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Is Volleyball Aerobic or Anaerobic? Explained

I’ve been looking into different kinds of sports for weight loss and learned that anaerobic exercise is better. I like playing volleyball a bit so I was curious whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic. Here’s what I found.

As a general rule, volleyball is aerobic. The time spent doing intense activity is limited to a few seconds at a time with long rest periods in between. This level of exercise is not enough to reach anaerobic levels of activity for a person of average physical fitness.

In this article, I will break down how long each rally is, how much time is spent doing intense bursts of movement, and how much rest time there is in between rallies by analyzing a professional volleyball match. And discuss why the levels of activity aren’t enough to cause the body to transition into anaerobic activity. 

Two teams playing volleyball in a gymnasium

Why Is Volleyball an Aerobic Sport?

A physical activity that goes from being aerobic to anaerobic can be thought of as where a person reaches a point of muscular failure. And they physically need to stop the activity to catch their breath. Or, after doing it they feel they need to sit or lie down to catch their breath.

With volleyball, an average player has a high enough VO2 max that they don’t reach anaerobic activity through physical playing (source).

The VO2 max is how much oxygen their body can absorb. 

And is essentially a scientific way of referring to a person’s fitness. For example, someone who is fit and can keep jogging longer than a person who is unfit.

Momentary bursts of intense activity followed by long rest periods

Because of that, professional and amateur volleyball players generally are in good shape to where they can play a whole game from start to finish without getting puffed or breathing heavily.

There are instances in a game of volleyball such as when jumping to do a spike or to block a shot.

This requires explosive movement, that can be anaerobic for a person that hasn’t exercised much recently. 

Intense bursts of activity aren’t enough to transition to anaerobic activity

When you contrast the activity required to play volleyball to that of activities that are traditionally considered anaerobic such as weightlifting or sprints you can see that the physical demands of volleyball aren’t such that a volleyball player will reach anaerobic levels. Or, if they do it is only for very brief periods of time.

For example, when I do weight lifting I will choose a weight where I can comfortably do 10 reps before I absolutely need to stop. This is called muscular failure. 

When I reach that point I need to sit down, or bend down and rest for at least a minute and I find myself huffing and puffing. Especially, when I work a large muscle group such as the legs by doing squats or a leg press.

The same is true if you do sprints.

A typical sprint routine involves running as fast as you can for 60 meters. Resting for 1 minute or so, and then doing it again. Usually repeating it 3 to 5 times. After one 60 meter sprint running as fast as I can I need to lie down and huff and puff to catch my breath.

Due to the demand for oxygen in the body, not enough can be absorbed through breathing alone. And a person will use the anaerobic process in their body to fuel their muscles.

In volleyball, however, you need to jump to make a block which is only using your own body weight. Or, you need to do a very short dash to hit a wayward ball back to a teammate. But, overall there isn’t a sustained hard physical movement that causes you to go into anaerobic activity. 

I did an analysis of the first 20 points scored in the gold medal Olympic match between Brazil and the USA. Here’s the video:

Here’s a table that shows how many short rallies there were and how many long rallies there were.

Long rallies versus short rallies

Short rally or long rallyCountPercentage of rallies
Long (2 or more possessions by one team)1785%

As you can see there are far more short rallies than there are long rallies. A short rally is where the server serves the ball and the team that receives scores a point, it goes out of bounds, or hits the net and doesn’t go over.

A long play is where the serve is made, and the ball goes back and forward between each team at least 3 times before a point is served. The reason I differentiated between the two is that during long rallies players need to make more than one movement before there is a rest period until the next serve is made.

I also analyzed the average time in between when a point is scored, and when the next serve is made. Here are the results of the time in between for the first 20 points scored in the gold medal match between the USA and Brazil.

Time in between rallies

Serve NumberTime in-between point scored and the next serve
120 seconds
221 seconds
320 seconds
422 seconds
530 seconds
620 seconds
720 seconds
819 seconds
919 seconds
1020 seconds
1119 seconds
1219 seconds
1320 seconds
1426 seconds
1517 seconds
1614 seconds
1714 seconds
1824 seconds
1917 seconds
2017 seconds
Average19.9 seconds

As you can see, the average rest that players get in between each play is 20 seconds. This is quite a bit of time to recover. 

Especially considering that most rallies only involve 2 to 3 players on each team. And when they are involved they only make a small number of movements such as a short dash, or one big jump, or short intense movement.

Many players hardly move at all and are only standing in a ready position and making only minor movements.

I’ve played quite a lot of volleyball and it was my chosen sport in high school after I didn’t make the basketball team. And based on all the games I played I rarely got puffed or got to the point where I needed to take a break.

This was even when I would do long stretches of serves of 5 or more in a row. It’s true that certain positions do more than others. For example, the setter generally touches the ball far more than any of the other positions.

Each player generally has a special position such as outside, middle, or back set. The outside hitter is on the far left, the middle is in the front middle, and the back set hitter is on the far right where the setter sets the ball behind themselves.

