Phil’s Favorite Anaerobic and Strength Workouts

By May 3, 2015 January 27th, 2017 Exercise, Lifestyle & Stress
Weight Lifting

Throughout my career, I have recommended many types of anaerobic training. This includes intervals on the track, hill training on the bike, hard 100s in the pool, and various types of weight workouts.

I’ve also performed all these and others myself at different times. Even though I no longer compete, I still perform both anaerobic training and strength workouts at various points throughout the year.

As most people know, my recommendation is also to start and stop anaerobic training at the appropriate times during a yearly schedule in an organized way so it does not interfere with endurance, health or performance.

While building a huge aerobic base is a key goal for optimal endurance, strength is vital too. The option of anaerobic training can help round out a balanced program, although many athletes use racing as their anaerobic training, and with great success. (Of course, without a healthy diet and proper regulation of stress, even the perfect training program will fall short.)

Through the years, these two types of workouts have been most consistent in bringing great results to competitive athletes, and they are also the ones I perform.

The Ultimate Anaerobic Workout

It’s simple, ask your brain to guide your workout and you usually won’t go wrong. After all, that’s just what happens during a race, whether you’re aware of it or not. In addition to the physical body, you’re also training your brain and learning to develop better intuition and instincts. My favorite way to do this is with fartlek workouts, which can be done running, biking, swimming or with any other endurance activity.

Fartlek is a Swedish word for speed-play. Following a good warm-up, the athlete speeds up, typically at or near race pace, then slows down as he or she intuitively feels the body needing a brief rest of slower activity. This allows the brain to participate in the workout, so to speak, feeling the body’s response to the workout and knowing when to ease up. It’s like a natural interval workout.

For example, following your warm-up, bike above your MAF heart rate until your brain tells you to slows you down; then ease up from the higher intensity. When ready, gradually speeding up again when you feel ready. Likewise for running, or any other activity.

For many, the fartlek workout is a relief from the burden of the track and clock, or some predetermined workout that seemed interesting at the time but that may not match your body’s specific needs during the workout on that particular day. Fartlek is a great way to individualize the workout your brain can handle on a particular day.

The Ultimate Strength Workout

It’s not just about muscles—bones must be strong too. For endurance athletes, an important factor is to strengthen both muscles and bone, while avoiding added bulk, which reduces economy slowing your race pace. It’s not necessary to bulk up muscles to make them stronger. There are three different approaches to accomplish this with any single one—or combinations of approaches—working equally well.

Unfortunately, too many people, endurance athletes and everyone else, are too weak. This problem typically starts to develop in our mid- to late-20s, long before our endurance abilities peak, and can become serious by age 50. And, of course, improving bone strength is vital too.

Despite the hype, weight training does not guarantee improvements in bone strength. In fact, it can sometimes reduce it. In addition, fatigue, overtraining and injury are too common.

Strength is not always associated with muscle size. It’s the brain, and entire neuromuscular system, that dictates power. Simply put, the brain stimulates nerves that control individual muscle fibers to contract. The more fibers stimulated and contracted, the more strength. Just having a large mass of muscle does not ensure more fibers will be stimulated to generate power. That’s why a skinny kid who can contract a lot of muscle fibers can be stronger than a big bulky athlete who can’t contract large numbers of fibers. (Strength, power and speed all play an important role.)

Instead of images of bulky bodybuilder muscles, let’s take a lesson from Olympic weightlifters. They want the most strength from their bodies without too much additional muscle weight gain, which can put them into a higher weight category where competition may be more difficult. Apart from the heavyweight and super heavyweight categories, these athletes generally are not bulky, but have very strong muscles and bones—more so than bodybuilders.

Lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions can increase muscle strength and bone density better than lifting lighter weights with higher repetitions. This does not mean more weight is better. Use this guide: an appropriate weight is about 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum weight. This is also the weight you can lift about six times before fatigue develops—you don’t want to fatigue your muscles at each workout, so build up slowly to learn your limits.

