One of the most sought out elements of bodybuilding is great muscularity with well-defined lines of conditioning. To get to a lean physique, you think of a good training regiment, a clean diet, and some cardio. But can’t cardio make me lose my gains? This is a common question posed when approaching the topic of cardio and heavily debated amongst the industry. Determining what form of cardio is considered optimal, has been a goal for several people. People worry about the negative effects cardio can have on muscle growth.
Data supports that cardio can be detrimental to making gains in muscle growth and strength (1). So it starts to make you wonder, how is it possible to have muscle and be extremely lean at the same time? Is there any way to do cardio without losing all of this muscle that I have worked so hard to get? The answer is yes! What cardio you choose to do can have a major impact on the physical changes in your body composition. The two main forms of cardio are steady state and high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Steady State Cardio
Steady state cardio is most commonly performed by jogging, walking, cycling or elliptical machines. It used to be believed that going out for a lengthy run was optimal for fat loss by reaching the notorious “fat burning zone”, however research is always changing. During steady state cardio, your body is in a continuous motion for extended periods of time with a moderate amount of energy expenditure.
Your body is always looking for the best way to survive, so you need to realize what the body is doing. Under continuous moderate stress, your body doesn’t necessarily want to keep muscle. Muscle is not found to be a necessity by the body under these conditions. Muscle is a very energy expensive tissue, meaning that it takes a lot of energy to maintain and use muscle. So when you’re out on a jog, your body doesn’t want to keep muscle tissue due to the fact that your body would be able to run longer without so much energy expensive tissue. Steady state may not be optimal for muscle retention, but it doesn’t seem to be too strenuous on the body.
Out of all of the forms of steady state cardio, cycling seems to do the least amount of damage to muscle gains (2). It is believed that the reason cycling may cause less damage to muscle, is because of the range of motion. The hip flexion in cycling may cause greater muscle involvement and recruitment when compare to other forms of steady state.
HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is type of cardio that involves doing circuits and repeated bouts of intense all-out effort. Examples of HIIT are sprints, wingates, car pushes, sleds, or even intervals of intense cycling. No matter what form of HIIT you decide to do, the intensity has to be high. You hold nothing back and you go as hard as you possibly can. HIIT has been shown to be the best form of cardio for maintaining or even gaining muscle while simultaneously being the most effective form of cardio for losing body fat (2).
HIIT has more muscle fiber recruitment and has shown to actually show mechanisms of hypertrophy in the quadriceps. For fat loss, you do not actually burn more energy during HIIT than you do during steady state cardio. Instead, you burn more fat throughout the day as a result of your metabolic rate increasing from the HIIT session. Increases amount of mitochondria in cells are also a result of HIIT. Increases of mitochondria will help your body to be able to burn more energy at rest and help you to maintain a leaner physique. The effects of HIIT are most exemplified by the physique of sprinter. If you were to compare the physique of a sprinter to a marathon runner, you would see a drastic difference in muscularity and overall leanness.
Which Cardio Should I Choose?
For obtaining the best body composition results, HIIT is recommended. Although, HIIT is an extra variable in your training regimen that adds volume and can make it difficult to recover from (3). HIIT is such an intense form of cardio and it can be hard on your body to perform too much HIIT while also doing lots of high volume weight training. If you’re doing high amounts of volume in the weight room, you will want to make sure that your planned cardio sessions are spaced out and away from days that you train legs.
If you’re going to be doing a form of HIIT cardio, you need to give at least a 24 hour gap between the last time you trained legs and the cardio session you plan on doing, or else it could affect your results (4). Also, if you find yourself having a difficult time recovering from the volume of training paired with cardio, steady state cycling may be a less taxing form of cardio that you can use to replace HIIT in order to let your body recoup.