One of the most common myths out there in the gyms seem to be that cardiovascular training equals loss of muscle mass. Period, end of story. And it just won’t go away. That is also why you seldom see the hardcore gym rats leave the power rack to join the ladies by the stair masters – who in turn believe in the myth of females suddenly gaining a hundred pounds of muscle by even smelling a barbell.
Needless to say, both categories of trainers are in fact robbing themselves of optimal results – the women would get firmer, stronger and leaner if they’d throw in 2-3 sessions of weight training, and the men would experience several advantages if they’d pick up cardiovascular training. And this is what I’m going to write about this week.
With every breath you take, you breath in oxygen which is absorbed by the blood in your lungs. I guess most of you remember all that gross stuff from your biology classes so I won’t go into depth in it, and besides it doesn’t really matter in your daily life. What DOES matter, however, are two things:
- Your physical capability is closely connected to your oxygen intake.
- You can improve it.
“Sure,” someone says, “If I were a marathon-runner I’d care, but I’m a bodybuilder. And I’ve done my homework – Bodybuilding is anaerobic work, not aerobic! Why should I give a flying damn?”
You’re right about the anaerobic part, but c’mon… You NEED oxygen! Even if you make a minimum amount of reps, say 4 heavy reps of deadlifts, are you trying to tell me you’re not the least out of breath afterwards? Right – you come up with an oxygen deficit. And here’s news for you – the less oxygen available, the more lactic buildup you get. Besides, do you always do extreme low-rep training? In that case – get a book on periodization! For the rest of you, improving the cardiovascular capacity is a good way of avoiding those dancing black spots in your vision at the end of a high-rep set. And in case your training partner isn’t buying any of this, just tell him to do 20 reps of squatting with a plastic bag over his head and I’m sure he’ll see the importance of oxygen, even in anaerobic training.
This must be one of the oldest facts in popular medicine, so I’ll make it really simple: Regular cardiovascular exercise strengthens your heart and makes you live longer. Questions?
With this kind of exercise, you have a much better chance of getting rid of the lovehandles as opposed to if you’d rely solely on weight training. As numerous tests have shown, it’s a simple, sane combination of both that yields the best results. So what happens? Well, for one thing, for fat burn to take place you need oxygen available. It needs it. No oxygen = Carbs used for fuel. And like I said before, that only results in lactic acids and is an extremely inefficient way to get energy. More oxygen = Better fat burn. Then there’s details such as improved amount of mithocondrias (the unit of the cell that burns fat), decreased levels of fat in the bloodstream, increased amount of fine capillaries, better blood pressure and so on… I think you get the idea.
Killing the myth
So, all this is fine and dandy. But what about the muscle mass? Don’t worry, it ain’t going nowhere! Two important things though: You must eat. If you do not eat properly, the body inevitably has to use stored energy. Sure, some fat might get burned but your muscle is more of a prime target as starvation = fatburn shutdown. And as muscle is “active”, i.e. burns energy 24 hours a day, the best thing for the body to do, it thinks, is to shed excessive muscle, thus saving fat and reduce future energy loss. It’s self-preservation, according to our ancestors. The second thing to think about is not to overdo it. If you exercise for 4 hours straight you’re in the danger zone. Experts talk about 1-1,5 hours as the max for a weight training session to last, as after that your carb storage in your body is out and your hormone balance starts really working against you. I haven’t read any studies on muscle mass / long term cardiovascular training, but take a good look at a marathon runner make an educated guess.
However, I’d like to underline this: if you DO watch out for these two obvious potholes, you have nothing but gains to expect from this!
No need to dwell on the physiological part – it’s good for you, plain and simple. But it’s also good to do something else than go to the same gym, lifting the same weights, day in and day out. Go mountainbiking in the weekends! Play basketball! Go swim! What you do is really not that important, as long as you do SOMETHING out of the gym for a change! And guess what? By breaking out of the rut, perhaps even going hiking in the mountains for a week, can actually prove extremely productive for your bodybuilding goals! Not only do you let your muscles rest, you also get an overall, moderate body stimulation in a way they’re not used to! Result: You can come back and attack the weights like a new person.
Remember, your biggest enemies are boredom and routine!
Now that we know that cardiovascular training, or plain “cardio”, isn’t the antagonist of muscle as it’s rumored to be, it’s time to get down to action! Last week I said we’d discuss possible activities, and I thought I’d start by being original enough N O T to fill the rest of this article with the usual activity/time/calories spent-chart. That’d all be fine and dandy, given that you’re a machine that only pick the most calorie-burning activities and are able to stick to it for years to come. Let’s be honest for a second. It’s the gym that’s priority #1, cardio is more of a necessary evil – unless you make it fun!
For example, I hate running. There’s nothing good about it, and in my opinion there’s not all that much difference between running and putting my fingers into a broken electrical outlet. Repeatedly, for about 30-40 minutes.
However, I can play basketball for hours. Not only am I keeping my pulse up for much longer, I’m also having a ball which motivates me to come back and do it again. As opposed to have been running, when I’m crawling into the shower with blood taste in my mouth and knees that will hurt for the week to come. For a guy like me, the difference would be approx. 1500 kcal / hour (running) vs. 700 kcal / hour (basketball). But as I’d be able to play basketball for, say 5 hours a week (easily! :-)) I’d only be able to get 1 hour of running, 1,5 hour if I’m pushing it. And simple maths tells us that 5 x 700 sums up to more than 1500 or 2250 kcal. Which cardio program do you think will still have me as a follower a month later?
Bottom line: Forget them fancy calories-per-hour charts! The three criterias for your cardio training schedule should be:
- You think it’s fun.
- It gets the heartrate up (65% of max for fatburn, 80% for endurance)
- It doesn’t contradict your bodybuilding goals.
Point 1 is easy, while points 2 and 3 might need some clarification.
Your target heartrate depends on the particular goal you have with your cardio. Is the cardio a part of a fat-loss program? In that case, go easy and make sure not to get your heartrate up too much! If you do, you run a risk of losing too much muscle mass (as you’re already rather catabolic from the diet).
However, if you’re bulking up or just want to remain fit, you want to keep the heart in top shape and possibly improving the overall capacity. Then you should aim for higher heartrates, where 80% of max is a good rule of thumb.
The max is decided by your age, as in:
220 – age = approximate max pulse. A 30-year old person would be: 220 – 30 = 190 max.
Point 3 is quite logical. Example: Your lats are skinny, and you feel like adding some muscle onto them. Then rowing might not be a good choice for cardio, as you run a fair risk of overtraining your back, while dancing or powerwalking allows your back to rest while still getting your cardio done. It’s pretty simple – don’t chose a cardio activity that uses the same muscles you’re trying to grow the most.
Again, this is determined by your goals. As in the example of the fat-loss program, you want to do quite a lot cardio to get rid of the excess calories, while still not going overboard. Remember what I wrote about maintaining muscle in the first part. A person on a fat-loss program could do, for example, 4 x 45 minutes/week of cardio if it’s strenous, while 5 x 60 minutes/week might be suitable for a less strenous kind of cardio. The other option is considerably more exhausting, making 2 x 45 or 3 x 30 mins/week more appropriate.
Before you get all Gung-Ho about it and start out with high set goals, make an honest evaluation of your own shape. What’s my history? Is my schedule realistic? Can I stick to this schedule for more than two weeks? And if you have any heart- or respiratory problems, make sure to consult a physician before taking on a serious program. And do I even have to mention it? If you have asthma, you don’t do ANYTHING without proper medication available!
For the rest of you: Just listen to your body, and you’re on the highway to excellence!