Cardio Quandary: To Tread Or Not To Tread

cardio workout


Most days you go to gym with the intention of building a certain bodypart. Monday might be back and bi’s, Tuesday chest and tri’s and perhaps Wednesday is legs and shoulders. But what day is dedicated to training the most important muscle of all – your heart?

If you’re of the bodybuilding ilk, chances are you forgo pumping your heart in favour of pumping iron every day. But really, the healthier your heart muscle gets, the quicker the others will follow.


If you imagine an emaciated marathon runner when you think of cardiovascular fitness, you’re not alone, but that conception is far from the truth. You can be heart-healthy and still forge the physique of your dreams, because cardiovascular activity not only helps prevent heart disease, lower blood pressure and decrease cholesterol levels, it also helps to reduce overall bodyfat, finally uncovering those abs of steel you’ve been working so hard to develop. “Cardio and strength training can easily co-exist,” insists Len Kravitz, associate professor and co-ordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico. “The trick is in the timing.”

For the amateur lifter and competitive bodybuilder alike, cardio should best be done immediately following a workout. Lifting causes a build-up of lactic acid, a by-product of anaerobic metabolism, in the blood and muscles because there is not enough oxygen available for it to go through its complete metabolic breakdown. Ideally, you want the lactic acid to be carried from the blood to the liver where it’s converted into glucose and stored as glycogen. Cardio activity can help you accomplish just that.  “By doing cardio after your weight training, you supply the needed oxygen [by increasing breathing and heart rate] so that the lactate is not stored in the muscle, but instead is burned as energy,” says Kravitz. Flushing lactate out of the muscles means a faster recovery time, reduced post-workout soreness and therefor an increased potential for higher training frequency.

If you choose to do cardio separately from your lifting or even on a day off from the gym, the daily “when” of it does not really matter. The best time of day to do cardio is the time when you’re most likely to do it. If you’re plainly just not a morning person, forcing yourself to rise at 4 a.m. to jog will likely prove counterproductive, since neither your heart nor your mind is into it. Do your cardio when you feel best. If that time is in the morning, great. If it’s after work, that’s also great.


When planning your cardio programme the factors you need to consider are Frequency, Duration and Intensity. Simply put, intensity is how hard you’re working, duration is how long you’re exercising and frequency is how often you perform that exercise. The general guidelines for these variables are 3-5 days a week of 20-60 minute sessions at between 55% and 85% of your maximal heart rate (MHR). Sound broad? Indeed, and the key is to take a step back and look at your training goals. Do you want to build muscle? Lose fat? Increase aerobic capacity? Each of these goals will require a different cardio formulary.

IronClad Body


When trying to build muscle, lifting heavy is a given ingredient, but so is cardio. Offseason, most athletes tends to skip cardio in favour of “bulking up”, but if you keep up your cardio during this time, you’ll add less bodyfat to your frame and will be that much leaner when it’s time to diet down and sharpen up. In addition, your ability to metabolise fat will be greater due to your continued cardio practice and your capacity to uptake oxygen will be increased, giving you the endurance needed to lift heavier and longer. All this means increased gains over the long haul and a less painful dieting regime come contest time. Go for at least three days a week of 20-40 minutes of moderately intense cardio work to put a cap on your fat gain.

But what about hardgainers, those people who lose 10 pounds just thinking about cardio? Seems like the jury is out on this topic. I would suggest hardgainers train at a moderate pace but for a longer duration. The lower intensity will burn fewer calories overall, but will draw more from fat stores, sparing muscle glycogen and protein. Conversely, another idea is: hardgainers push the intensity higher, but drop the time to 20 minutes, three days a week. Sometimes this group just needs to shock their system [to initiate a response of any kind]. If you’re of this demographic, try out both theories to see which works best for you personally.


For those looking to lose bodyfat, the formula is simpler. Aside from moderating your diet, slow and steady wins the fat-loss race. Working within the currently accepted “fat-burning” zone – between 75%-85% of your maximal heart rate – for 30-60 minutes will allow your body to tap into its fat stores for energy while sparing muscle tissue from harm. The frequency at which you train will depend on how much fat you want to lose. If you need to shed a ton, go for 5-6 days a week. If you only want to lose a little, reduce that and go for three days a week.

For competitive athletes, having your bodyfat checked weekly will help you decide your plan of attack coming into a show. Change your cardio plan weekly, increasing or decreasing your intensity, duration and frequency according to your rate of progression. “A few weeks before a contest, however, when you’re so low on carbohydrates and energy, I highly encourage athletes to back off the cardio and conserve their energy for the lifting and posing practice” says Kravitz.


Bodybuilders can also benefit from an increase in aerobic capacity. Lifting, especially heavy lifting, is highly anaerobic, and a little interval training injected into your routine will better train you to recover from a set of 600-pound squats. Here’s where intensity comes into play. The higher you can push your heart rate and the harder you can make your body work, the more you’ll increase your body’s ability to shuttle oxygen to and from tissues. Weave together short bursts of high intensity interval work (80%-90% MHR) with longer periods of working rest (60%-75% MHR) for the duration of your cardio workout. Leave at least 48 hours between interval sessions to allow your body to fully recover.


  • Strengthen your heart and extend your life span
  • Decrease depression and anxiety
  • Decrease bodyfat and expose hard-earned muscle
  • Reduce blood pressure and lower your resting heart rate
  • Increase aerobic work capacity
  • Increase circulation
  • Enhance recuperation by ridding the body of lactic acid and increasing delivery of vital nutrients and building materials to repair the muscles.


What’s the best cardio activity for bodybuilders? The one you’re actually going to do. If the thought of plodding for yet another endless hour on the treadmill leaves you numb, then don’t do it! Give the rowing machine in the corner a run for its money or spin a cycle on the elliptical trainer instead. Variety encourages consistency by alleviation boredom, as well as giving your body a new stimulus to consider, increasing your potential for calorie burning and reducing the risk of overtraining. If you prefer the great outdoors, go outside and play! If you love football, arrange a few games per week with some friends to get in your cardio painlessly. Leave the car in the garage and rollerblade to the shops or post office instead.


Indoor Activities: Ski Machine; Skipping (moderate); Elliptical Trainer; Stairmaster; Step Aerobics (6-8 inch step); Rowing Machine (moderate); Stationary Biking (moderate)

Sporty Considerations: Rugby; Running (6 mph); Football (game); Mountain Biking; Basketball; In-line Skating (10 mph); Tennis; Swimming; Cricket; Golf

Other Options: Digging; Gardening; Disco Dancing; Playing with the kids; Cleaning the car; Bagging grass and leaves; Appliance repair; Billiards

“The only activity I would not recommend for bodybuilders is [continual long-distance] running,” says Kravitz. “It appears that the impact of running causes a so much shock and trauma to the lower body that a fair amount of protein syntheses goes into cell repair.”

All in all, there’s no avoiding it: cardio is necessary evil, even for bodybuilders. “If one truly looks at all of the research on the preventative benefits of aerobic exercise on cardiovascular diseases, stroke, Type II diabetes, colon and rectal cancers and if you truly value your long-term health, the answer is clear – do your cardio,” says Kravitz.

So in the now infamous words of Nike: Just Do It.

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