Today, we’ll be addressing the question, “What is the Best Cardio for Bodybuilding?”
Wait, don’t leave! You’ll want to read this. In fact, if you’re a cardio hater, your perspective will shift, and you’ll be on the treadmill in no time.
Why do many bodybuilders hate on cardio?
“Cardio? Is that Spanish for hell?”
It doesn’t take much thought to realize that many bodybuilders don’t like cardio (to put it mildly).
And there is NO good reason for it. No research out there suggests that, when done in moderation, cardio is going to impact your gains negatively.
In fact, cardio has been shown to provide us with numerous benefits including better lung capacity, improved body composition, and improved ability to handle stress.
When determining the best cardio for bodybuilding, we have to address HIIT VS steady state cardio.
HIIT and steady state cardio: Which is the best cardio for bodybuilding?
We can generally perform cardio in two ways:
1.Low-intensity steady state (LISS) – this is where you elevate your heart rate moderately (120-140 beats per minute) and keep it there for an extended period (20-60+ minutes). This includes activities such as jogging, cycling and climbing stairs.
2.High-intensity interval training (HIIT) – this is where you do short, very intense, bursts of physical activity. Activities such as doing sprints, interval running, and battle rope all fall into that category.
HIIT forces you to do a lot of work, condensed in a short period where LISS is more manageable and has to be done for a longer period to have a positive effect.
Now, the big question: which is the best cardio for bodybuilding?
This is a tough question to answer, and truthfully, the context is important.
For example, if you’re a very busy individual who cannot spend 40 minutes on the treadmill three times per week, then HIIT is a better option for you.
But, if you’re overweight and have never done much HIIT before, you’re better off starting with low-intensity cardio. The risk of injury with HIIT is higher.
Which is the best cardio for bodybuilding as it relates to fat loss?
We know that to lose fat, we need to create a caloric deficit. Here, both HIIT and low-intensity cardio can help us do that. Both activities burn calories.
Low-intensity cardio, depending on the length of your sessions, can end up burning a lot of extra calories. But it can also make your recovery more difficult, and your weight sessions can suffer.
HIIT can also burn a good amount of calories, usually fewer than low-intensity cardio, but it takes less time to complete each session. But the interference effect here is greater, and the risk of injury is higher.
For example, if you’ve never done intense running before, you can easily pull a muscle by doing sprints all of a sudden. Also, if you decide to do intervals on the track on one day, your leg training might suffer in the following days.
The bottom line?
Both options are good during fat loss periods, but you need to program it in a way that it doesn’t interfere with your lifting sessions. This means that both the duration and timing should be taken into account.
Which is the best cardio for bodybuilding as it relates to preventing catabolism?
Most of the research out there suggests that low-intensity cardio can lead to increased muscle catabolism, but two things need to be present:
- First, you need to be doing a lot of it. At least two hours every week. HIIT can also lead to muscle losses if you’re doing too much of it.
- Second, you need to be in a big caloric deficit. Which, in and of itself, can accelerate muscle loss.
When done in moderation, however, it hasn’t been shown to impact muscle mass negatively.
And, if you’re eating in a caloric surplus for muscle growth, there isn’t much to be worried about.
Which is the best cardio for bodybuilding as it relates to muscle growth?
This is where things get a bit tricky:
In most cases, you would burn more calories with low-intensity cardio. Meaning, you would need to be aware of that and make up for them by eating a bit more food. Otherwise, you would cancel out your caloric surplus and inhibit muscle growth.
But HIIT can also burn a lot of calories, especially interval running. But the risk of interference here is greater, especially for leg training. You would have to schedule it into your training, so you have time to recover before a lifting session.
The bottom line on HIIT vs. LISS
Both types of cardio are great and provide us with numerous benefits. Both have their unique drawbacks that you need to keep in mind. Either of the two can be the best cardio for bodybuilding if used correctly.
