On Cardio for the Physique-Focused Trainee

Andy MorganTraining Principles113 Comments

Rowing Cardio Fat Loss

Cardio is a poor time investment, it’s not necessary for most men to get shredded, it can steal recovery capacity, serve as a distraction, and the level of fitness most people will be happy with for their weekend warrior activities can be achieved by simply getting leaner and stronger.

If physique change is your priority then strength training and diet should be your primary focus. Cardio has its place, but shouldn’t be thrown in randomly and is best used sparingly.

I’ve done my best to bring together all notes on cardio that were previously scattered around the site into one comprehensive guide, and I’ve updated things drawing on the knowledge of some of the smartest minds in the industry in doing so. Time is a gift you will never get back, so use it wisely.

Tl;dr? Skip to the concluding recommendations.


Cardio For Fat Loss

A poor time investment

The most important part of the equation in losing weight is the energy balance. To lose fat you need to create a calorie deficit. You can come at this by either controlling your diet, increasing activity expenditure, or a combination of the two.

The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance for Fat Loss and Muscle Growth

For more, see ‘The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet‘.

An hour jog or cycle, for the average person is going burn approximately 400-500kCal. That’s the equivalent of the average Starbucks muffin.

To get a pound of fat loss a week, you need to have an approximate ~3500kCal deficit. To achieve that you could either eat a little less each day, or do cardio for approximately 7 hours a week. Cardio is a poor time investment if fat loss is the goal.

Furthermore, if you throw in a lot of cardio at the start, you won’t be able to measure the results of the diet itself as it will mask the efficacy, which is a particularly important lesson to learn for those that have placed too much emphasis on the ‘increasing output’ side of the energy equation up until now (the cardio bunnies).

Point: In the future you’re not going to have time to do cardio every day so learn to set up your training minimally now, so that you know how little you can get away with when the busy times do come.

Cardio: Unnecessary to get shredded?

This depends on your definition of shredded really, but for the majority of people (men certainly) I would say no. I’m defining ‘shredded’ here as the level of leanness 99.9% of people would be happy with, rather than the level that is necessary for the stage.

The guys in the pictures below are shredded, but not stage ready. Some cardio and timing tricks will be necessary for stubborn fat removal from the very lower back and glutes, but these clients were already more than happy at that point.

Cardio is often irrelevant unless you’re already at this stage of shredded, and not necessary unless you’re looking to step on a stage.

Cardio Intermittent Fasting

For more, see the article, ‘When is Cardio a Valid Tool for Fat Loss with Intermittent Fasting?‘.

My experiences getting clients shredded without cardio is similar to what Menno Henselmans reports:

“Cardio is no more effective than calorie restriction at preserving muscle or getting lean. In fact, cardio significantly increases the risks of both muscle loss and overtraining.

The muscle loss from cardio is due to the interference effect. Your body cannot become good at endurance and strength training at the same time. These are mutually exclusive physiological adaptations. As a result, your body will find a compromise. Endurance and strength will both improve slightly. In a caloric deficit for an advanced trainee, the interference effect is often sufficient to prevent strength gains or even increase strength loss.

Note that I have competitive standards in mind, as most of my clients are currently physique athletes or want to look as good as one. The average fitness crowd that’s not interested in maximizing muscle mass can certainly combine cardio and strength training (Crossfit, anyone?), but if you’re serious about physique training, cardio is a necessary evil, not a desirable method of fat loss.

So if cardio sucks so much, why do it? At some point, it becomes necessary to avoid nutrient deficiencies, especially in women. Most of my male competitors get to below 2% body fat according to calipers (which of course systematically underestimate body fat percentage in this scenario) without any cardio.

Menno Henselmans Profile shot

Menno Henselmans of Bayesian Bodybuilding

However, most of my (natural) female competitors need to decrease their calories too much to get in contest shape, especially the bikini competitors who don’t have as much lean mass as the others. I very rarely have any of my female clients consume less than 1500 calories every day. It is almost impossible to consume a balanced and healthy diet at that point.

