“Cardio workouts kill gains” has long been thought within the lifting community. Even some bodybuilders will always hold on to this notion so dearly that they think climbing two flights of stairs can shrink a 270-pound man into a 120-pound weakling.
It is true however that muscle adaptations differ greatly in response to aerobic training versus resistance exercise. The more you train for one, the harder it is to reach the same level in the other, compare any marathon runner to a famous bodybuilder for proof.
This does not mean however that aerobic and resistance training are completely incompatible. When done correctly, cardio can help improve your results, body composition and overall health.
Can Cardio Still Be Done And You Still Have Muscle Growth?
Many decades ago, it was studied and shown that 10 weeks of cardio plus resistance training interfered with muscle growth in relation to resistance training alone.
However, if you look closer at the training volume used in the study, six days a week of cardio plus five days a week of strength training, you can see it was quite high. Not many of us are going to be doing 30-40 minutes of cardio six days per week.
Much more recent research studies suggest that moderate amounts of cardio can actually boost the effects of strength training. Studies have shown that resistance training coupled with 2-3 days of cardio can lead to greater gains than strength training alone.
There does seem to be the perfect blend of cardio and resistance training. Too much cardio can interfere with muscle growth but so can too little. Performing cardio 2-3 days per week seems to be the sweet spot for complementing training gains without putting muscle at risk.
Order Is Important
Muscular adaptations to both aerobic and resistance training can compete and even interfere with each other so it is critical to allow enough time between sessions to minimize interference and optimize performance and subsequent adaptations.
Strength impairments after high intensity or endurance exercise can last for upto 6 hours so it makes the most sense to separate sessions by at least that much. Also, if you wait too long, you may start to experience some soreness from an earlier workout. Muscle soreness has a delayed onset. Try and find the sweet spot, long enough after a session to minimize interference but soon enough that this delayed onset muscle soreness, especially from a lower-body workout won’t affect the quality of your training.
In terms of order, the difference between the two may not be that important. A few studies have examined adaptations from resistance training before aerobic training and vice versa and have found that there are improvements in muscle strength and size which weren’t affected by exercise order.
From a practical point of view, it is likely that fatigue from a strength-training session will affect your subsequent cardio session less than the reverse. Taken one step further, would you rather be tired doing a 3-rep max on a squat or a 3-mile run?, I would rather take the latter.
Everyone is different, experiment with workout order and timing to find out what fits your schedule and benefits your performance.
Compared with other forms of cardio, running causes a lot of muscle damage, more than likely because of the large amount of eccentric muscle contractions involved in the movement. Cycling however, places more emphasis on concentric muscle action. This may cause less overall damage which ultimately limits the amount of interference with recovery and muscle growth.
Running for hours on end may not be the best idea but lower-impact activities like cycling may improve your results in the weight room. Several studies have been conducted that show that strength training plus cycling improved muscle size more than strength training plus treadmill walking or just strength training alone.
Using Cardio To Support Your Gains
- Use strategies that increase cardio but minimize overall volume (Maybe HiiT 2-3 times per week).
- Thinking of it in a practical manner, doing cardio first may affect the quality of your strength training more so than the other way around.
- Separate sessions by at least 6 hours to minimize interference and optimize results.
- Cycling instead of running seems to be more beneficial in terms of complimenting training gains.
How To Incorporate Cardio Into A Lifting Schedule
Sample workout 1
- Monday am – Lower body.
- Monday pm – Stationary bike – 8-10 sets of 1-minute flat-out pace and 1 minute rest. Start with a 5-minute warm-up and finish with a 5-minute cool-down.
- Tuesday – Upper body push.
- Wednesday – Rest.
- Thursday am – Lower body.
- Thursday pm – Stationary bike for a 10-mile time trials, completed as fast as you can and aim to improve this time each week.
- Friday – Upper body pull.
Sample Workout 2
- Monday – Upper body push.
- Tuesday – Upper body pull.
- Wednesday am – Lower body.
- Wednesday pm – Stationary bike for 30 minutes, tempo ride, aim for a high intensity you can maintain for the whole 30 minutes.
- Thursday – Rest day.
- Friday – Upper body push.
- Saturday – Upper-body pull.
- Sunday am – Lower body.
- Sunday pm – Rowing machine, 6-8 sets of 400 meters as fast as possible, followed by a recovery row of 200 meters. Begin with a 5-minute warm-up and a 5-min cool down to end.
The Bottom Line
Cardio exercise has some pretty great benefits including improved aerobic capacity but the benefits extend to your lifting as well. Cardio can give you a higher work capacity during a gym session allowing for faster recovery between both sets and sessions, improve body composition and essentially keep you from collapsing going up a few flights of stairs.
The timing and overall volume of a cardio workout and strength training seems to be the biggest factors in designing a successful concurrent training program. Have you also considered your diet as well? Take a look here at something that could really make a difference in your whole gym experience and body results.