If you chronically do HIIT to reach your goals, maybe you should try something else.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) became the gold standard for exercise in the early 2000s, when scientists discovered that exerting a lot of energy in a short time frame could result in accelerated fat loss, increased metabolism, improved strength and endurance, and reduced risk of chronic disease.
In other words, HIIT could do what traditional cardio could do in far less time.
This was fantastic news for people who wanted to exercise but were always stretched for time. And it still is great news! HIIT training offers so many benefits for health and fitness — when implemented correctly.
What you may not realize is that aerobic exercise — the completely unsexy, unexciting kind of cardio — unarguably outperforms poorly planned HIIT.
What is aerobic exercise?
Aerobic exercise is what most people think of when they think of traditional cardio exercise. You know, things like running on a treadmill, using an elliptical, dying on a StairMaster (speaking from personal experience; the StairMaster always kills).
Aerobic activity is any type of activity performed for long periods of time at submaximal intensities — meaning, you could perform that activity at that intensity for at least 10 minutes. It’s often called “steady-state cardio” or “low-intensity steady-state” (LISS) activity.
Typically, aerobic exercise is performed in chunks of 30 minutes, because that’s just what makes sense to people. It’s also well-established that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per day is incredibly beneficial to health and fitness.
Benefits of aerobic exercise
Speaking of benefits, aerobic exercise offers plenty: Steady-state, low-intensity activity can improve your endurance and stamina, reduce your risk of chronic diseases, improve your heart health, help you lose weight, boost your immune function, strengthen your bones, improve your mood, and help you sleep at night.
What is anaerobic exercise?
Anaerobic exercise includes activities like sprinting, jumping, throwing, and lifting your one-rep max (1RM). Basically, any activity that requires great force and exertion in a short period of time can be a type of anaerobic exercise.
Most people equate anaerobic workouts with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts. Things like: work for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds. Any workout that requires short bursts of maximal output (e.g., an all-out sprint) followed by rest intervals is an anaerobic workout.
Benefits of anaerobic exercise
Anaerobic exercise has its own unique suite of benefits, especially for those looking to improve their athletic performance.
Anaerobic workouts can: increase your speed, stamina, power, and explosiveness; help you build muscle and get stronger; improve your heart health; accelerate weight loss; improve your heart rate variability; and speed up your post-exercise metabolism.
Is aerobic or anaerobic exercise better?
As you can see, both aerobic and anaerobic activity have a multitude of benefits. It’s not a question of which one is better — it’s a question of which one is better for you. Just like with other types of training, you have to consider your own unique goals.
Let’s use running as an example.
If your primary goal is to run a marathon, it should go without saying that your main focus should be aerobic activity. To successfully run a marathon, you need to spend hours upon hours training at a submaximal state. You need to improve your cardiovascular capacity, your muscular endurance, and your lactic acid threshold.
If your primary goal is to compete at a high level in the 400-meter dash, however, you need to focus on anaerobic activity. You need to train your muscles to handle maximal loads; teach them to exert extremely high amounts of force in just a few seconds. You need to improve your power, your speed, your VO2 max, and your ability to accelerate.
The truth is, most people can benefit from adding both types of cardio into their training regimen, but only if they do it the right way. You can reap all the advantages — power, explosiveness, speed, endurance, cardiovascular health, stamina — if you implement anaerobic and aerobic training smartly.
How to add aerobic exercise to your training
The absolute easiest way to add aerobic exercise into your training is to walk. Seriously: Walking is the most underrated, yet completely doable form of aerobic training. Of course, you can go for other activities, such as rowing, cycling, or hiking, but with walking, there’s no barrier to entry. You don’t need to buy anything or travel anywhere.
Another easy way to add aerobic training to your fitness regimen is with bodyweight AMRAPs (as many rounds as possible). Choose a handful of movements
Here’s a sample AMPRAP from our Smarter Sweat Foundational Strength Program:
In 20 minutes, complete as many rounds as possible of the following:
The key is to stay aerobic — AKA, don’t burn out. During an aerobic AMRAP, your heart rate should be elevated, but your breathing should be controlled. You should feel a slight muscle burn, but be able to complete all the reps unbroken.
As far as frequency, if you’re doing aerobic training correctly, you can do it every single day. Try taking a 20-minute walk after your workouts or before bed or adding a 20-minute aerobic finisher to your workouts.
How to add anaerobic exercise to your training
It’s not as easy to incorporate anaerobic exercise as it is to include aerobic exercise. This is because anaerobic workouts can cause more harm than good if they’re not implemented properly.
Anaerobic workouts are most commonly formatted as HIIT workouts, and you shouldn’t do HIIT every day if longevity is your goal. However, HIIT implemented smartly — with the goal of improving your overall fitness — can produce stellar results.
Like aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise can take many forms. One of the most common is sprinting. An example of an anaerobic workout is something like 30 seconds of sprinting followed by one minute of rest, repeated five times.
You can also do anaerobic exercise in the form of resistance training. An EMOM (every minute on the minute) is the perfect example of this. Here’s an example of a weightlifting HIIT workout:
Every minute on the minute (EMOM) for 10 minutes:
5 back squats at 85% of your one-rep max (1RM)
This type of workout trains your ability to lift near-maximal loads for just a few reps in a very short time frame.
Smarter Sweat takeaways
The average person can (and should!) add both aerobic and anaerobic exercise to their fitness routine. Both should be in your weekly rotation, but only if you can stick to a smart, intentional schedule.
There’s really no such thing as too much aerobic work performed at submaximal intensities (i.e., you can’t really go on too many walks. Walking is great). However, too much anaerobic work is definitely a thing.
Doing too much HIIT can actually produce the opposite of what you want: Instead of feeling energized and losing fat, your body might start to work against you, leaving you tired, overly sore, with spikes in stress hormones that cause your to hold onto stubborn fat (this happens because your body senses that you are expending substantial energy every day and wants to hold onto energy reserves).
The bottom line: Aerobic workouts, completed properly and often, are immensely beneficial. Anaerobic workouts, completed periodically and properly, are immensely beneficial. Anaerobic workouts, completed too often and at too high an intensity, are detrimental.
Amanda is the co-founder of Smarter Sweat. She's a certified personal trainer, health coach, and functional fitness coach. She also owns another business, where she writes about all things fitness, nutrition, travel and lifestyle.
About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.