Most people equate lifting weights with building muscle and cardio with shedding weight. Taking that even further, some people even think you should actively avoid doing cardio if you’re trying to build muscle.
While it may be true that overdoing the cardio can degrade muscle tissue, you certainly shouldn’t avoid the treadmill if your goal is lean muscle gain.
In fact, cardio is an instrumental part of gaining lean muscle (not to mention an important component for promoting overall health and wellness). So, it’s definitely something you should incorporate into your workout protocol.
The answer to the lean muscle gain, cardio equation lies in the balance and timing of the two.
With this article, I’m going to shed light on how much cardio you should do, what type, and when you should be doing it.
Follow these guidelines and cardio training becomes another tool you can use to enhance your ability to make lean muscle gains.
How much cardio should you do?
Two. Maximum three days a week.
Any more than that and the balance of your exercise activity is too heavy on the cardio side.
The cardio training stimulus placed on your body will overpower the muscle building stimulus and your body will adapt to the cardio training stimulus (i.e. you’ll lose size as your body optimizes itself to perform for long periods of time and over long distances – think of what an endurance athlete typically looks like).
What kind of cardio should you do?
Not all cardiovascular training is created equal; depending on the intensity and type of training you do, you can specifically target different energy systems. Hitting them all systematically, provides a more holistic approach to cardio training; one that will supplement your weight training efforts, not work against them.
The three basic energy systems
Working muscles need energy to function. The most efficient source of energy is oxygen. We breathe it in from the air around us, it enters our blood system through our lungs, and our heart pumps it throughout our body. Muscles then use the oxygen to break down energy substrates.
Where our muscles derive energy from is largely dictated by the availability of oxygen.
Anaerobic means “without oxygen”. Alactic means without the production of lactic acid (a byproduct that gives you that burning feeling in a working muscle).
The anaerobic alactic system is fast and powerful. It’s supplying energy for the first 6-15 seconds of exercise – before enough oxygen can make it to working muscles.
2. Anaerobic lactic:
The anaerobic lactic system is still functioning without oxygen, but is producing lactic acid.
It lasts for approximately the first 2 minutes of exercise, when the intensity of muscle function is too much for oxygen to keep up with.
The aerobic system relies solely on oxygen to break down energy substrates in working muscle; it’s the main engine supporting efforts above 4 minutes.
Your muscles want to use oxygen and will default to it whenever there is enough around.
Muscles use the anaerobic alactic and anaerobic lactic systems to supplement energy production when enough oxygen isn’t available to working muscles (either because the muscle just started working and your respiratory system hasn’t caught up to the effort yet, or because the muscle is working at an intensity that respiration and the arrival of oxygen just can’t keep up with).
Workout protocols can be manipulated to target each of these energy systems.
High intensity sprints target the anaerobic lactic and alactic systems. Low intensity activities (e.g. jogging, hiking, slow bike ride, etc.) targets the aerobic system.
For the purposes of stimulating lean muscle growth and preserving muscle, two of your three cardio training sessions in a week should be high intensity sprints. The third should be lower intensity, aerobic focused.
An example sprint training protocol:
- 5x 40 meter sprints with a 2 minute recovery in between each sprint. Do 2 sets. Once you’ve done 5, take a 4 minute break and do the other 5.
These can be done on a track, open field, or even on something like a stationary bike.
An example aerobic-focused training protocol:
- 20-30 minutes of steady-state activity. The heart rate should never exceed 60-70% of your maximum heart rate (220-your age).
When should you do cardio?
If your ultimate goal is gaining lean muscle, do your cardio training before you strength train.
Hypertrophy (muscle growth) is all about creating a hormonal environment in your body that supports anabolic (growth) processes.
Strength training is an anabolic stimulus while cardiovascular training is largely catabolic (breaking down). Hormones responsible for anabolic processes can block the effects of catabolic hormones, such as cortisol.
Doing your strength training after cardiovascular training can overwhelm the catabolic stimulus with an anabolic one. This means that when you leave the gym your body will be in an anabolic state – preserving muscle and supporting the gain of lean muscle mass.
Furthermore, getting your cardio training in before the workout gives you the opportunity to burn more calories over the course of the entire training session.
The initial elevation of your heart rate from the cardio session will increase your internal temperature and elevate the metabolic demands on your body.
This boils down to you getting more bang for your buck.
Cardio training is an essential part of any healthy lifestyle: the idea that you should skip it if you’re trying to put on muscle is not only false, it’s bad for your health.
To summarize all the information I’ve collated in this article: you should be doing cardio 3 times per week, two of those sessions should be sprints and one should be at a slower, more relaxed pace, and get it done before you move onto the weights and strength training.
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