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Pros and Cons of Cardio for Mass Gains

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An oft asked question is about the use of cardio for mass gains.   Various extremist standpoints exist on the topic but, as usual the truth falls somewhere in the middle.  More accurately, it’s better to look at potential pros and cons that cardio might have on mass gains.  Context, as always, is important and I’ll address the topic from that standpoint.

The Extreme Stances on Cardio for Mass Gains

At the extremes, I’d say two ideas about the impact of cardio on muscle mass gains exist.  The anti-cardio people argue that you should NEVER do cardio when seeking maximum muscular or strength gains.  Various arguments are made ranging from it cutting into recovery or the potential for interference between the two types of exercise.

At the other extreme is the idea that trainees should perform an hour of fasted low intensity cardio every day during mass gain phases.  The is usually suggested as a way to stay lean in the face of a calorie surplus.  John Parillo may have been the first to make this recommendation.

As I stated above, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle and looking at the potential pros and cons, benefits and drawbacks of including cardio during mass gain phases is the best way to go about it.

Defining Cardio

An important aspect of this entire discussion is how cardio is being defined.    Issues of how much, what intensity and what type are all important.  Clearly 20 minutes of brisk walking is not the same as an hour or hard running and we can’t consider them synonymously.

Except for later in the article when I look at it in more detail, I will consider cardio here to be of reasonable duration (20-60 minutes) at a low to moderate intensity perhaps 70% of maximum heart rate if that).   I generally prefer low or non-impact activities here. Brisk walking, cycling, the Elliptical or rowing machine, etc. are fine.  Running is not.

Interval training is its own topic that I’ve written about before.  I’ll only say here that, except for athletes who must perform it, I don’t recommend HIIT while training for mass.  There is some evidence that HIIT can be combined with resistance training although I still think more are better off avoiding it.

Yes, I know, you can always find someone who makes it work. And people just love to bring up the sprinter versus endurance athlete thing.  Just realize that sprinters have to sprint as part of their sport and weight training is an adjunct to that.  The average person seeking to gain muscle mass does not.

Sprinters vs. Marathoners CollageIf you think you know who is a marathon runner and who is a sprinter, you’re probably wrong.

Which is a long way of saying that I’ll focus primarily on low- to moderate intensity steady state cardio in this article.

Benefits of Cardio for Mass Gains

Among the potential benefits or pros of cardio for mass gains, I’d include the following.

  1. Improved recovery
  2. Appetite
  3. Maintaining some conditioning and work capacity
  4. Improved Calorie Partitioning
  5. Keeps the fat burning pathways active

Let’s look at each.

Improved Recovery

Done at low to moderate intensities cardio can act as a form of active recovery.   Blood is pumped through the working muscles which can help overall.  For many, this type of active recovery is far superior to passive recovery (just sitting around).

It’s important to realize that most forms of cardio are lower body dominant so most of the potential benefit here is for the legs.  That said, Elliptical machines, rowing machines and ski machines all involve the upper body.  There are also those stationary bikes with arm handles that will let you work the upper body muscles as well.

The Airbike for CardioYour dad probably knows what this is.

To make low intensity cardio even more effective, consider sipping on a dilute carbohydrate/protein drink during the session.    Thirty grams of carbs and perhaps 6-10 grams of whey protein per hour is sufficient.  The increased blood flow to the muscles will enhance nutrient recovery.  Greatness ensues.

Cardio and Appetite

The impact of exercise on appetite can be exceedingly variable.   For some people, exercise tends to blunt appetite.  This tends to be especially true of high-intensity activities.  On the other hand, exercise may stimulate appetite somewhat.  Some of this is physiological, some of it is people justifying eating more.

Either way, for trainees with a poor appetite, moderate amounts of cardio can often help.  So long as that increase in food intake is more than what is burned during the exercise session, this is beneficial.

Maintaining Conditioning and Work Capacity

By conditioning here I mean aerobic conditioning, not contest leanness conditioning.  Basically, maintaining some degree of aerobic fitness.  What true benefits actual aerobic fitness has in the weight room is debatable.  Elite strength athletes are notorious for having little to none.  Elite strength athletes are also notorious for gasping for 10 minutes after climbing stairs.

