Is Cardio Killing Your Muscle Gains?
Cardio has always had a special place in the process of a physique transformation. But doing too much cardio or not the right kind of cardio may literally be killing your gains in the gym – causing you to lose muscle, gain fat, or both!
My inbox literally is flooded with questions on this topic:
Bulking: “Should I do cardio if I am bulking?”
Cutting: “I am in a cutting phase, how much cardio should I be doing?”
The question is, do you know if your cardio sessions are helping or hindering your results? If you answered, “I don’t know… “, then this article is for you.
Basically it all boils down to the quality and quantity of the cardio being done.
Time For A History Lesson
Back in the early 1970s, an entire fitness craze was hitting the nation… jogging. It was marketed as the primary way to improve health, lose weight and maximize body composition. Gyms became flooded with pieces of cardio equipment.
It is no wonder why when people think about improving their physiques by losing body-fat, the first thing they think of is cardio. But here is the problem…
If your goal is a lean and muscular physique, cardio may be destroying your efforts.
MED And How It Applies To Cardio
When implementing a cardio protocol, I like to apply the “minimum effective dose” or MED. The MED is the MINIMUM amount of something you need to produce a result.
Think of it this way. When you are taking a medication to fight a cold, 1 gram a day for a week would get rid of the cold and taking 10 grams a week will produce the same results. So why would you do more than you had to if taking either dose will kick the cold? Not to mention the added dosage may have harmful effects.
This is the principle you can apply to cardio if your goal is minimizing fat-gain during bulking or maximizing fat-loss during a cutting phase.
Do the minimum amount to produce the result you are looking for.
How Much Cardio Is Too Much?
Anything more then the MED therefore is too much. Once you start doing excessive amounts of cardio, your body shifts to a catabolic environment. It uses calories that could have been used for muscle building, stress hormones increase, glycogen decreases, and your ability to recover from weight training decreases.
But here is the good news. As you may or may not know, there is a type of cardio that when done properly will burn more net calories throughout the day and improve hormonal responses for an optimal environment to burn fat and build muscle. This type of cardio is known as high intensity interval training or HIIT. During a HIIT session, there are periods of near maximum intensity (like sprinting) and periods of rest (a slow jog or walk).
HIIT vs. Steady-State Cardio…
Think of it this way. Picture some of the World’s greatest sprinters and pin them up against the World’s greatest marathon runners.
I know these are both extreme cases, but it will help paint a picture.
The sprinters are just as lean and sometimes even leaner than marathoners, but sprinters have a level of muscularity that is unmatched by even the most muscled marathon runner.
OK. So No More Steady-State Cardio!
Not exactly. Steady-state cardio has its’ place by working an energy system that typically doesn’t get touched when doing HIIT cardio, plus it will give you a good break to recover from either a HIIT training session or a heavy leg training session the previous day.
Why Do Cardio At All During A Bulking Phase?
Even if your goal isn’t to cut, there are several reasons why it is a good idea to do cardio during a bulking phase:
#1. You will burn-off excess fat
#2. You will improve your hormonal response to an anabolic environment
#3. You will have increase your vascularity (yah pump!) mitochondrial density (improves energy)
#4. You will be better able to handle your carbohydrates to use them as energy rather than storing them as fat.
#5. By improving blood flow, you will be improving recovery from weight lifting workouts.
I Am Sold! When And How Much?
For clients in a bulking cycle, I would have them perform two separate 20 minute HIIT session and one 40 minute steady- state cardio session to minimize and burn off fat gained during the bulk.
In the case of somebody that is cutting, I would recommend three sessions of HIIT and two steady-state cardio sessions for maximum effect.
Example Of A HIIT Protocol: 6 Week Plan
Your method of HIIT can vary, as long as you are working to near maximum levels. This can be done on a bike, swimming, running, whatever you want.
The program below is meant to be difficult. If you aren’t gasping for air by the end of it, you aren’t going hard enough. And each week you are working on a progression to improve, just like you would in a weight lifting protocol.
30 seconds high-intensity, 30 seconds low-intensity
45 seconds high, 45 seconds low
60 seconds high, 60 seconds low
60 seconds high, 45 seconds low
60 seconds high, 30 seconds low
Doing some cardio is better than nothing, but if you are going to be doing cardio, choose HIIT. By doing HIIT-style cardio you are improving your ability to build muscle in the long-run (see reasons #2, #3, and #5).
In addition, you will look more “ripped” and muscular because your body-fat percent will be lower than if you did a bulking phase without doing cardio.
And for some of you, the ultimate reason to do some cardio may just be to improve your overall health!
Whatever your reasons – cutting, minimizing fat during a bulk, or health- HIIT cardio (and maybe a little steady-state cardio here and there) is the solution.