This approach also means a shorter workout is necessary. In fact, you may be spending more time resting between reps than lifting! Even more significant is that in the time it takes the average person to travel to a gym and back, he or she could have completed the same workout at home.

You really only need to perform a couple of full body routines to build muscle and bone strength, and without interfering with your endurance. The two easiest and most effective ones include the dead lift and squat (front, overhead and or back):

  • Reps: 1-6 reps in each set.
  • Sets: 4 (more if time and energy permit).
  • Lifting should be done relatively fast not slow.
  • Recovery between sets should be three minutes (timed), more if desired.
  • All movements should be smooth and natural.
  • As you get stronger, slowly increase the amount of weight rather than repetitions.
  • Three times per week, more if time permits.

Sample workout:

  • Warm-up: 15 minutes (walk, easy run or other easy aerobic activity)
  • Dead lift: 5 reps
  • Recovery: 3 minutes
  • Squat: 5 reps
  • Recovery: 3 minutes
  • Repeat above lifts three more times
  • Cool-down (same as warm up)

Most important:

Don’t try these workouts at home or at the gym if you’re injured, have frequent colds, flu, asthma and allergies, or other indications of diminished health. Likewise if you don’t have a good functioning aerobic system, which helps the power muscle fibers function and prevents injury. Developing the aerobic system should be accomplished first (for at least three months) before implementing a strength program (see The Balance Game).

In addition consider these recommendations:

  • When starting a strength program, even if you’re familiar with it, begin conservatively with less weight and reps. Take several weeks to gradually build up. In many cases, use a barbell without added weight so you get used to the movements, then slowly add small amounts of weight every couple of weeks.
  • If you’re new to lifting weights, get some professional one-on-one guidance.

My favorite strength training involves working outdoors—chopping wood, lifting logs and stones and other natural activities. When I’m not doing this, I perform slow weights—a method I developed whereby one performs a single set of about six reps at various times throughout the day in between phone calls, email, meals and other activities: see Slow Weights.

So say goodbye to isolation exercises—those that attempt six-pack abs and bulging biceps, and weight gain that too often gives the illusion of great strength. In addition to muscles, bones should be strengthened too. A simple, safe and short routine will accomplish both in a healthy way.

After 1 month of training:

Once you’ve spent a full month successfully incorporating a small amount of anaerobic training into your routine, it’s now a good moment to analyze how your body has reacted to this level of training. We recommend that you re-do the MAF Test and re-take the Overtraining Survey in order to figure out whether the following month of training should include an anaerobic component.

We also recommend that each month, you re-do the MAF Test and take inventory of your body’s function in a manner similar to the Overtraining Survey.

Now that you’ve spent a month training, you’ve gotten the hang of how to incorporate the MAF exercise principles into your life. It’s time to move on to the following step of the MAF Online Program. If you haven’t started the online program and would like to read more about it, click here. Click the button below to go to Survey 6, which will help you begin to understand how the major stresses in your lifestyle are impacting your health and fitness:


  • Augusto says:

    Hi Ivan, Trying to calculate the amount of aerobic excersise to keep the 80/20 time balance. When lifting weights for each series it usually takes 1 min to lift and 3 to rest. Should we count only 1 min as anaerobic or all 4 min including rest?

  • Tibor says:

    I would like to contribute, if every so slightly to the MAF knowledge.
    (My weekly milage is ~90 km on average, goes from 80 up to 100 sometimes 110 km, I do one pilates class every week and often one yoga class per week)

    I am doing MAF training for 3 years now, improving from 5:20 min/km pace down to 4:25 min/km over those three years (yes, almost a minute faster)
    Initially, MAF pace was really easy and very pleasant. The workout was more of an un-workout were I had to hold myself back to stay below the MAF heart rate.
    Over time, I became faster and when I reached paces around 4:30 – 4:40 min/km it felt harder and harder to run. I still had to be careful to stay below the MAF ceiling but I noticed I was putting in quite some effort and it felt like a hard work-out.
    I started introducing easier runs at about MAF minus 10 bpm. Not because I felt tired but because I started dreading to run ‘hard’ every day.
    That helped for a while. And I continued to improve.
    But about two months ago, I noticed even the easier runs creep up to become hard.

