Suppose you seem to be doing everything right in your muscle building efforts: You lift heavy and hard; you focus on compound exercises; you get sound sleep and adequate rest in between workouts as far as muscle recovery; you eat plenty of protein and complex carbs at the right time, etc.
There’s just one problem: Your hypertrophy progress has come to a dead halt. What could be going on?
Take a good hard look at your cardio program, as this might be where the problem—and solution—lie.
How Much Cardio Is Too Much?
We all know how beneficial cardio exercise is for the heart, and how it contributes to fat loss. In fact, fat loss or maintaining a particular body fat percentage is the primary reason that many people do cardio in the first place.
On the other hand, too much cardio can produce a catabolic effect, meaning, cause muscle breakdown, or, to put it another way, prevent muscle gain.
Think of this as running on a treadmill but you get nowhere. Too much cardio will grind away at your hard work in the weight room; you lift hard and heavy but get nowhere.
Cardio has the potential to dramatically raise the body’s energy requirements. If those energy requirements are also getting kicked up by lifting weights, there just won’t be enough energy to go around to subsidize both training regimes.
There’s all sorts of suggestions out there about just how much cardio one should do so that it contributes to fat burning without impeding hypertrophy.
Here Are Some Of Those Suggestions:
- Three times a week on non-weight days for 20-30 minutes.
- Long slow (steady state) cardio or high intensity interval training. Avoid moderate cardio at all costs.
Moderate cardio has the greatest potential to stifle muscle gains because the cortisol elevation that it triggers does not get counteracted by any increase in growth hormone or testosterone, because these anabolic hormones don’t get triggered by moderate cardio, like they do with HIIT.
Steady state cardio does not incite cortisol. Cortisol fights against hypertrophy.
Moderate cardio isn’t too intense to be sustained, but intense enough to be uncomfortable and produce heavy breathing—the kind of intensity that long-distance runners train at.
Moderate cardio, because of the cortisol production, can actually promote fat storage. Believe it or not, this is evident in marathon runners.
Ever notice that many elite marathon runners, though sporting very thin arms and legs, seem to have a disproportionately sized midsection, almost thick in appearance? What little body fat that these athletes have, tends to get stored disproportionately in their middles, hence that “wide” look.
They do not have the tiny waistlines that physique competitors or bodybuilders have. If a physique athlete and marathon runner of matching height and weight were to stand side-by-side, the physique athlete’s middle would be noticeably smaller and tighter.
- Two times a week; three is too much
- Avoid cardio altogether
- Don’t have cardio days, but instead, do 10 minutes of aerobics after every weight lifting session
- Increase caloric intake
It may come down to just paring back on cardio gradually to see if it makes a difference in hypertrophy. One man was doing five-mile runs several times a week. He knocked it down to two miles and not only gained muscle, but his body fat percentage dropped.
To mitigate the problem of cardio muscle loss, a good start may be to eat more high quality foods so that the body doesn’t feed off its muscle for sustenance. Of course, one needs to find the right balance so that the increase in calories doesn’t make the body fat level rise.
This will require some experimentation, as metabolism isn’t just a function of gender, age, body weight and body composition, but also of when and what one eats, quality of sleep and body type (does fat gain come easily?).
HIIT Is Best
HIIT reigns superior to steady state because, unlike steady state, it unleashes the anabolic hormones, and these will benefit hypertrophy efforts.
The best kind of HIIT is that of track or street sprinting.
Look at the muscle development of elite sprinters; they practically look like bodybuilders.
This can, in part, be attributed to the anabolic hormonal response that’s generated from all their sprinting sessions.
Certainly you don’t believe that 100-meter specialists spend large amounts of time doing military presses and sit-ups to develop their impressive shoulder and arm musculature and killer abs.
The general formula for HIIT is to sprint full force 20-30 seconds, then walk 1-2 minutes (or more), but not exceed 20-30 minutes of this.
No more than eight sprints are necessary. The sprints can also be applied to cardio equipment (pedal as hard as possible, run a treadmill incline without holding on, etc.).
HIIT produces an after-burn of energy expenditure that steady state does not, and this post-HIIT response includes elevated HGH and testosterone production which will aid hypertrophy.
For steady state, keep sessions no longer than an hour. Cortisol levels begin rising after around one hour of cardio because muscle fuel (glycogen) gets diminished.
Remember, cortisol is catabolic; you don’t want elevated levels of this hormone. Does this mean do cardio always for 55 minutes? No. It’s best to limit steady state to 45 minutes, and HIIT, as mentioned, to eight or fewer cycles.
Ectomorphs (those who “can’t gain weight”) may need to avoid cardio altogether if they’ve been experiencing little lean mass gain despite doing all the right things in the gym and kitchen. If they still want to do cardio for its heart benefits, they need to increase caloric intake and see what happens.
The vast majority of people with impressive lean mass development incorporate some form of cardio; it’s not hopeless for those wishing to build up their bodies, lean out and do something beneficial for their heart.
You just need to be more savvy when it comes to designing your cardio exercise regime so that it complements, rather than fights against, your muscle gaining program.
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