Vo2 Max Training: 7 Exercises for Maximum Results

[toggle title=’Click to show/hide spoiler’]


Vo2 Max Training: 7 Exercises for Maximum Results

March 13, 2020 Guardian-Elite Fitness

We all have a fitness goal. For some, losing that pesky 10 pounds of belly fat is the goal. Others are focused on muscle gain. Maybe you’re training for an upcoming 5k. Possibly you are a Crossfit competitor. No matter the goal, we all want to improve some aspect of our current fitness level. There is one indicator of fitness that has a crossover effect to all of these stated goals: Vo2 Max.

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

  1. Vo2 Max Meaning
  2. What’s Vo2 Max?
  3. Vo2 Max Formula
  4. Vo2 Max: How to Measure?
  5. Vo2 Max Chart
  6. Genes Matter for Vo2 Max
  7. Lactate Threshold
  8. Why Vo2 Max Is Important To Overall Fitness?
  9. How HIIT Training Can Help Improve Vo2 Max
  10. 7 Exercises for Vo2 Max Training
  11. Fartlek Workout
  12. Hill Intervals
  13. HIIT Workout
  14. 30/30 Intervals
  15. Circuit Training
  16. Full Body Weight Exercises
  17. Supersets
  18. Heart Rate For VO2 Max Training
  19. Bottom Line On VO2 Max Training

Vo2 Max Meaning

If we want to improve, it’s essential to push our body farther, faster and increase intensity. Pushing our body to it’s limits forces it to adapt to this new stimulus and become more efficient at whatever you’re doing.

If you’re wanting to increase your bench, lift heavier. Increase your mile time? Train running fast. This might seem obvious to us, and really it should be.

We call this principle, progressive overload. We need to understand what progressive overload is to improve Vo2 max. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight.

Haven’t heard of it?

Check out this detailed post with everything you need to know about progressive overload.

You might be thinking: I lift weights at the gym. Why should I care about Vo2 max?

While Vo2 max is primarily a measurement of cardiovascular fitness, don’t fool yourself, muscle fatigue happens when you’re lifting weights too.

If we increase our Vo2 max, our body will get better at delivering oxygen and nutrients to muscles, which in turn will improve endurance for weight training sessions and additional fat burning.

This is where Vo2 max can help you reach any fitness related goal.

What’s Vo2 Max?

If your body is working at its highest level, you can knock out that extra rep before exhaustion hits, or run hard that last 2 minutes on the treadmill.

By implementing specific training to increase our Vo2 max level, we can take our overall fitness to the next level across the board. No matter what the goal is.

Vo2 max training can help you supercharge your fitness level. No matter where you’re starting from. If you think you might want a more personalized, one-on-one approach you’d get with a personal trainer, you need to try the Aaptiv app on your smartphone.

We highly recommend the app here at Guardian-Elite Fitness. You will get workout ideas and personalized training plans to use at your convenience. There are even HITT based workouts that will blend perfectly to your Vo2 max training. We’re an affiliate for Aaptiv, but we use it ourselves and highly recommend the service.

There’s even a 30 day free trial so you can test it out first.

Vo2 Max Formula

Vo2 max sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Vo2 is the volume of oxygen (V=volume, and O2= oxygen) our body is able to absorb during exercise. The volume of air is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed in one minute, per pound, or kilogram of body weight.

Vo2 max is mainly an indicator for aerobic endurance and cardiovascular fitness. Simply put, Vo2 max is the maximum rate that our heart, lungs and muscles can use oxygen we are taking in during intense exercise.

It’s easy to see why improving Vo2 max can help anyone to become a better athlete and improve overall fitness.

Vo2 Max: How to Measure?

measure VO2 max
For the most accurate way to test Vo2 max, a person would want to go to a sports performance lab for testing. You would be tested on a treadmill or a stationary bike, gradually increasing the intensity over time.

You would be inhaling and exhaling into a specialized face mask that will measure respiratory rates, oxygen volume and carbon dioxide. Most of the time, a heart rate monitor will also be used.

The optimal Vo2 max training level is determined when your body is at the point where you transition from aerobic exercise to anaerobic exercise.

In other words, you go from performing at a level that your respiratory and cardiovascular system can deliver enough oxygen to the muscles to maintain. At this point of our Vo2 max, we hit a plateau.