- Takes less time to do;
- Still burns a good amount of calories;
- Provides a lot of the same benefits as LISS cardio (aerobic capacity, improved health markers, etc.)
- Risk of injury is greater when done incorrectly or to the extreme;
- Doing it too often can interfere with your lifting workouts;
- Burns a lot of calories;
- Provides a lot of benefits such as improved health markers, improved aerobic capacity, and improved work capacity (which we’ll cover below);
- Risk of injury is much lower, making it an ideal option for bodybuilders who’ve ignored cardio for years;
- Takes longer to complete each session and can be boring at times;
- Doing too much of it can interfere with your lifting sessions;
Do them in moderation and consider combining them to keep things interesting, avoid injuries, and keep one or the other from interfering with your bodybuilding efforts.
Cardio and work capacity
Work capacity is one of the most important predictors of your success in the gym, yet most people don’t even know about it.
As the name suggests, your work capacity is a measure of your ability to do work, recover from it, and improve.
And the overwhelming majority of research out there suggests that the total training volume you do each week or within a mesocycle is going to determine your results.
The more work you can do, recover from and adapt positively to, the more muscle mass and strength you can gain.
Think of it this way:
If you want to grow your back, you don’t go into the gym, warm up a bit, hit a few sets of pull-ups and call it a day. No, you go in, do a bunch of exercises, target your back from various angles and go home. And you probably do it again in the same week.
At some point, even if your nutrition, training, and recovery are all dialed in, you need to do more work to get better results.
The better your work capacity, the more volume you can put your back under (or really, any muscle group), and make it grow.
If your work capacity is low, you wouldn’t be able to do as much work, and your progress in the gym would be much slower. You would have a hard time recovering between sets and workouts.
Also, to continuously grow over time, you need to put your body under progressively greater stress. More total sets, more repetitions, more weight on the bar, more workouts within a given week, etc.
But to be able to do that, your work capacity would need to be high and also to be going up with your volume.
Otherwise, you would reach a point where the minimum volume needed to make further progress would be above your ability to recover from it, making you hit a plateau.
Now, there are many ways to improve your work capacity, and one of them is with cardiovascular work.
Lifting weights is more aerobically-costly than we realize. Some research suggests that doing four sets of deadlifts with 385 pounds burns an equivalent amount of calories as running a mile if you weigh 130 pounds.
Meaning, your body would get very aerobically-taxed in the process. Unless you build that capacity through cardio, over time, your ability to do the needed work would diminish.
On the other hand, if you’ve developed your aerobic capacity well, demanding sets wouldn’t leave you gasping for air, and a given amount of work wouldn’t tax you as much. You’d be able to perform more repetitions and more total sets with a given weight before fatigue sets in.
This, over time, would lead to you doing more total volume and getting better results in the gym.
And if your training includes lots of drop sets, supersets, and high repetition squats and deadlifts, you need the aerobic capacity to push through the demanding work.
This holds true even for activities that don’t seem that aerobically-taxing, such as short bursts of intense physical activity that lasts fewer than 20 seconds.
In one study, the researchers found that, during 200m sprint (highly intense physical effort for 15-20 seconds), as much as 33% of the total energy needed was produced aerobically. That’s a third!
The bottom line on cardio and work capacity
Not only is cardio beneficial, but it’s also mandatory if you want to get the most out of your bodybuilding efforts in the gym.
If you’ve found yourself blue in the face from a demanding set and had to cut it short even though your muscles could have cranked out a few extra repetitions, you are in dire need of conditioning.
Don’t be one of those guys who has to stop an exercise mid-set to catch his breath before finishing it.
And don’t think that “I’m not an endurance athlete, I don’t need to do cardio!”.
Yes, you do.
I hope you got a ton of value from this and have a better understanding of cardio and how it can impact your long-term progress in the gym.
As it turns out, it’s not the Boogeyman it’s made out to be, who knew?
If you still aren’t convinced and are looking for some cardio alternatives, we have those too.