VO2 Max Training: Unlock Your Aerobic Potential

By on April 20, 2023

Did you know that a faster heart rate isn’t always a sign of poorer cardiovascular fitness?

Many factors contribute to your heart rate and, in some cases, this might even predict better overall performance during endurance tasks.

For example: a higher resting level of adrenaline can both increase your heart rate and mean that you can start running or exerting yourself faster without needing a warm up.

Resting Heart Rate and Endurance

This nicely illustrates the problem with trying to measure aerobic fitness. This is a far more complex question than many realise. 

But one of the most popular measurements used to monitor cardiovascular fitness is VO2 max. VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can use during intense exercise. In other words: this is the upper limit of your aerobic capacity and is very well correlated with overall endurance performance. In fact, we might consider it to be the gold standard. 

See also: Rethinking Endurance – Specific Peripheral Adaptations

So, if we understand what VO2 max is, how to measure it, and how to optimize it… we can improve everything from our general health, to our endurance, to our work capacity in the gym. By training the underlying systems, we can even make our bodies more efficient during everyday activities. Increasing brain function and creating abundant energy.

Understanding VO2 Max

VO2 max is written as mL/kg/min – or millilitres of oxygen consumed per kilogram of bodyweight, every minute. Catchy.

VO2 Max Explained

VO2 max scores range widely between individuals. Anything around 50-60mL/kg/min would be considered a good score, with some athletes having scores as high as 80mL/kg/min or above.

Athletes’ VO2 maxes are best measured in a laboratory environment using a mask or mouthpiece connected to a metabolic cart. This then monitors the volume of oxygen inhaled and the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled. They will then be given an incremental exercise test while levels are monitored. The highest oxygen consumption value recorded prior to exhaustion is considered the VO2 max.

Average VO2 Max Scores
These are average and “good” VO2 Max scores

For those of you without high-tech lab equipment sitting around, there are other options. For example, you can use the Cooper Test by running as fast as possible for 12 minutes and then using the following equation to calculate a VO2 max score:

VO2 max = (35.97 x distance in miles) – 11.29

Many fitness trackers will also provide a VO2 max estimate once they have collected enough data. While these scores are not perfectly accurate, they are actually close enough to be considered useful. And, as we will see, no method of measuring a VO2 max is perfect.

Adaptations to Improve VO2 Max

With training, the aim is to improve VO2 max over time. Multiple adaptations impact on a person’s ability to utilize oxygen. For example: cardiac output – the volume of blood pumped by the heart per minute – will of course impact on the amount of blood delivered to the muscles.

Jumping Rope for VO2 Max

Having more and more efficient mitochondria is also beneficial. As is having a higher hemoglobin concentration. And greater capillary density for delivering the oxygen directly to the working muscles.

This, in turn, means there are many potential avenues for effectively training to enhance VO2 max. 

HIIT for VO2 Max

For example, good-old High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has repeatedly been shown to be effective in improving VO2 max (Milanović et al., 2015). Even more effective, though, is A-HIIT, or “aerobic HIIT.” In this form of high intensity interval training, the intensive periods use aerobic exercise. That is to say, you run just below the anaerobic threshold; the point at which your body is no longer able to deliver oxygen to the muscles quickly enough and lactate begins to build up in the blood in response to the switch to other energy systems. This makes sense, as it ensures the focus remains on the aerobic system. 

HIIT for VO2

For those at home, you can roughly guestimate the correct level of exertion by using the talk test: if you are able to speak in short sentences but unable to engage in full conversation, you are likely exerting yourself a suitable amount. This likely occurs somewhere between 75-90% of max heart rate.

Ironically, a lot of people actually perform vanilla HIIT incorrectly and are in fact already unwittingly performing A-HIIT!

See also: What is High Intensity Functional Training?

And, with that said, some coaches and athletes focus more on the use of supramaximal training and other strategies that train just above the anaerobic threshold. An emerging field of research is focussing on individual differences: and how different training methods may work better for different athletes.

Other Strategies

Inspiratory Training

Other strategies can also prove effective. For example: altitude training. By living and/or training at higher elevations where oxygen is less readily available, athletes can force adaptations such as increased haemoglobin. This is the haematological response to altitude but it’s not all that happens – other factors such as exercise efficiency and mitochondrial function may also be impacted.