It’s at this plateau, or tipping point to anaerobic exercise when your body can no longer meet the demands of the exercise being performed.

At this point you will have reached your Vo2 max.

Of course, very few of us will have access to a sports medicine lab to have this testing done. Aside from that, it’s expensive.

Vo2 Max Chart

There are several ways we can measure our own VO2 max level:

I used this online VO2 max calculator to estimate what my VO2 max would be. I filled out a few questions, like age, gender, weight, height, waist circumference, resting heart rate, etc. After a couple additional questions, the calculator spit out my Vo2 max number. I scored a 50.

What does this score mean?

This Vo2 max table that shows where you rank for age and gender using the Vo2 max score you got.

Genes Matter for Vo2 Max

Studies have shown that genetics can account for 47% of the inter-individual variance in training responses. Which means that our DNA is largely responsible for how much our body will actually respond to training and increase Vo2 max levels.

Some genetically gifted people may be able to increase their Vo2 max easier than the rest of us.

No matter how much you train, there might be a limit to say, the amount of lactic acid your body can clear, how efficiently your muscles can process the oxygen, or how fast your heart can pump the oxygen-rich blood to those muscles.

That part can’t be trained. It just is what it is. With that caveat in mind, there is definitely ways we can increase our Vo2 max through training and other means, like weight loss.

Lactate Threshold

training for VO2 Max

We really can’t discuss Vo2 max without also mentioning the role of lactate threshold.

Lactate threshold is the level of intensity of any exercise, when lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood faster than the rate at which is can be removed.

Why is this bad?

The burning sensation we get in our muscles, and even the feeling like we might vomit during seriously intense workouts is caused by this lactic acid build-up in the blood and the muscles. Our body will clear this lactic acid in the blood up until the point which we call the lactate threshold, when there is more lactic acid build-up than what we can clear.

Why is this happening?

When we are training below our lactate threshold, we are training aerobically. This means “with oxygen”. Our body is using the oxygen we take in as the energy used by our muscles and delivered through the blood. When we crank up the intensity and reach the point where the oxygen intake can not keep up, our body will switch to anaerobic metabolism.

This means the energy demand is still there, but now the energy has to come from somewhere else.

In our body this means we will get that energy in the form of glucose. Through this method called glycolysis, the body is breaking down glucose into a substance called pyruvate.

When we are working our body to it’s limits and the oxygen is no longer enough to satisfy the energy demands, this pyruvate is converted to lactate, which will continue to allow the body to breakdown glucose for energy.

Eventually, the lactic acid builds up enough that our body says “enough” and that is when you start to feel the common effects of muscle exhaustion.

This is actually our own bodily defense against permanent muscle damage. So, while the lactate does serve a purpose, it also can hinder our progress.

Why Vo2 Max Is Important To Overall Fitness?

VO2 max is not only important for runners, it is a barometer for our overall level of fitness. The measurement is pulling in information across a wide variety of inputs in our body.

The heart, blood vessels carrying the blood, the lungs delivering the oxygen to the blood and the heart, the muscles that use the blood and the oxygen to perform the activity. Even the nervous system.

All of these physiological elements are coming together to enable us to perform at the highest level of activity. If there is a way to improve these systems, why would anyone not want to do that?

HIIT Workouts: The Absolute Best Way to Burn Fat and Improve Fitness

How HIIT Training Can Help Improve Vo2 Max

HIIT training

Before we get to the 7 best exercises to increase Vo2 max, we should quickly discuss why high intensity interval training goes hand-in-hand with Vo2 max training. You will soon realize the cross-over effect between HIIT workouts and improving your Vo2 max.

When performing a HIIT workout, we are working near our Vo2 max for short intervals of maximum intensity.

In fact, studies have shown that in as little as six HIIT sessions, performed over the span of 2 weeks, participants doubled the amount of time they were able to exercise. This is because of the improvement of Vo2 max induced form these HIIT workouts.

7 Exercises for Vo2 Max Training

1. Fartlek Workout

If you aren’t a runner, you might not be familiar with Fartlek workouts. Plus, the name sounds weird. The word Fartlek translates to “speed play”, which helps to explain how the workout is performed.

