Ask an inexperienced lifter, and they’ll tell you that “cardio” and “muscle building” are generally opposites – one will sabotage the other. However, the savvy bodybuilder knows that the smart play is to incorporate cardio for muscle building. You just have to know the right way and have a reason why. This article will show you how to use cardio for muscle building gains.
Why Cardio Needs to Be a Part of Your Plan
Back in the day, if you wanted to devote time to building size or bulking, cardio was a strict “no no”. In fact, it was thought that cardio for muscle building was a crazy idea because the conditioning work would “burn off” any new muscle you tried to put on. The truth is that when done properly, cardio will actually help you build size more quickly.
Firstly, improved cardio means improved blood flow. This means bringing more oxygen to the muscle when you’re training, improving performance and boosting recovery. It also means bringing nutrients and such to the muscle quicker after your workout, which quickens the repair and growth processes. This also why doing some slow cardio is often recommended to help boost muscle recovery.
At the other end of the spectrum, high intensity interval training (HIIT) almost always involves the legs – running sprints at the track, hard intervals on a treadmill, or even sprints on an air-dyne bike. This sort of consistent, intense contraction of every muscle in the legs can lead to added muscle quality and better separation, in addition to HIIT’s known fat burning benefits.
Don’t Do Too Much of a Good Thing
The problem many trainees have when they attempt to do cardio for muscle building is that they simply do too much of it. As an example, many like to stress the difference between the more muscular sprinters at the Olympics compared to the skinnier marathon runners.
It’s important to keep in mind that the body is good at adapting which is why marathon runners are lighter and better suited for running long distances. This will happen to you too if you forego your strength/hypertrophy work in the gym, and run countless miles week in, week out.
Having said that, bodybuilders have been using long, slow cardio for decades to get lean after a bulk or to make clean gains. As mentioned above, moderation is key.
In the same vein, while sprinting and interval training can be beneficial cardio for muscle building (when done properly), it can put quite a strain on the nervous system. Do too many interval workouts per week coupled with hard strength-based hypertrophy gym workouts, and you’ll find your nervous system is soon overtrained.
A “Best of Both Worlds” Recommendation
Because long, slow cardio is good for heart health and improving recovery, while intense interval training can further improve conditioning and muscle quality, adding a little of both types of cardio for muscle building is a good idea. Walking or light jogging for 30-45 minutes 2-3x per week and doing an intense interval session of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off repeated for 10-15 minutes once per week would work well.
You’re most likely going to be lifting 3-4 days per week already, so fit your cardio in around your gym workouts. The walking isn’t very stressful, so it can be done on lifting days if need be. You could either finish your workout off with it, or get up early to go for a walk in the morning air. Intervals, however, would be best saved for a non-lifting day. Just separate it from your leg workout by 2-3 days if possible. And still try to take 1-2 full days off (no lifting or cardio) per week.
Adding cardio to the muscle building equation used to be frowned upon, but today’s trainees know better. Doing a good mix of long, slow cardio and HIIT will ensure you maximize blood flow, recovery, and even improve muscle quality. Do enough to get the benefits, but not so much that you override your gym efforts, and you’ll find your physique improving just that much faster.