So what does this picture have anything to do with what I will be posting about today? Well in this picture we see a gigantic man doing cardio, which foreshadows my topics of both combining cardio and strength into one program, also known as hybrid programming! Oh, you want to know what the horse is about. Nothing, just consider it a bonus…seriously move on.
Anybody who has stalked their fair share of bodybuilding or muscle building forums has heard the expression “Cardio Kills Gains”. This talk has influenced a widespread movement of people being afraid to touch a piece of cardio equipment or go for a run.
The consensus is that cardio is catabolic in nature and can impair current and future gains when combined with a mass-building program. After reading Greg Nuckol’s article on hybrid programming and Alex Vaida’s follow up I hope to relay how implementing cardio into a strength routine and even hypertrophy programs will allow you to reap the benefits of cardiovascular health while helping, and at the least not hurting, gains in mass/strength!
You Know Cardio is Good For You
If you took a health class in high school or have taken any effort in improving your health you know there is a myriad of benefits to be had from performing cardio. Benefits in heart health including increased stroke volume, drop in resting heart rate, and recovery heat rate, not to mention a ton of other positive physiological and even psychological changes; it is obvious cardio is a very important part of fitness. “Cardio kills gains” like most broscience includes a small grain of truth drastically blown out of proportion. I can think of two instances of where cardio would hamper your gains in muscle and strength and your ability to put on mass (weight/muscle)
- You increase your total energy expenditure (TDEE) by performing a long bout of cardio without compensating with increased caloric intake. Simply put you’re not eating enough. Your planned 250 calorie surplus now becomes a deficit and as stated in previous posts is not ideal for gaining mass
- Prolonged training that put’s stress on the CNS and musculature causing soft tissue damage. The most common contributor being running.
Keep in mind this is about cardio and mass/strength gaining programs. Cutting programs aimed at losing weight already are at a disadvantage for gaining muscle and more focus on the most retention of strength and mass. I will post the most effective cardio for weight loss in a later post.
Short Term Effect of Cardio on Strength and Mass Gains
Greg’s article took a look at an in depth study about concurrent training and how cardio interferes with gains in both size and strength. His cliff notes about the scientific journal are as follows:
- 1) You can still get bigger and stronger with doing strength training and cardio simultaneously.
- 2) In the short term, concurrent training (strength training and cardio together) is about 31% less effective for hypertrophy, and about 18% less effective for strength.
- 3) Frequency and duration of aerobic training affected strength and hypertrophy gains – more frequency and volume of aerobic training meant smaller strength and size improvements.
- 4) When looking at the data more closely, mode of exercise mattered. Running, but not cycling, negatively impacted strength and size gains.
“Aerobic training does not hamper strength training in and of itself. The effect starts materializing when it begins causing additional stress to the muscles and soft tissues. Running, with its impact element, affected strength and size gains especially as volume increased, whereas cycling didn’t.”
Anyone who has seen a cyclist’s legs can attest to the considerable size gains that can be accomplished so like in all good programming, training modality matters! So as long as your cardio is either low impact and you don’t go insane with the volume and intensity you can ditch that shrinking feeling every time you accidentally jog. What is accidently jogging you say? Your low intensity steady state walking increases its cadence when an attractive woman in yoga pants run by you or you see the ice cream truck turn the corner up ahead and boom, interval training i.e. sprints.
But I regress, so cardio in the short term can be performed with only a mild tax on your strength and mass gains, but gains nonetheless.
Long Term Effects
This is where it gets a little theoretical and sciency but just muscle through I promise it’s interesting (haha..muscle through). There’s preliminary evidence, based on a study performed on rodents, that aerobic training increases intra-muscular DHT conversion. DHT is a derivative of testosterone which binds to androgen receptors, and stays longer than its androgen counterpart for a longer period of time spent in an anabolic period. This anabolic window is key for the production of muscle. There are currently studies being down now to see its effect on human subjects.
“Though there’s not a ton of research yet, early studies ARE finding that exercise (in this case, sprints) affects DHT in healthy young people as well, and aerobic training can increase DHT without affecting testosterone in middle-aged men. So, maybe cardio is a little “manlier” than you’ve been led to believe!”
Programming (Alex’s Turn)
A follow up article was done by Alex Vaida who has a ton of practical experience working with concurrent/hybrid programming for 200-300lb athletes with some impressive lifts such as 450+ pound bench presses, 600+ pound deadlifts, and 600+ pound squats.
“For the strength-focused athlete, incorporating cardiovascular training into one’s program is something that is approached with everything from mild distaste to outright horror- and potentially with good reason. Introduction of cardiovascular training into an already stacked strength training regimen without proper attention paid to recovery or overall work load can result in a loss of strength, overtraining, and underwhelming performance gains in the aerobic realm to boot.”
