Cardio in the Off-Season: Make Up Your Mind

TAGS: doggcrapp training, fortitude training, muscle gain, training regime, Scott Stevenson, cardio, bodybuilding, fat loss

In part one of this article, I covered some of the main reasons for doing (or avoiding) cardio in the bodybuilding off-season. I would suggest reading that before tackling this second installment in the series. Here, the focus is on making your own personal decision: Is cardio friend or foe when trying to gain muscle size?

Make Up Your Mind

Let’s face it: For most people, cardio ranks up there with watching the grass grow while slipping bamboo shoots under your fingernails. (Not fun.) On the other hand, more cardio may be worth it if it means you’ll be met with an extra round of sushi later that day. (Fun.) There are even those who actually enjoy cardio because it is has a meditative quality or is even exhilarating. (Perhaps fun?) I apologize if I’ve created a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to whether you should or shouldn’t do cardio. To make it up to you, I offer more thoughts to help piece together the off-season cardio puzzle:

  • For someone who follows a relatively low volume, progressive overload oriented training regime (like Doggcrapp training by Dante Trudel), where caloric expenditure during training may not be large, cardio makes more sense from a health perspective (see above). This is also true if one is saddled to a desk all day or generally sedentary outside of formal training. Dante and I share the same opinion that cardio is a good idea for those who plan to DC train and eat copious amounts of food.
  • Some trainees find that cardio stimulates appetite, which makes sense from a homeostatic standpoint. However, the coupling between caloric expenditure and appetite is also a bit weak(1, 2). Also, how vigilant one’s body is in guarding against weight and fat gain varies substantially, too(3, 4). For more on this topic, check out this article. As bodybuilders have known for years, research keeps coming around to fat-free mass (including muscle mass built by resistance exercise) as a key determinant of caloric balance and appetite(5). In other words, don’t forget that simply gaining muscle mass can be a way to increase your body’s caloric needs, i.e., how much food you eat and it’s anabolic effects.
  • All forms of cardio are not equal. Building on research over two decades old(6), it’s become evident that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may be a superior means of dropping body fat compared to steady state aerobic exercise) while simultaneously improving both anaerobic and aerobic fitness(7). Indeed, it seems that improving muscle mitochondrial content may be important for nutrient handling and staying lean during caloric excess (a phenomenon known as “metabolic flexibility”)(8). Because traditional resistance exercise alone may not evoke these adaptations(9-12), adding in a non-interfering dose of HIIT (to stay “in shape”) may help keep the blubber at bay during the off-season. (Many of you may have experienced this.)
  • Indeed, it’s been speculated that the similarity between sprint and resistance training in terms of metabolic demand may mean that HIIT may be co-exist more harmoniously in the same training regime, i.e., interfere less during muscle hypertrophy(13). Two studies(14, 15) and my personal experience with clients who prefer HIIT suggest that this can be the case as well.
  • Of course, simple time constraints may preclude all but only the most masochistically dedicated from doing low intensity (long duration) steady state cardio. (This is where HIIT may shine for some folks: It’s a way to “git ‘er done” a la ripping a band-aid off as quickly as possible).

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Don’t Leave Me Hanging (Around This Treadmill)

Due to the potential for the interference effect, the complex interplay between training stress and recovery that may be even more important if attempting concurrent training. Interestingly, some studies show that concurrent training may actually amplify muscle mass gain(13, 16, 17). However, one’s previous training status (strength or endurance) dramatically affects the responses to a given exercise bout(18), so what may hold for the previously untrained subjects in these studies may not apply to a highly trained bodybuilder. Research has demonstrated that, as one would expect, adding endurance activity to strength training may increase body fat loss over either training modality alone(19, 20). Albeit far from direct evidence, this points at the notion that off-season cardio could help prevent fat gain during a “lean bulk.” Still, is this potential metabolic advantage worth the possibility of hypertrophic interference?