The idea of work capacity is arguably better.  Essentially this is the trainee’s ability to handle the workout load and maintain high quality.  It’s a very non-sexy part of the performance equation but being able to survive a workout in either intensity or volume is important to make progress.

Depending on the type of training being done, weight training itself may or may not help to develop or maintain work capacity.  Low repetition/long rest interval types of training does not.  In fact, work capacity will probably get worse.  Trainees may lose vast amounts of work capacity and have real trouble when they move to moderate or higher repetition training.

In contrast, higher repetition/shorter rest interval training may improve work capacity.  It has an almost aerobic like effect and over time the lifter can handle the training with less stress.  Cardio itself can have at least a similar effect.

The nice thing about all of this is that it always takes less effort to maintain a given capacity than to build it.  Someone with a good work capacity who is moving into a pure mass gain phase can maintain that with relatively small amounts of cardio (or even work capacity work).  A little goes a long way.

Potentially Improved Calorie Partitioning

As an additional potential benefit, aerobic activity could potentially improve results during a mass gaining phase in another way and that has to do with overall calorie partitioning.    You can think of calorie partitioning as controlling where calories “go to” or “come from” when you over- or under-eat respectively.

As I’ve written about before, ideally you’d like all incoming surplus calories to go to muscle gain.  You’d also like all the stored calories in a deficit to come from fat stores.  This can be achieved to a relative greater or less degree depending on a host of factors.  But that is the goal.

A great deal of calorie partitioning is genetic and a lot of it is determined by body fat percentage.  But the single most potent tool we have to impact calorie partitioning is training.  Regular activity improves nutrient uptake into skeletal muscle which means they aren’t going to fat cells.

It’s certainly debatable how much of an impact low- to moderate-intensity cardio will have here.  It’s likely to be small but it certainly won’t hurt anything when done in reasonable amounts.  Over a long period of time, even small effects can add up.

Staying Lean and Keeping Fat Burning Pathways Active

As I mentioned above, one of the arguments in favor of cardio while gaining mass is to help the lifter stay lean.  I’ll be honest that I’m not hugely convinced of this.  At best it might slightly offset any fat gains that occur when lifters are overfeeding.

But the overall calorie burn of reasonable amounts of cardio is not huge to begin with.  A few hundred calories in an hour is about it for most people.  Honestly, not going overboard with calorie intakes will have a greater overall effect here.  It doesn’t take much to maximally support muscle growth.  Avoiding monstrous surpluses is the key to limiting fat gain.

That said, cardio may have indirect effects here.   Sadly it’s very difficult to avoid all fat gain while training to gain muscle.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the fastest rates of muscle growth will occur when a small fat gain is allowed and this is simply the reality of it.  And eventually that means that the lifter will need diet off the extra fat.

The issue here is that during the mass gaining phase the body has a tendency to lose some of its ability to use fat for fuel.  When given ample carbohydrates, the body will use them.  And no, I’m not arguing for low-carb mass gaining.  But it may take a couple of weeks of lowered carbs and glycogen depletion to get things moving again.  This might even explain some of the apparent delay in fat loss that occurs when people start dieting.

The above seems to be most pronounced in folks who do zero cardio (or even cardio-like weights) while gaining mass.  By keeping in even some cardio during their mass gain phase, they can keep those pathways working more efficiently.   This will help when dieting commences.  Mind you, you can also use a transition phase to achieve this.

Cardio and Muscle Loss

I want to make a related tangent before continuing.  Earlier in the article I discussed how many feel that cardio causes muscle loss during a diet.   Certainly this can be true but I think part of the reason this belief persists is this.

Bodybuilders are extremists.  It’s just part of the psychological profile.  I can’t count the number who go from doing literally zero cardio in the off season straight to fairly large amounts of (often higher intensity) cardio right off the bat.  This is usually accompanied by a big drop in calories as well.

