This is a very common question in the fitness world. Usually from people who are not fans of cardio and want an excuse to avoid it will suggest that cardio does not help and can even hinder your ability to build muscle mass. Before I start I would like to say there definitely is such a thing as too much cardio especially if your goal is to gain muscle mass. Purely based on science gaining mass is caused by taking in more calories than you are burning, so if you burn thousands of calories a day doing cardio you cannot eat enough to over compensate for this. However, the idea that an easy 20-minute biking session will cause you to lose all of your lean muscle tissue is absurd. The guys spreading this myth of the gain-sapping cardio are the guys who want an excuse not to do it.
Cardio & Muscle Development
I always like to point out that as an ex-swimmer that there is a big difference between what most people consider cardio and athletes who train their cardiovascular system for 25 hours a week. You can do A LOT of cardio and still build muscle, you will need to eat a lot of food, but it is possible. Michael Phelps is famed for his 12,000 calorie diet which made the headlines in most magazines in 2008 while he prepared for the Beijing Olympics. The result of his high calorie diet and training was a number of superhuman performances in 8 different events where he had to swim heats, semi-finals and finals.
Despite his high intensity cardio training Michael Phelps has a muscular physique that most people would be happy with, and he was shredded to the core, with a very low percentage of body fat. So we look at the general gym population and their goals I’m sure there would be some who want to perform at a high level, build muscle and have a low body fat percentage, but they have heard that 20 minutes of running 3 times a week is bad for muscle growth so they don’t do it. When put into perspective like that I don’t see how cardio can be left out of someone’s routine.
In reality the average gym goer will never even come close to the type of intense cardio performed by Michael Phelps and so they should not worry about it taking away muscle mass. However, I would not suggest performing cardio before lifting sessions as this will cause you to drop your intensity and you most likely will not be able to perform as well or use the same weights for exercises that you normally would. This is one way that cardio can get in the way of gaining muscle mass. Another way is fasted cardio, although it can be beneficial and some people prefer to train without eating early in the morning make sure you are supplementing with BCAA’s in order to prevent breakdown of muscle tissue. Working on empty forces your body to burn what it already has, we want this to be fat, but it is easier for the body to use muscle as a fuel source.
HIIT cardio has been shown to build muscle. Yes that’s right. HIIT does not cause a loss of muscle, but helps to build it. Short sprints activate fast twitch muscle fibers which have the potential to be your largest muscle fibers also. By switching them on and operating at maximum capacity for short intervals it has the effect of hypertrophy and causes muscle growth. So in reality this is the preferred cardio option for anyone looking to gain muscle mass in combination with a good weight lifting program and an abundance of food to fuel growth.
Take Home Message
So in short cardio is not the enemy, it is an accessory to keep body fat down while you try and gain lean mass. These are the main things to takeaway from this article:
✓ Do cardio after lifting
✓Preferably perform HIIT cardio when possible and make sure you supplement correctly and eat enough
Jay Cutler once said that people ask him how to grow and they want workout tips and new exercises to put on muscle. His main point to all these people was to take what they eat now and pretty much double it. Most people do not eat enough and it’s as simple as that. Of course, the important thing is to be eating the right foods and getting your nutrition correct. It’s not just about eating anything and everything.
BCAAs are available in a number of forms and a variety of great tasting mixable powder flavors or as pills. They provide the body with amino acids which promote protein synthesis and prevent breakdown of muscle tissue. I would recommend consuming BCAAs as they will protect muscle tissue breakdown during high intensity cardio. BCAAs are an essential supplement for anyone serious about their training.