Truth is, Fartlek workouts are a great way to challenge your body and train at a high intensity for short intervals. Because of this, the difference with Fartlek workouts is that unlike formal interval training, there are no set times for intervals.

Fartlek’s are not run on a track. You would go out on a run as normal but intermittently run hard for varying times and distances during the run. This is more of a run by feel than using a stopwatch or running around the track.

Here is a full post that will break down a Fartlek workout in detail for you.

Below is a sample workout from that article to use for your Fartlek workout.

The Ladder Fartlek

Start with a 10-minute warm-up, either outside or on the treadmill.

  • Accelerate to a hard pace for 2 minutes
  • Slow to an easy jog for 3 minutes
  • Increase speed to a “comfortably hard” pace for 2 minutes
  • Easy jog 2 minutes
  • Slightly increase the pace from a jog to an easy run for 4 minutes
  • Easy jog 1 minute
  • Slightly increase the pace to an easy run for 4 minutes
  • Easy jog 1 minute
  • Increase speed to a “comfortably hard” pace for 2 minutes
  • Easy jog 2 minutes
  • Accelerate to a hard pace for 2 minutes
  • 5-minute cool down

2. Hill Intervals

Find a moderately sized hill that you are able to run up and down. Start at the bottom and run “all out” all the way to the top. When you get to the top, slow to a jog and go slowly back down the hill, jogging, as your recovery.

You can repeat this process as necessary. A good workout would consist of 8-10 intervals. Find a hill that will take you around 2 minutes to run up to the top.

Can’t go outside? Try it on the treadmill.

Set the incline to a challenging grade and run for 2-3 minutes very hard. Slow the speed down and lower the incline if necessary, to recover before starting the next interval.

3. HIIT Workout

Any HIIT workout will do when your goal is to improve VO2 max. Just make sure that these intervals are done at maximum effort.

Here are some examples of popular HIIT workouts to try:

Burpee Interval Workout

Do this circuit as a set of four. Only resting for one minute after each circuit.

  • Pullups
  • Reps: As many as possible in 30 seconds
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Reps: 60
  • Burpees
  • Reps: 20

Jump Rope Interval Workout

  • Do this circuit as a set of four. Only resting for one minute after each circuit.
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Reps: 45
  • Pushups
  • Reps: 20-30
  • Front Plank
  • Duration: 1 min.
  • Jump Rope
  • Duration: 1 min.

HIIT Ladder Workout


4. 30/30 Intervals
This is a simple workout, that can be done on a track, on the road or on the treadmill.

Run for 30 seconds. The key is to run as hard as you can, but only as hard as you could hold if you were running for a full six minutes. After the 30 seconds is up, slow to a jog for 30 seconds.

This hard/easy alternating interval should be done 12 times and even as many as 20 times as you improve your fitness and VO2 max level. After these get easy enough, switch over to 60/60 intervals for a new challenge and continue to increase you VO2 levels.

5. Circuit Training
Circuit training can be done at home or in the gym with weights.

Choose 5-8 different exercises that can be done one right after the other. In between each exercise, only take about 20 seconds to rest before moving on to the next exercise.

Here are some ideas for exercises to use in the workout:

  • Kettlebell swings
  • Goblet squats
  • Bench press
  • Body weight push-up
  • High knees
  • Overhead press
  • Lunges

You can get as creative as you want and put together a challenging circuit to try. The key is to go hard and push yourself during the circuit. This is going to ensure we are forcing the body to adapt to the higher oxygen and energy demands.

6. Full Body Weight Exercises
Similar to the circuit training listed above, you may choose to incorporate all bodyweight exercises instead of using weights at the same time.

Here are some examples:

  • Jumping jacks
  • Lunges
  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups
  • High knees
  • Burpees

7. Supersets
A super set is any workout, preferably with weights, that you perform back-to-back with little to no rest time. These can either be common muscle groups or opposing muscle groups. Instead of two workouts, you could do three different workouts.

Super sets are sure to up the intensity. Not only will you be breathing hard, you’ll be working your muscles hard at the same time. Make sure each station is set up and ready to go, so when you start the superset there is no need to stop and set weight.

Want even more workouts? Try some trainer-led workouts right from your phone using the Aaptiv fitness app. Right now you can try this 30-day free trial by using the link on the banner below.