    So I started asking questions, reading up on as much as I could.
    Two weeks ago, I decided to apply what I thought I know and introduced a squat routine (6 two legged, 6 one legged each) every morning. It doesn’t take a lot of time. After only 7 days of doing this while continuing with my normal running, I noticed the MAF runs to become much more pleasant again. They are still work but not hard workouts. I call them easy runs again, even though they are at a pace that 3 years ago was half marathon pace.

    So, if you are in the same boat, advancing well with MAF but dread the runs because of perceived effort, make sure to incorporate some strength exercises.

  • Maria says:


    What do you think of kettlebell exercises? Are they cardio or strengthening? I want to burn fat. I have a hard time walking because of arthritis that’s why I want to use kettlebells.


  • Daniel Kelly says:

    Hello Ivan,

    I have spent three months building a base, running exclusively aerobically and including weights twice per week. I followed Dr. Maffetone’s recommendations of low reps and higher weight (4 x 6 reps) and not lifting to excessive fatigue. I am now ready to include a block of anaerobic training prior to my first race, a 10 km event, of the season. With the onset of anaerobic training, should I continue to lift weights? I understand that lifting weights is classified as anaerobic and so it should count towards the recommended of 20% anaerobic work? Is one session per week a sufficient stimulus? I find twice per week works better, but that would nearly take up all 20%.

    Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • Rodrigo Freeman says:

    Thanks very much for the reply Ivan.

  • Rodrigo Freeman says:

    Hello Ivan

    After doing strength training for 6 months (one-legged squats/dead-lifts) using elastic bands (since I lacked the equipment) I have finally the space at home and now own a squat/dead-lift bar. I have been on MAFF for the last 3 years with success. My first ‘A’ race is a 100-mie ultramarathon at the end of April.

    For the last two weeks I have done squats/dead=lifts roughly 5 times each week, ie 4x6reps at 80% with at least 5min rest, normally when I cook dinner.

    Question 1: How much rest do I need to leave in between lifting weights and say running ‘aerobically’? 4hrs?
    Question 2: How many weeks before my ‘A’ race should I stop lifting weights? And should I do some sort of ‘maintenance’ weights?

    • Rodrigo:

      The first question is case-specific. It’s very difficult to know what works (or not) for your body. For example, you might notice that your aerobic run is much slower after 4 hours of rest than it is after a full day of rest—an indication of fatigue. For another person, 4 hours might work just fine. But the rule of thumb is to leave as much rest in between as it takes for your aerobic run to NOT be impacted by your strength session.

      2. About 2 weeks—enough for a full taper. Within those 2 weeks, you are not going to lose any of the strength that has already been transferred into your running gait, and any further strength gains that you do make are not going to impact your race (but they will impact your readiness for the race). So the best way to prepare for a race, especially a 100-miler is to taper completely aerobically.

  • Phillip Roberts says:

    What are some resource that lay out how to incorporate this training philosophy into practice? Sample for training for 5k or 10k? Amount of time spent exercising and how frequently? Is this covered in any of the books?

  • brad says:

    hi ivan,

    i am starting 3 months of aerobic training spending about 6 hrs a week riding my bike at my MAF HR. i would like to break it up with some gym time. i have put together a circuit workout regiment where i do 6 reps, rest 10 seconds and repeat this for 5 minutes – not to exceed my MAF HR. i rest 3 minutes per set and then do the next exercise in the circuit w/ the same # of reps and 10 second rest period. i go through the circuit twice = 64 minutes. the exercises are the turkish get-up, deadlift, squat, and cable pull down. i use as much weight with each exercise as i can without exceeding my MAF HR.

    the question is, does this type of low weight, high rep circuit help build muscle endurance along with improving my aerobic training?

