles stronger and helps decrease body fat.  A strength training routine allows you to build muscle mass, increase bone density, decrease body fat, and provides many of the same overall health benefits as aerobic exercise.  Another common form of anaerobic training is a HIIT routine, which involves short bursts followed by recovery periods.  This type of training has been shown to increase your metabolism after completion of the exercise to allow for more calorie burning than low intensity exercise.  There’s also the release of HGH, a hormone that promotes fat loss and muscle gain. You also improve your cardiovascular system and increase your aerobic capacity.  That’s right, anaerobic training actually helps your aerobic capacity.

Performing Aerobic Training and Anaerobic Training

As you can see, both aerobic training and anaerobic training each have unique benefits.  Therefore, both are a valuable part of any fitness routine.  However, aerobic exercise should be the starting point in a beginners workout routine.  To perform high intensity anaerobic training, you must have a good aerobic base built up.  There is debate amongst advanced exercises whether they should perform aerobic vs anaerobic exercise.  Aerobic exercise is almost too easy for such people and does not necessary provide a workout that is as beneficial, especially given the fat burning effects of anaerobic exercise.  Aerobic exercise should still be included though as there are important health benefits to lower intensity exercises.  Additionally, too much anaerobic exercise can lead to burnout or overtraining.

Next time you choose between aerobic vs anaerobic exercise, remember that the difference is really low intensity vs high intensity.  Aerobic training is low intensity, long duration and anaerobic training is high intensity, short duration.  Aerobic exercises like walking or jogging offer numerous health and cardiovascular benefits while anaerobic exercises such as a strength training routine or HIIT routine generally allow for more efficient fat burning and muscle building.  You could also consider combining aerobic and anaerobic exercise through a program like Visual Impact Cardio.

11 Responses to “Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise: Low Intensity vs High Intensity”

  • Dave,

    I agree that incorporating both forms of training is ideal. I like to perform aerobic activity (low intensity walking) immediately following anaerobic activity (strength training, HIIT) for increased fat burning.


  • Yeah there is some much info around I’m glad you address understanding the real differences but I have found you can do them both get similar results but just it takes different paths … As Alykhan has said its very effective if you can combine them … I like to cycle my workouts sometimes I’ll do Hiit for a few weeks then back off for a few weeks and do steady state to recover and then go hard again ..what try to achieve is progression. Thanks

  • Alykhan,
    There’s always debate about whether aerobic or anaerobic exercise should be done first. I’ve had success with anaerobic first, but I’m glad you’re seeing fat burning by doing aerobic first.

    Cycling workouts is a good way to go…keeps your body surprised and prevents burnout. You’re right, over time you just want progression. Sometimes to get there, you even need to take a step back.


  • ‘Sometimes to get there, you even need to take a step back.’
    Never a truer word spoken Dave.

    The same notion applies to strength gains aswell.
    As an example, I often drop weight-ranges from chest exercises to increase the number of reps to ‘shock’ the target area– Then up the weight again.

    A technique which is great for breaking through plateaus be it fatloss, strength gain or any number of goals.

  • Thanks Dave,

    I agree that aerobic training should be the priority for beginners, especially if they need to lose a few pounds.

    If you want to make aerobics a bit more intense and really torch fat, jog at about 75% of your maximum heart rate for an hour. You stay just below your lactate threshold and get your body using fat to fuel your run.

  • Clint,
    I definitely agree that shocking the muscles is a great way to bust through a plateau. 8-12 weeks at most for the same routine is the way to go. Then change something, reps, weight, sets, exercise, etc.

    Good comment about getting your heart rate up. Steady state cardio can definitely help burn some fat if done long enough. Once your aerobic capacity is great enough, I recommend doing HIIT first to release fatty acids and steady state to burn fatty acids.


  • It’s amazing how much people think that weight-lifting will rid your fat. Little realize that it’s a balance of cardio, too. I think it has to do with a nice balance of both. How many times would you recommend doing either in a week?

  • Ava,
    I do think traditional weight lifting is overrated for losing fat while cardio (especially HIIT) can really accelerate fat loss. My overall philosophy is weight training to increase/maintain muscle, diet for fat loss, cardio for fat loss. For weight training, depending how you split your routine, you could technically exercise every day. I prefer either doing 4 days of training split between pulling and pushing exercises or 3 days of full body weight training. For cardio, I perform a HIIT routine 2-3 days per week. If you’re doing Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai then you’d have to reduce the frequency of HIIT and weight training since those workouts can be intense.

  • Melissa Ricks:

    Thank you sharing such wonderful and informative information here. Keep up the good work :)

  • Melissa,
    You are quite welcome. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • You are really great Dave welcoming the people that come and visit your site. :)

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