Programming Cardio to Support Muscle & Strength Development
Here’s What You Need To Know…
1. Lets make this clear, strategic cardiovascular training will not steal your muscle and strength gains. Proper cardio training can actually improve strength and increase muscle mass.
2. Cardio has to involve more than slogging around for hours on end. Appreciating the different types of energy systems and foundations of concurrent training is pivotal in making cardio work for you, and not against you when it comes to becoming stronger and more muscular.
3. If you want to maintain muscle mass, keep cardio and strength training bouts separate, and place an emphasis on splitting up lower and upper body modalities of both training and cardio.
4. For long term orthopedic health and the avoidance of cumulative stress injuries choose low impact modes of cardio while focusing on quality over quantity.
5. If you want to maximize your performance, prioritize proper fueling and refueling cardiovascular sessions and avoiding central nervous system fatigue. That’s what resistance training and conditioning are for.
Cardio…AKA The Activity That Kills Your Gainz
I hate the word “cardio!” Why? Well, mainly because when anyone says the word “cardio” the first thought that comes to mind is a teenage girl on the elliptical trainer texting away on her cell phone, while having more makeup caked on her face than Mel Gibson in Braveheart. When it comes to the word “cardio” there is absolutely a negative connotation associated which leaves the average gym bro going into full catabolic mode and losing all his gains instantaneously with the very thought of the C-word being uttered. However for many, a lack of proper conditioning is holding them back from a wide range of benefits including improved recovery, increased work capacity, and improved body composition.
But how should you incorporate cardio into your overall program? I’m going to breakdown five tips to assist you in strategically programming cardio into your training program in order to preserve your muscle, while allowing you to keep ramping up your strength.
There are a myriad of benefits associated with being well conditioned, however many coaches and fitness professionals are aware that too much cardio can blunt those hard-earned strength and muscle gains. Therefore, I’m going to give you a quick and dirty run-down on the benefits associated with well-developed energy systems, along with what we currently know regarding concurrent training, also known as training for adaptations associated with both strength, power and aerobic adaptations, simultaneously.
General benefits of adequately developed energy systems:
- Improved cardiovascular function
- Improved body composition
- Improved recovery (both during and after training bouts)
- Increased work capacity
- Increased localized muscular endurance
- Improved endocrine function including increased anabolic efficiency
- Increased cardiac efficiency
- Improved autonomic balance (parasympathetic/sympathetic balance)
The basics of concurrent training:
- Aerobic training with frequencies exceeding 3 days per week and/or with durations exceeding 40 minutes may blunt muscular adaptations.
- Muscular power is the strength related outcome affected most drastically as a result of too much (i.e. volume) aerobic training, and/or not choosing the right type of aerobic modality.
- Strength/power training enhances endurance performance, primarily through improvements in exercise economy and select anaerobic characteristics.
- High intensity (i.e. >80% 1-RM) strength training with explosive intent and/or high velocity movements have been shown to be the most efficient and effective types of resistance training for improving performance in endurance athletes.
- Strength/power training does not negatively affect any endurance parameter (including VO2max).
- Nutritional considerations, specifically protein intake and nutrient timing, are of a greater importance when training concurrently than when training for strength/power or endurance alone.
The Proper Programming of Cardio
Here’s how you should be programming your cardio to not only receive the added health and wellness benefits of cardiovascular based modalities, but to also salvage and enhance your muscle and strength in the process.
#1 Keep Cardio and Strength Training Separate
You want to maximize your strength and cardio? Keep the sessions separate! Keeping your cardio sessions separate will assist you in maximizing the quality of each session, while facilitating the adaptations associated with both strength and aerobic training.
What if I have to perform sessions together due to lack of time? Remember these tips:
- Perform an aerobic modality that focuses on the contrasting musculature from your strength training. For example, if you strength trained upper body then perform a predominately lower body aerobic mode such as cycling.
- Place a greater emphasis on fueling before the training session and refueling after the training session.
#2 Focus on Low Impact Modes
Throughout the literature one thing is clear regarding the mode of aerobic training and the interference effect: running interferes to a greater degree. This observation is attributed to the high impact nature of running, the high ground reaction forces elicited throughout the gait cycle, and the eccentric component, which results in greater muscle damage.
If strength, power, and muscle are your primary goals then keep running to a minimum. Try focusing on modes of cardio training that are relatively low impact, while keeping the metabolic stress to a minimum. Additionally, selecting modes of cardio training that involve primarily concentric contractions (i.e. cycling, prowler pushes, swimming, etc.) will assist in limiting the amount of muscle damage that occurs during your cardio training, which in-turn makes recovery much quicker.
Try some of the following:
- Cross-Country Skiing
Here is a chart that covers a variety of implements to utilize when aerobically training, along with the pros of using them.
#3 Quality over Quantity
One of the biggest problems I see with cardio training is too many “mindless minutes.” Each training session needs to have a distinct purpose, and volume/intensity should be monitored just like you would with your strength training sessions. In addition, volume and intensity should be manipulated just as with any good periodized strength program. In order for each cardio session to have a distinct purpose, remember the basics of the bioenergetic pathways.