And when you combine those three situations: fat burning pathways not operating at maximal efficiency along with doing too much too soon and cutting calories, muscle loss is almost guaranteed.  By keeping some cardio in and gradually bringing in cardio when the diet starts, this is avoided

Drawbacks of Cardio for Mass Gains

Ok, so now let me move on to the potential drawbacks of cardio for mass gains.

Having looked at the pros of keeping at least some cardio in during mass gaining phases, I now want to look at the two major cons, or at least the two that are usually brought up:

  1. Burns up calories that could go towards muscle growth
  2. Might cut into recovery/Over-training

Burning up Calories that could go to Muscle Growth

Along with muscle loss, many advise against cardio for mass gains due to the potential to use calories that might go to muscle growth.   And this can certainly be true if an excessive amount of cardio is being done.

However, moderate amounts of cardio don’t really burn that many calories to begin with.     Even an hour of relatively low intensity cardio may only burn a few hundred calories.  Lesser amounts burn less and smaller individuals even less.  Assuming the cardio doesn’t decrease appetite, this is easy to offset with a small increase in calorie intake.

As I mentioned above, coupling the cardio with a carb/protein drink not only offsets this but increases nutrients uptake to the working muscles.  It’s a double win.  For most people this just shouldn’t be considered an issue.

The Context Specific Exception

The major exception to this would be the perpetually skinny trainee.  The classic “hardgainer” or “ectomorph” who stays thin all the time and has trouble gaining weight.   This is typically caused by both a relatively lower appetite coupled with a huge increase in NEAT when they overeat.  They already tend to burn off excess calories and cardio just adds to that.  Cardio is likely to do more harm than good here.

The exception to this exception relates to the appetite issue I mentioned above.  The classic ectomorphic trainee/hardgainer type often has trouble eating sufficient calories on a consistent basis.  You might see them eat big for a few meals or days but their appetite rapidly shuts off.    In that situation, if performing some cardio on off days helps them to eat more, then it might still be worth including.

They should also try the old McCallum get big drink.

The Get Big Drink for Mass Gains

Remember, it’s only one banana.  You don’t want to get fat.

Cutting into Recovery or Causing Overtraining

The final two potential cons of including cardio for mass gains are related so I’ll look at them together.  The basic concern is that trying to combine both heavy weight training and cardio/endurance type training will impair results in the weight room.  Depending on how the two are integrated, there is certainly some truth to this.

Some of this relates to the interference effect I mentioned above.  This refers to the idea that the different types of training will “interfere” with one another in terms of their adaptations.   Fundamentally the adaptations to weight and endurance training are different.  They are also diametrically opposed.

A fairly large amount of research and practical experience suggested that the combination of cardiovascular and strength training tended to cause interference in terms of overall results.  This was especially true for strength and power gains where cardio impaired improvements.  In contrast, strength training didn’t seem to impair the cardiovascular improvements (it might even improve it).

There are a few factors to consider here, however.  One is that the early studies invariably combined a fairly large amount of weight training with a large amount of often high intensity cardiovascular exercise.  So the athletes might have been lifting 4 times per week and doing hard cardio at least twice per week.  This might very well mimick the training of an American football player but isn’t what we are really talking about.

Both the intensity, volume and frequency issues are important here and these studies don’t automatically mean that cardio can’t be done while seeking muscle mass gains.  Rather, it has to be integrated properly.  Intensity is a key factor and the intensity must be kept low to moderate.   Volume and frequency are also critical.

Finally there is the issue of type.  Overall running seems to have a much bigger negative effect on strength and growth than non-impact forms of aerobic activity.    This is due to the impact and eccentric component of running which is absent in other forms of activities.  It’s also ideal to keep cardio far enough away from the weights session to avoid sending interfering molecular signals.

I would note that excessive cardio can still cut into recovery.  This is true in both a systemic (whole-body) and local (specific muscle) way.  As I said above, most cardio machines are lower body dominant and it tends to be the legs that take the most beating.   Excessive amounts of even low-intensity cardio can still cut into overall recovery.   Rotating machines or picking activities that involve both the upper and lower body is a worthwhile consideration.

