By Greg Nuckols
Cardio robs you of your gains, right?
That’s what everyone seems to believe. However, I think that cardio-phobia is unwarranted. In fact, I don’t think cardio is going to interfere with your strength and size gains in the short run, and may actually help you get even bigger and stronger in the long run … and the science agrees!
Let me explain how you can use aerobic training to get bigger, stronger, and leaner at the same time.
We don’t really have to guess the short-term effects of cardio on strength and size gains. There was a recent review of the scientific literature telling us just what to expect.
To sum up their findings: you can still absolutely get bigger and stronger by doing strength training and cardio simultaneously. In the short term, concurrent training (strength training and cardio together) may be a little less effective for strength and hypertrophy, but when you take a closer look at the data, aerobic training itself didn’t cause the decrease. It actually depended on the mode of exercise.
Jogging had a negative impact. Cycling, on the other hand, didn’t affect strength and size in any significant way.
Frequency and volume mattered a lot. In short, training like you’re about to run a marathon can negatively affect your progress. However, adding in a reasonable amount of aerobic training, especially forms that minimize stress to the muscles and joints (such as cycling), isn’t going to hinder your progress at all.
There’s actually reason to believe that cycling, in addition to lifting, improves strength and muscle gains.
A 2012 study compared strength training, cycling, and concurrent training (strength training plus cycling).
The concurrent training group gained more mass and strength than the group that only did strength training, and improved more in aerobic parameters than the group that only did aerobic training!
We’ve established that cardio won’t make you small and weak, if done appropriately it shouldn’t slow down your gains, and it might even help you get bigger and stronger. But what are the long-term effects? No question about it: the long term effects are overwhelmingly positive.
For one, aerobic training helps build work capacity.
Work capacity is an immensely important subject that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough. Most of the time, guys and gals plateau because they don’t have sufficient work capacity.
When you hit a wall, you train harder to keep making progress. Eventually, however, you reach a point where you can’t recover from the amount of work you have to do to signal your body to grow and get stronger. At that point, your work capacity is bottlenecking your progress.
Aerobic training can be used to build work capacity, which can be applied to barbell training when your lifts start plateauing – ensuring you always have a safety valve when you stop making progress.
This is a strategy that’s been used by athletes in essentially every sport, from football players to sprinters and weightlifters. Build up your work capacity with aerobic training, and then transfer that ability to do more work in sport-specific training, whether that’s for power, size, or strength.
Aerobic training positively influences body composition. Yes, I know, “abs are made in the kitchen.” However, the combination of aerobic and resistance training has been shown to improve body composition more than either one by itself. Resistance training increases metabolic rate, while aerobic training decreases hunger, even more than resistance training, which is what makes the combination especially potent.
Changes in body composition cause changes in hormones. Your insulin and leptin sensitivity will improve. If you’ve got a fair amount of fat to lose, you’ll probably wind up with higher testosterone levels, and you’ll almost certainly end up with a higher testosterone to estrogen ratio, since an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen is found in high levels in fat tissue. All these changes mean that you’ll find it easier to gain more muscle while staying lean.
Why WOULDN’T you do cardio?
Good question. Combined with strength training and a good diet, aerobic training will only serve to make everything else you’re doing more effective, provided you keep the volume moderate and stick to low-impact options, like cycling.
Of course, if you don’t like being leaner, healthier, and having jacked legs, maybe skipping out on cardio is for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Nuckols is a world class drug-free powerlifter and highly sought-after strength coach. He works with athletes of all ages and backgrounds. His passion is learning and distilling the scientific literature about exercise science and sports nutrition so he can be a better coach. He writes all about how to get strong, sexy, and awesome for Schwarzenegger.com, and on his blog.