When cardio becomes necessary to maintain a healthy diet and increase the caloric deficit further, LISS cardio [low-intensity, steady-state] is highly preferable to HIIT [high intensity interval training] and both are better than anything in between. Avoiding the interference effect requires using a stimulus that is similar to strength training (HIIT) or a stimulus that does not require much adaptation at all (LISS). Avoiding the interference effect altogether is preferable to minimizing it, so LISS is best in this regard.

The female physiology is well adapted to endurance training and fat burning, so women do even better on LISS than men.

Thirdly, HIIT increases the risk of overtraining and injuries with no advantage to LISS other than saving time.

In summary, advanced male lifters generally don’t need cardio. Women tend to need cardio in the final weeks of contest prep to avoid starving themselves and in that case LISS beats HIIT.”

LISS beats HIIT

That last part reminds me of this by Martin Berkhan,
Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com

Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com

“Strength is strength. Cardio is cardio. Don’t mix, keep them separate, and use cardio sparingly on a diet or if your primary goal is strength and muscle gain.

If you’re adding 2-3 sessions of HIIT to your 3 sessions of weights, it is almost comparable to adding 2-3 days of weights. Keyword is “almost”, I’m obviously not drawing direct comparisons. That’s all fine and dandy if you think working out 5-6 days/week is a good idea on a diet. But I don’t think anyone – no matter what level of experience – needs more than 3 days a week in the gym when cutting. (Yes, this goes for competitors and beginners alike.)

In conclusion, if conditioning is not terribly important for you, if your goal is really about getting shredded while keeping your muscle, I highly suggest limiting moderate to high intensity cardio on a diet – or ditch it completely. Save it for some other time when your recovery is good and not limited by your diet. A calorie deficit is a recovery deficit. Avoid deficit spending.”


Cardio For Physique Development

Endurance training compromises strength work

This is the interference effect that Menno talked about that Martin mentioned also:

“The mechanisms furthering adaptations in one trait – AMPK for mitochondrial biogenesis for endurance, suppress those that would have allowed optimal adaptation in the latter case, mTOR for muscle protein synthesis – all things being equal – looking at concurrent endurance/strength training vs strength training sans endurance training.

It should be noted that it’s primarily endurance training that impairs strength and muscle growth, not the other way around (strength training even has some modest, but positive effect on endurance in beginners).”

If you chase both, you will compromise both. That’s not to say that cardio doesn’t have a place…

Cardio work can help push through strength plateaus

“Aerobic exercise can actually make you a more efficient lifter, by helping increase your training density, volume, and frequency by aiding in recovery during your workouts and between your workouts. Being able to work harder and recover from more work is the simplest way to make more progress.” – Greg Nuckols, one of the strongest drug-free lifters in the world.

“This is assuming you’re eating enough to recover from your training,” Greg adds. So don’t make cardio additions as an attempt to bust through a strength plateau when in a calorie deficit.

The type of aerobic work you perform has an impact

Running is particularly bad for lower strength acquisition.

“Running has a significant eccentric component. Your muscles have to decelerate your legs as they hit the ground, which causes more muscle damage. This hinders recovery from lower-body training. Cycling, on the other hand, doesn’t increase muscle damage significantly,” says Greg Nuckols. 

If you keep your steady-state cardio sessions low impact (for example, swimming, rowing, or brisk walking) your lifting shouldn’t suffer.


Cardio for Health

I am not a doctor and none of this is to be taken as medical advice. Unless your doctor says otherwise assume that what I say here is wrong.

People will insist they wish to do cardio for their health. What people generally mean is one or both of the following:

  1. They wish to reduce their risk of premature death due to heart disease,
  2. They wish to be able to accept an invite for a hike in the mountains on the weekend without fearing the feeling that their lungs are about to explode and they will embarrass themselves by holding up the group.

The best thing you can do to improve your blood lipid profile if you are overweight is to get leaner.A strong heart running on a system with clogged, dirty pipes isn’t much good to you.

Strength training and getting leaner will improve your endurance.Losing the 40lb rucksack of fat that you are carrying each day while getting stronger is going to do far more for your joints and everyday movement than aerobic work alone will. By way of example, grab a heavy rucksack and go for a jog, then compare with the same distance without.