Just don’t run.

Conclusion: Cardio for Mass Gains Yes or No?

In the aggregate, I think that the benefits of properly integrated cardio outweigh any negaitves in terms of mass gains.  The main exception here is the perpetually skinny “Hardgainer” type for whom cardio may do more harm than good. Even here, if cardio helps with appetite, it can still have its role.

I think the overall negative attitude about cardio for mass gains has to do with it being implemented poorly.   The intensity is too high, the volume is too high, the frequency is too high or….they decide to run.  The problems start but it’s not the cardio so much as the application.

So long as the volumes, frequencies and intensities are kept under control, most of the concerns people have are a non-issue.

I simply feel that most of the problems with cardio training start to come into play when either the intensity or volume get excessive.   As long as the amounts are kept moderate and the intensity is kept under control I think most of the concerns are mostly a non-issue.  So what defines those terms.

Cardio Recommendations for Mass Gains

It’s generally felt that 20-30 minutes of cardio performed three times per week is absolutely the smallest amount which will have any benefit.  This is certainly the low end but will have at least some small effect on the potential benefits I listed.   So long as intensity is kept under control this should have absolutely zero impact on weight room performance or mass gains.

A higher frequency can be used as desired so long as intensity is kept relatively low.  I don’t honestly see much point to performing cardio more than 5 times per week.  That said, some people like to do something daily for personal, physical or mental reasons.  That’s fine and something like brisk walking can be done daily without issue.

Going longer than the minimum 20-30 minutes will burn a few more calories but there are limited to time availability in the real world.  People also start to get bored.    A reasonable limit or goal of 40-45 minutes of formal cardio done three times per week is more than sufficient.     If the intensity is kept way down (i.e. brisk walking), an hour is acceptable.

For intensity, I’d suggest keeping it to 70% of maximum heart rate or below.  On a 10 point RPE scale, this might be a 4 at the most.  This will provide some benefits without cutting into recovery or muscle gains.

RPE Scale for Aerobic and HIIT Training

I already mentioned type of activity above.  Except for brisk walking, I highly recommend against impact activities, basically no running.  Using exercise machines that involve the upper body is also good to both spread the stress out to different muscle groups.  There is no reason a trainee can’t rotate movements at different workouts or even within the same workout.  15 minutes on three different machines is much easier mentally than 45 minutes on one.

Finally there is timing, when the cardio should be performed.  In an ideal world, cardio would probably be done completely separately from weight training.  This could mean on alternate days or done in the morning (fasted or not) with weights in the evening.  As most people have lives, this is often not realistic.

Not everyone can get to the gym daily and making the drive, changing clothes to do a 20-30 minute “workout” may not be worth it.  Brisk walking is always available weather permitting.  Or you can get that new Peloton bike that everyone lost their mind over.

Peleton Bike

A very common approach is to perform some type of cardio on off-days from the weight room (or at least 12 hours away) and this is certainly workable if scheduling will allow it.  Of course, not everyone can make it to the gym daily and the weather or what have you may preclude doing it outdoors or at home.  As well, for a short 20-30 minute session, making the trip to the gym (driving time may take longer than that) may not be realistic.

In practical terms, that means performing cardio in conjunction with the weight workout assuming the trainee has enough time.  This raises the question of whether or not the cardio should be done before or after the workout.

So long as the intensity is kept low, it sort of doesn’t matter.  Twenty minutes of low intensity simply shouldn’t tire someone out before a workout.  If it does, they are terribly out shape.  Doing it after the workout has zero potential to impact on the weight room session.  Those who are obsessive about immediate post-workout nutrition may be concerned but sipping your post-workout during the cardio will actually help get the calories to the worked muscles.

Certainly after heavy leg training (does anybody still do that), few are likely to want to do much in the way of cardio.  Twenty minutes of very low intensity activity (i.e. brisk walking or easy spinning on a bike) is about the most I’d recommend here.  Cardio after upper body workouts can be a bit longer and/or more intensity within the recommendations I gave above.

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