    • When people say “muscle endurance,” what they really mean is the muscle’s ability to clear lactate, combined with the neurological capacity to continue working out at that intensity. So, while working out a variety of muscles and movements below the MAF HR will help you develop and maintain strength and aerobic endurance in the muscles and movements you are training, you won’t be working out the kind of “muscle endurance” that is typically meant when CSCS types say “muscle endurance.”

      Generally, I can say that it will help. However, it’s very typical that almost all strength training engages the anaerobic system in some fashion. So lower-rep aerobic exercise isn’t quite as aerobic as the very-high rep exercise in running or biking. So just keep an eye on your stress levels and your HRV (if you track it). And keep doing MAF tests on a monthly basis.

  • alan says:

    hi there ivan.
    when i do heavy ( for me ) squats and dead lifts, the day after on the bike i feel super and my hr is a few beats lower than base during the workout.
    do you have any clue? i thought it would get worse…

    • Alan:

      It’s hard to say. Squats help me blow off stress. That helps my MAF speed. But if I overdo it, my MAF speed would slow down. So I’d say that you’re likely on target in terms of how much anaerobic work you’re putting in.

  • Felipe Souza says:

    I’ve been training 100% aerobically for seven months and pace is geting faster after each month.
    I do not want to compete so soon, but I want get fit and become a better athlete.
    When should I insert anaerobic and strength workouts in my training schedule?
    Is there a subjective signal that aerobic traning reached a limit?

  • Rui says:

    Let me see if I got this straight:
    – you advocate strength exercises that involve large muscular groups, and doing up to 6 repetitions (with heavy load, if we are talking about dead lift and squats) with lots of rest in between (so the muscle doesn’t get exhausted). Is this considered anaerobic? This is strength training, right?
    – you also recommend high-repetition exercises with moderate load (push-ups, body-weight squats) as long as MAF HR isn’t reached. This is muscular resistance training, right?
    – so basically what kind of weight training will hinder our aerobic evolution? is it a load that allows me to do 10/12 repetitions? or is it low rest times / exhausting a muscle group? what about isometric or calisthenic exercises?

    I rarely reach my MAF HR in the gym by using weights, only by doing exercises like burpies, jumping jacks, mountain climbings, etc. Should I moderate on these?

    Also, when you talk being about 20% anaerobic / 80% aerobic, are you talking about percentage of time over / below MAF while running? Or does a 30′ interval train count as 30 anaerobic minutes?


    • Rui:

      Too much weight training will hinder aerobic progress. You can do all kinds of exercises—even lifting heavy weights—as long as you stay under a certain stress threshold. How do you know if you’ve crossed it? If you plateau for 2 or more subsequent MAF tests (or your speed begins to decrease).

      However, you want to minimize or eliminate strength training if you want to maximize your aerobic progress. The situations you want to do this are: a period of aerobic base-building, when you are ill, injured, or overtrained, or recovering from any of the 3.

      Moderate on the burpees, jumping jacks, etc—tally them towards your anaerobic training, as long as you go over MAF during the workout. And a 30′ interval session does count as 30 anaerobic minutes: the peak stress that you achieve during a training session has a big (but of course, not absolute) say in how your body tolerates that session, and therefore in what your body will prioritize developing.

  • Mircea Andrei Ghinea says:

    interesting article!!

    “an appropriate weight is about 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum weight. this is also the weight you can lift about six times before fatigue develops”
    how can i know my maximum one repetition weight, without getting an injury? do i pick a heavy weight (for my eyes) and try to work with it one repetition? and if i can do it ok, i try another time with a heavier weight? how can i do that to stay safe, so i can not get an injury?

    wow, interesting what i found in the comments (written by Ivan), that one can do strength training while still being aerobic (if under MAF-heart-rate). so if i can do those maximum six repetition strength workout and my heart rate is under MAF it means i am working aerobic, right?

    thank you!