Perhaps one could get away with cardio if it preceded weight training, such that the latter form of exercise would be the dominant driving force for adaptation, the last word, so to speak. From a stimulus-response standpoint, coupling endurance training with strength training may actually create a bit of molecular mayhem. In one study, the anabolic response to resistance exercise was reduced when preceded by endurance exercise, whereas doing cardio after hitting the weights increased protein degradation(21). However, these acute responses supporting the interference effect phenomenon were not found in another study(22). Additionally, when it comes down to actual training adaptations, several studies have shown that whether cardio is first or last in a given training session is essentially inconsequential(22-24).

Still, can’t we somehow cut a better deal with cardio? You’ll be happy to know that the answer is yes, kinda. Interference with strength and muscle size gains tends to be less if cardio sessions are not overly frequent(25) and/or long in duration(13). In other words, don’t do too much of it. However, doing cardio on a cycle (as opposed to a treadmill), might just eliminate significant hypertrophic interference altogether(13). To avoid potential interference during the post-exercise adaptive period (e.g., protein synthesis is elevated only for about 48 hr or less after a workout(26-29)), I generally suggest that cardio be separated from leg training by a day or two. This allows the recovery and adaptive processes of the resistance exercise to manifest, and also serves to reduce the frequency of cardio. If this is not possible, at least splitting training into morning and evening sessions, to allow some recovery (and harder training perhaps) may be another way to minimize the interference effect(30).

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Dance with the One Who Brung Ya

Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. We’re talking about “bulking” where the goal is gaining new muscle: resistance exercise is still our main weapon of mass construction. If you train hard enough, using large muscle group exercises taken to failure, you can earn a tremendous (perhaps >500kcal) boost in EPOC-related caloric expenditure without any traditional cardio. If you like HIIT because the muscle endurance (anaerobic)/stamina enhancements from this kind of training(7) carry over into your weight training, this can also had by incorporating higher repetition sets into your regimen(31). High rep training – if taken to failure — is a very effective growth stimulus in and of itself(32-35), in part due to the imposed metabolic stress(36).

The trick in getting these cardio benefits from going to town in the weight training comes in lining all up training volume, intensity (load) and exercise selection such that you do not overtrain or continually develop chronic (overuse/repetitive use) injuries. Avoiding exercises that cause aches and pains and periodization is vital here. For more on this, see this article.

One can apply approaches such as alternating between free weight vs. machine workouts, having both “light” and “heavy” training days, or even changing schemes on a day by day or week by week basis via a periodized approach(37). Not coincidentally, I devised Fortitude Training with these thoughts in mind. Most Fortitude Trainees find the need to up their caloric intake substantially when starting the program.

On the other hand, a side order of low intensity steady state cardio with a main entrée gut busting, “slag iron” moving bodybuilding training a la Doggcrapp training is a time-tested way of both promoting cardiovascular health and making impressive gains.

So, the decision is yours (and perhaps your coach’s) as to whether cardio in the off-season will make for better bodybuilding. Here is a final list of questions to consider in narrowing your decision:

  • Where do you fall along the spectrum of gaining fat versus gaining muscle? Can you afford an interference effect (are you a “hard gainer” or are your legs a weak point) or does your body fat percentage typically surpass your age if your diet strays a bit?
  • Is fat gain in the off-season such a concern for you that it could subconsciously be sabotaging your efforts to gain size? If so, cardio may give you the “psychological go ahead” to eat more and thus make better progress.
  • Are you a cardio fanatic or a cardiophobe and if so, have you tried adjusting your “dose” of cardio to see if it improves your off-season gains?
  • Regardless of who actually said it first, does that oft quoted definition of insanity fit you, given what you’re planning to do relative to last year and what you’re expecting to happen this time around?

Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Sygo at www.symiphotography.com 


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Disclosure: Elitefts does not profit from the sales of The Fortitude Training eBook or traffic to Scott Stevenson's website. We choose to share his work, products, and services simply because we believe he is among the best coaches in the industry.  - Dave Tate


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