Interestingly, in this match, the Brazil team had a long stretch where they didn’t make any points so the coach called a time out. This time-out occurred after only 4 plays. Which was a total playtime of fewer than 2 minutes.

Generally, teams go a lot longer before taking timeouts.

Key takeaways:

  • Volleyball is aerobic because periods of high intensity are extremely short. 
  • The rest time in between each serve is quite long – on average 20 seconds
  • Each rally is very short the vast majority of the time, and only involves a serve and a return before a point is scored. 
  • Some players also hardly move and don’t touch the ball during a rally.

What Level of Fitness Do You Need to Volleyball?

Now that you’re aware that volleyball is aerobic, how fit do you need to be to play volleyball? Since I’ve played volleyball A LOT I thought I’d answer how fit you need to be.

A medium to low level of fitness is required to play volleyball. A game of volleyball is on average 60 to 90 minutes. So, you need to be comfortable standing and walking around for 60 to 90 minutes. You also need to be able to jump very high every 20 seconds 10 times in a row.

As you may know from weight lifting routines, they normally describe groups of exercises as a set. For example, they say do 3 sets of 10 reps or 3 x 10 reps. In volleyball, you need to do 1 set of 10 reps. Or, 1 x 10. Each rep is one jump as high as you can. This emulated a spike or a block.

The rest time in between each rep is 20 seconds. This is the average time in between when a point is scored, and when the next serve is made. 

After 10 reps you will have been rotated to the backcourt where you don’t block or spike. And hardly move at all. Other than to do a short dive or move slightly to keep the ball in the air.

After a point is scored players rotate clockwise. Each volleyball team has 6 players on the team at a time. 3 in the front, and 3 in the back. But, players in the back row generally don’t spike the ball. And they do not jump to block the ball at all. 

This is because the rules of volleyball don’t allow a player in the back 3 to touch the ball in front of a 10-foot line (3 meter) that is marked on a volleyball court. 

There are, however, what are called 10-foot spikes. This is where a player in the back row will jump and spike the ball by jumping before the 10-foot line. But, it’s far more common for players in the front row to spike the ball. To understand how the positions work and the rotation of players work, here’s a video that shows how the positions in volleyball work.

I noticed that a lot of people overcomplicate it. But, it’s actually quite simple. Generally, some players are far better at spiking than others. They are favored and will switch with other players once the ball is live – which happens after the ball is served.

Because they are forced to rotate due to the rules of the game, a good spiker can end up where the setter should be positioned. And a good spiker will run to the far left position or the middle position which are considered the best positions for them to spike from.

Back court players don’t do high intensity moves

Due to players rotating clockwise after each point is scored, every player will end up in the back row, where they generally don’t spike at all. Even if they are an excellent spiker. And so they get a really good rest from blocking and hitting.

This means they will need to jump to block, or jump to spike ONLY half of the entire time they are playing. As once they rotate to the backcourt positions they very rarely spike. And they can’t jump to block as they can’t stand in front of the 10-foot line.

This is determined before the serve is made. And the setter will signal which player is going to receive the set. Then, once the ball is served the front players reshuffle themselves to get into a better position.

How Do You Get in Shape for Volleyball?

Volleyball involves different movements and apart from playing the game to get in shape, there are some other movements that can give you the fitness you need to be in shape to play volleyball. I’ll cover them below.

A light walk for 1.5 hours, and doing standing jumps as high as you for 1 set of 10 reps. After 1 set of jumping as high as you can, take a 4-minute break. And then repeat it 10 times – in total 10 sets. This emulates exactly the physical activity required for a full game of volleyball.

On top of that, it’s important to do spiking, blocking, digging, and spiking drills to work on your coordination. 

The most intense part of spiking and blocking is jumping which uses all of the muscles in your legs. And doing the set of jumping above will give you the fitness to play a full game of volleyball without stopping.

The motions of setting the ball can be developed by setting a basketball or light medicine ball to develop strength in the wrists. But, generally, this can change your ball feel. Which is important for setting accurately.

In my opinion, the best exercises on top of light walking and standing jumps are to set, spike, dig, and serve a volleyball with a partner. 

In club, school, and professional volleyball teams common drills are to have the setter stand at the net. Then a player throws the ball to the setter, and runs and makes a spike. Then they walk back and do it again. But, you can only generally do that if you have a net and a partner to practice with. 

Is Volleyball Aerobic?

Since there are some specialist players such as setters, and the famed Libero who is a back-court specialist, do all volleyball positions only do aerobic activity?

Overall, volleyball is aerobic. No player regardless of position performs intense enough activity for a sustained period of time to reach anaerobic levels of activity. There are rest periods in between each point, and each rally is very short.

In very rare cases volleyball players can be required to reach aerobic activity. For example, if they make multiple spikes in a row during the same rally. 

However, this is generally understood in volleyball and the setter will ‘pass’ the ball to a different attacking player than the person who previously spiked the ball. So, the chances of doing multiple blocks, and spikes in a row for extended periods of time virtually never happens.

On average each player only makes one spike or block per point. And then they have a 20-second rest.