    • Mircea:

      Just like Phil wrote, do six repetitions of some exercise (barbell curls, squat), with some weight X. If the 6th repetition is very difficult to complete, then the weight you used is 80% of your 1RM (1 repetition maximum). To get your 1RM just multiply the weight by 1.25.

      You can still be aerobic with strength training (light dumbbell work, bodyweight, boxing, etc) if you stay under MAF, but you can’t be aerobic weightlifting, regardless of your heart rate.

      The difference between “strength training” and “weightlifting” is that weightlifting requires the body to generate huge amounts of power in a very short amount of time. This can only be accomplished with the anaerobic system. In the kinds of strength training I mention, that requirement doesn’t exist. You can create it if you add too much weight (by turning “strength training” into “weightlifting”).

      Examples of strength training exercises that you can do as MAF work are:

      Push-ups (particularly half push-ups)
      Bodyweight or high-repetition, low weight squats
      High-repetition, low-weight bench press
      Light resistance band training
      Assisted pull-ups

      (This is by no means an exhaustive list).

  • Rodrigo says:

    I’ve had a great season training only using MAFF for the four 100-miles ultramarathons I took part in, achieving personal records and course records and being injury free. I’m now enjoying the off season and thinking about next year. I am wondering and questioning whether there are any gains to be made by adding a small amount of anaerobic training in the build up to these long ultramarathon races? Thanks

    • Rodrigo:

      Sure. What I would do is use my anaerobic allotment to train for course-specificity: If the course is particularly rocky, I’d go out for a run after doing lower-leg stability work to challenge those muscles further (you can swap this out for running on sand), or if the course is particularly hilly, I’d train hills comparable in surface, slope, and length to the kind of stuff I’ll find of the course. That said, for ultramarathons I wouldn’t let anaerobic/strength training exceed more than 5-10% of my total training volume.

      Above all, listen to your MAF test.

  • Dragoberto says:

    Do break after 3 months anaerobic (heavy weight) training is good to not stay overreached/overtrained? Or less, maybe 6 weeks? Do break one week on three months is enough? I know that we must to hear our bodies, but sometimes can be too late.

  • Natalya Murphy says:

    When is a good time to switch to doing some anaerobic workouts? I’ve been reading through this website, have read the Big Book of Endurance Training, and have been using the Maffetone method since October. My frustration is that Phil doesn’t seem to provide any guidelines on when to switch to anaerobic training, and if you do the anaerobic training, how much is too much?

    • Natalya:

      When your MAF speed has been steadily rising for 3-6 months (although I personally did 6, just to be sure). Then, incorporate anaerobic training in NO MORE than 20% of your training volume, meaning 15%. While you are training anaerobically, do a MAF test every week instead of every month, and keep an eye on your speed. If your MAF speed gains plateau for more than 4 weeks, or your MAF speed starts dropping, switch back to fully aerobic workouts.

      (That said, if your MAF speed plateaus somewhere between 7 and 6 minutes per mile, that’s because you’ve probably reached your highest aerobic potential, not because you’re doing too much anaerobic workouts).

      Hope this helps.

  • Oresti says:

    Hello Phil
    one and a half years ago my chiropractor introduced me to The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing which has, at the age of 45, not only changed my life but the life of my wife and teenage kids. I have become fitter beyond what ever imagined (and its only the beginning) not only breaking PBs by training within HR but biochemically glucose, LDLs and HDLs coming back in balance. I would like to personally thank you and ask if there is anyone in Adelaide South Australia (and or Australia) or any books that can tie my training (now both aerobic and anaerobic) together in accordance with my goals
    Thanks so much again and best wishes

  • SteveL says:

    If a person is in the aerobic base building period should strength training be discontinued? I do a basic heavy weight, low rep barbell work out (Mark Rippetoe) and rest anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes between sets. Thanks!

    • Steve:

      Not necessarily. Whether the body is functioning aerobically or anaerobically is directly correlated to stress, and one of the major indicators of stress is heart rate. So, as long as you are at or under your MAF heart rate during your strength training, you can go ahead and do it, and it’ll still be aerobic.

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