See also: Aquaman Lung Training for Enhanced VO2 Max, Breath Holding, Cognitive Function and More

Inspiratory muscle training (IMT) is also a valid option. This training targets exercises to strengthen the diaphragm and other breathing muscles. This may not only improve VO2 max during exercise but also be effective at improving brain function and alertness as more oxygen is delivered to the brain and muscles even at rest. You can achieve this by using something as simple as a straw in your mouth! (Reference)

Running with straw

Breath holding actually provides another way to strengthen breathing muscles such as the intercostals and diaphragm and may even help teach the body to become more efficient in its use of oxygen. Breath holding is a part of many ancient traditions but has largely been “forgotten.”

See my video on “Aquaman training” for more on this.

Blood Flow Restriction and Local Adaptations

Coming at this from a completely different angle, it’s also possible that blood-flow restriction (BFR) training might be useful for some athletes.

Here, torniquets are used to restrict blood flow to the muscles. More specifically, blood is able to enter the working muscle but not easily exit. This creates local hypoxia (low oxygen) which can stimulate angiogenesis – the growth of new capillaries. 

Blood Flow Restriction

Similar techniques might also prove effective: for instance, it may be possible to increase VO2 max using extreme isometrics. Here, you might hold a deep iso lunge position, for example, in order to maintain a contraction in the target muscles and reduce muscle in the target area. 

This is speculation on my part as the extreme iso lunge is primarily used for building muscle and tendon strength. However, many coaches and athletes have seen amazing results from this lesser-known exercise and I hypothesise that angiogenesis may be playing a role behind the scenes. 

Either way, what’s interesting about such methods is that they are local in nature. Whereas IMT, A-HIIT, and altitude training target VO2 max at a system level – increasing blood flow and oxygen supply around the entire body – these improve the efficiency of muscles used in specific types of movement.

This is key to understand: adaptations occur both systemically AND locally, and so your VO2 max might actually be different for one exercise modality than another. You might have great endurance for running, for example, but average endurance for swimming. There will be some crossover but the specialist in that sport will perform best.

A Prescription for All-Round Performance

If, like me, your interest is in general all-round performance, then you may do best to look at forms of aerobic exercise that target the full body. A great example is jump rope. While you are jumping over the rope, you are also swinging the arms, thereby creating demand at both ends of the body.

Another option, of course, is to train with multiple kinds of aerobic activity. By combining trail running with swimming or boxing with skipping, for example, your entire system would be better adapted for endurance tasks. 

Jump Rope VO2 Max

This is all before we consider exercise economy. As you get better at your chosen activity, you will be able to perform it more efficiently and with less wasted energy. While this won’t technically, directly impact your VO2 max, it will impact on how fast you can move and for how long, before the VO2 max is reached. 

These factors explain why I am easily able to run 10k in under an hour without giving it much thought, but get gassed out almost immediately during sparring. I am simply not as adapted to that activity and it is reflected in my performance. 

The key then, is to consider specificity at all times and to approach VO2 max training from different angles. If you want to train your endurance for a specific activity, you must train with that activity. If you’re interest, like me, is in all-around performance, then you should train with multiple different forms of cardio that focus on different muscle groups and movement patterns.

Running With Training Mask

And, either way, you should combine different methods to get the most from your VO2 max training. Combine aerobic HIIT with supra maximal training with BFR. Using BFR or extreme isometrics might not be the most effective tool on their own. But combined with other techniques, they could make a big difference.

And that’s without even getting into the small changes that can help you eek out another percentage or two – like using beet juice to encourage vasodilation.

What are you doing for your VO2 max, right now?


  • Illi, S. K., Held, U., Frank, I., & Spengler, C. M. (2012). Effect of respiratory muscle training on exercise performance in healthy individuals: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 42(8), 707-724.
  • Park, S. Y., Kwak, Y. S., Pekas, E. J., Impellizzeri, F. M., & Coutts, A. J. (2020). Effects of blood flow restriction training on aerobic capacity and performance: a systematic review. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 19(4), 665-676.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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