These energy systems are “turned on” at all times, and work together in an integrative nature to provide you with energy. However depending on the duration/intensity of the activity, a certain energy system will predominant. You need to have a distinct goal in mind with each cardio session, as opposed to throwing mindless minutes of cardio on your schedule. This means monitor your intensity, which ensures that you are training the actual energy system you want to train. Additionally, this means you should program your cardio sessions strategically based on the energy systems you are taxing in your strength training (more on this in tip 4).
Here is a chart describing different types of cardio training, as well as the desired outcomes associated with each type:
Being distinct and choosing quality over quantity is the one of the quickest ways to make your cardio more efficient, while simultaneously preserving those strength and muscle gains!
#4 Central vs. Peripheral
When implementing cardio into your program, you should attempt to vary the way you tax your body. Think about the energy systems just discussed and how various types of strength training taxes those systems. For example, if you have a hypertrophy day (or block) coming up, do you really need high intensity cardio such as high intensity intervals or sprints as part of your cardio? No, this would be primarily taxing the same energy systems (i.e. glycolytic) that your taxing during strength training, which will result in inadequate recovery, depleted muscle glycogen stores, and less than stellar performance. During this type of training, it would be beneficial to employ a form of low-to-moderate intensity cardio such as cardiac output training (i.e. 60-80% HRR) or active recovery work (i.e. 40-60% HRR) for moderate durations. This will assist in recovering from the exercise-induced metabolic stress and muscle damage, as well as the depleted muscle glycogen stores, which will allow you to maximize your strength training workouts.
This discussion can be described as central versus peripheral stimuli. In the previous example, the hypertrophy training was targeting peripheral adaptations (i.e. cellular stress, muscle fiber damage, etc.), while the cardiac output training would be targeting more central adaptations (i.e. stroke volume, autonomic nervous system qualities, etc.). In contrast, if you have a maximal strength training day (or block) coming up, which is relatively low in volume, you could plan for a more metabolically taxing, high intensity cardio session such as HIIT or high intensity repetition work. The maximal strength training session would tax primarily the ATP-PCr system, while resulting in very little metabolic stress and muscle damage. Additionally, muscle glycogen levels would remain relatively unaltered, which is exactly what is utilized during high intensity cardio.
#5 Focus on Fueling and Re-Fueling
If your goal is build muscle, be brutally strong, and have blasting power, you must fuel to perform. Fueling prior to resistance training is something I think we can all agree is common knowledge, however for some reason, people treat cardio differently. I’m not going to get into all of the science behind why fasted cardio is not superior when it comes to burning fat. Fueling to perform cardio is useful for the following:
- Maintaining energy balance
- Replenishing glycogen stores
- Maintaining a whole body protein balance (or ideally, a positive balance)
- Allowing you to optimally perform cardio (i.e. total work performed, proper mechanics, etc.)
- Support anabolic signaling
The quickest way to start losing muscle, while having your strength zapped, is through a negative energy balance. That is, using more calories than you are consuming. In order to preserve your muscle and strength, while reaping the benefits of cardio, you must maintain energy balance. One of the quickest ways I see clients/athletes start losing the energy balance battle is when they do not prioritize consuming calories before or after cardio.
What do you consume? The most important macronutrients to consume prior to cardio are protein and carbohydrates. Why? It’s simple. Consuming protein prior to cardio does not provide you with energy unless you are performing cardio for durations >90 minutes or are performing cardio in a fasted state, and that’s good, after-all you want your protein to be utilized for anabolic purposes, not fuel exercise. Consuming protein prior to cardio assists in maintaining a whole body protein balance, triggering anabolic processes (i.e. LAT1), and initiating the recovery process for after cardio, which helps you preserve muscle and prepare for you next strength training session.
What about carbohydrates? Well, carbohydrates provide you with energy during cardio, which allows you to perform at your highest level, after-all you want to actually progress and perform during cardio not just go through the motions. Consuming carbohydrates prior to, and after, cardio allows you to perform optimally, initiate the replenishment of glycogen stores for strength training, and provides you with much needed calories for maintaining energy balance.
There you have it! Five tips to assist you in programming cardio into your training program, while supporting your gains. If used incorrectly, cardio can kill your gains, drain your energy, and send you home wondering what happened to your strength. However, if used correctly cardio can help you feel and look better, while allowing you to push your muscular limits.
About the Author
Marc Lewis, CSCS, TSAC-F, ACSM-EP-C, ACSM-CPT
Marc is an exercise scientist, strength coach, and author. Currently, he serves as a graduate teaching/research assistant in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as well as serving as the co-owner of Winston Salem Personal Training, INC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has contributed to the websites of numerous strength coaches and fitness professionals, while also publishing peer-reviewed research in academic and practitioner-based journals.
Nice article. So much clear concept to increase Muscle & Strength Development. best of luck and keep it up. Thank you
Loved the artical. Thanks for your time and energy.
Hi Marc ,
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. It’s a great article, especially topped with the teen girl on the treadmill . Humor is key.
Good article, thank you
Running is an integral part of tactical training, one should typically be running 3-5 times a week. How can you go about this? and what are the precautions required?