“There’s simply no better way to increase your work capacity than increasing your ability to produce force. If your primary interest is being more effective at moving yourself and/or sub-maximal or maximal loads more efficiently, training for strength contributes much more to your goal than training for endurance. – Mark Rippetoe

I have helped multiple people (high teens) get in shape to pass physical preparation tests for various branches of the military, fire service, and police force in several different countries. The focus is nearly always to strip off the unnecessary fat first to make them pound for pound stronger, then putting conditioning work in at the last point possible.

Why strength and fat loss first, and then the conditioning? Because strength is gained slowly, whereas cardiovascular/respiratory endurance can be increased quickly.

“This is because CRE gains are mostly chemical/metabolic alterations, whereas gaining strength involves architectural changes in the body. This is a long, slow process that accumulates over a lifetime.” – Michael Wolf

I am not against cardio but I feel it’s important to not let it be a distraction from the goal.

Sweat and or pain should not be the goals of your training, adaptation and progression should. I guess that the reason we see a lot of personal trainers running their clients into the ground each workout though is because it’s a lot easier to sell a client on the former, than explaining the logic of why they are holding back to achieve the latter.

You may be surprised just how far focus on simply getting leaner and stronger will take you to whizzing up mountains with a backpack on the weekend, …if that is what takes your fancy.


Summary: Recommendations on Cardio for the Physique-Focused Trainee

Dieting

  • Diet should be the primary means of creating the calorie deficit required for fat loss. If you set things up right, unless you’re looking to get on a stage, most men likely won’t need cardio at all.
  • If cardio is necessary, LISS (low intensity steady state) work such as brisk walks, rowing or swimming is the way to go. Avoid running.

Bulking

  • Focus on strength acquisition for physique development.
  • Cardio can be used to help with this, but it’s prudent to change other aspects of programming in your strength training first (guide). Cardio is likely not necessary until you’re into the intermediate phase where some form of periodisation is needed.
  • When introducing cardio work, make it low impact, low intensity; like cycling, rowing or swimming. Avoid running due to the eccentric component.
  • Avoid HIIT work unless conditioning is absolutely necessary for your sport. Again, make it low impact work if possible, like the cross-trainer, cycling, or swimming. Save your knees.
  • Add in carbs to make up for the additional energy expenditure of cardio work, but beware of the tendency to overestimate the calorie burn from aerobic activity.

If you are an endurance guy looking to push your physique to the next level, consider putting your endurance goals on hold for the short-term, do the minimum you can do to maintain a level of stamina you deem tolerable, and put your focus into chasing strength gains. – Endurance goals can always be chased down later, and you’ll likely quickly surpass your previous records because you’ll be working with a stronger base.


Hope you found that useful. Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional and training coach living in Tokyo, Japan. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, racing around Suzuka circuit, or staring at watches I can't afford.

113 Comments on “On Cardio for the Physique-Focused Trainee”

  1. Andy:

    I have 3 Questions about the following life-changing [for me at least] sentence from Menno Henselmans report (The Cardio Comedown):

    “studies have found that it’s not more effective to burn extra calories with aerobic exercise than simply consuming less of them: the weight and fat loss is the same15,16”

    Q1. But to maintain lean mass (and even gain some), the Calorie restricted individual HAS to perform heavy resistance training, correct?

    Q2. What happens if someone creates a deficit through Calorie restriction, but they do zero exercise?
    (my guess is that they would simply lose both fat AND lean mass, which is not optimal)

    Q3. What happens if someone creates a deficit by both expending energy and controlling Calorie intake, but they do not lift weights and their only form of exercise is low-to-moderate steady state cardio (i.e. elliptical, treadmill, stepmill, etc.)? Would they just get the same results as in Q2?

    This article has completely changed my life paradigm.

    Thank you Andy.

    -Quinn

    1. Hi Quinn, thanks for the questions.
      1. Yes.
      2. Right.
      3. It depends on who we are talking about. If we are talking about someone who has never done resistance training before then even the LISS will provide a progressive overload stimulus for those muscles for a time. However, for someone who has been resistance training, the stimulus from the LISS would be far less than what they are used to and so muscle would be lost.

Questions welcomed. (Over 16,000 answered)

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