He goes on to discuss the most important factors when developing a program for the strength/endurance athlete which includes
Energy System Management
Managing Progressive Overload
Correctly timing workouts in the microcycle (programming)
Resistance training and aerobic training both tax the body’s energy stores, stress bones, muscle and connective tissues, but in different ways. By managing the stresses from each mode of training respectively, one can recover from a higher overall stress. It is important that the types of stress are varied.
“For example- sprinting and high repetition squatting are relatively similar in terms of physical stress- both involve relatively high peak loads at momentarily acute joint angles, as well as heavy eccentric and concentric stresses, so treat these as nearly identical workouts in your planning (and understand that they can, in fact, be combined). On the opposite end of the spectrum, slow, easy cycling or swimming are completely different than standard resistance training- far less trauma to the muscle fibers (very low mechanical stress), far less damage to bone (these are not load bearing, for the most part), and can therefore be programmed with less consideration to heavy lifting.”
It’s important to look at what you’re lifting and choose a dissimilar workout. Focusing on legs? Avoid sprints and fast cycling and do low intensity cycling, swimming, walking, or rucking (hiking with a weighted pack). Focusing on bench press strength? Avoid swimming. Alex gives a pretty good endorsement to rucking for all strength athletes as its cadence and movement patterns differ from most major lifts. “The body adapts to what you throw at it so differing the modes of lifting and cardio combined will give you the biggest bang for your buck in both strength retention and adaptation.”
Energy Systems management
“The second most critical piece to remember- think about what energy stores you’re depleting, and recover accordingly. A true LISS (Low intensity steady state) session WILL deplete your glycogen, but it’s remarkable how LITTLE glycogen you need to perform maximum effort lifting the next day.”
There’s a few takeaways from this section; in general as long as volume is low, being depleted of glycogen will not affect your maximum power output for a few lifts. If you’re trying to do hypertrophy work which requires more volume and higher repetitions will require more stores to be depletes which may take up to 72+ hours after a long aerobic session (if sufficiently depleted).
Also, as I’ve mentioned before and he states in his articles, the “post workout anabolic window” is overstated in its importance and duration. What is more important to consider is that after a lifting session our catabolic hormones are already high due to all of the microtrauma in our muscle tissue. After lifting, 15-20 minutes of HIIT is recommended over long duration cardio because intervals can be roughly compared to a few burnout sets of an exercise so little to no harm done. The athlete should always perform longer duration cardio after they have marginally recovered from a previous workout
“While I am a big advocate of “big picture thinking”… i.e. the athlete’s overall program over the course of a week matters more than a few minutes here or there post workout… it still pays to consider when the system is primarily catabolic, and when you’re better off recovering versus simply wringing out an already exhausted body.”
Aerobic activity is no different from resistance training- simply performing the same exercise at the same intensity and volume week after week will result in no improvement.” Any one of my clients will know the annoyance of me pushing a heavier weight into their hands. It’s not that I enjoy seeing you struggle (maybe a little) but you can’t just go through the motions and expect results. Same goes for cardio. You must use the same overload and adaptation principle to push your body past its normal levels to force it to adapt and become stronger.
“ Careful incorporation and gradual accumulation of low intensity, extended duration steady state workouts (The “long slow run” or “overdistance” work, to be done on its own training day), moderate intensity “tempo” work (also to be done on its own training day), and higher intensity, shorter duration sprint or interval style work (which can be done at the end of resistance training, provided it is taxing the same muscles as those worked in the previous workout) should all be incorporated to maximize adaptation and ensure progression.”
So what would my program look like?
Everyone has different levels of fitness and different goals they are trying to accomplish. Therefore everyone’s program will be unique. Like most fitness related findings, it has to be experimented with and tuned to meet your needs.
“I HIGHLY recommend that the individual experiment with different types of training, from swimming to aqua jogging, hiking and trail running to rucking with a loaded pack, from distance cycling to cross country skiing. Simply thinking of aerobic activity as “running” is short-sighted- unless you are specifically training for an event, it pays to consider all the above factors when incorporating aerobic conditioning into a program.”
He finishes the article by asking us to be open to the idea of both incorporating both strength and cardio into a program. It’s ignorant just to assume that because cardio and lifting seem like they are on different ends of a spectrum you can’t gain benefits from both. Find a mode of cardio that will help strengthen mechanics of lift or a specific sport and do it. Get creative and take notes so you can look back and see if changes you made are helping are not. 90% of fitness is tracking and adapting based on results and 50% knowing how to add to 100. Now get out there and try some new activities and stop being afraid of cardio! Happy Fitness 🙂
Greg Nuckols Post: http://gregnuckols.com/2014/03/03/cardio-and-lifting-cardio-wont-hugely-impact-your-gains-in-the-short-run-and-may-be-beneficial-for-strength-and-size-in-the-long-run/
Alex Vaida’s Follow Up: http://gregnuckols.com/2014/03/10/practical-considerations-for-combining-cardiovascular-training-and-lifting/