“Cardio will kill your gains” has long been a mantra in the lifting community. It’s even something I adopted when I got into powerlifting; worried that a few cardio sessions a week would cause me to lose strength and all of my hard earned muscle.
Cardio was seen as something only to be done at low intensity after your session to aid with fat loss, but anything else would interfere too much with your lifting and that had to be the priority.
Then there was a swift change where it became about only doing high intensity intervals as it was shown that this could stimulate muscle adaptations and could preserve your muscle mass, and low intensity steady state cardio was out.
There were comparisons between the bodies of marathon runners and sprinters, designed to be proof that too much steady state cardio would see your muscle mass just melt off your body and should be avoided at all costs.
And yes, your body will adapt to the stimulus you expose it to. So if you’re a long distance or endurance athlete, your body will reflect this. Similarly, if you’re a bodybuilder or strength athlete and spend hours a week lifting weights for years, then your body will adapt to this stimulus and you’ll have more muscle mass.
However, engaging in a few cardio sessions a week won’t kill your gains and could even improve your recovery and your performance in the gym.
The majority of us who train are doing so for better overall health. We want to be stronger, have more muscle mass, have bodies that are more resistant to injury, and be able to move through our day to day activities with relative ease.
Having a strong cardiovascular system is a key element of overall health. It will help you have lower resting heart rate and blood pressure, can improve cholesterol levels, and reduce risk of heart attacks and stroke.
It also means you’ll be able to run around with your kids for longer and you’ll be able to climb the stairs without being completely out of breath.
Even professional strength athletes and bodybuilders do a couple cardio sessions a week to keep their heart and lungs healthy and to help their training.
Do cardio, get gains
So how can we have come a full 180 and now say that cardio will improve your gym performance and therefore potentially lead to more gains?
One benefit of cardio is improved aerobic capacity. In training, this means that you have greater work capacity and won’t have to cut your volume short because you’re absolutely gassed. Having a stronger cardiovascular system (ie “being fitter”) means you’ll also recover quicker between sets and sessions so the quality of your training each session will improve.
Volume and intensity
Based on the benefits, you can see that cardio should form part of a well-rounded training program. But, as with all aspects of training, volume and intensity matters. Do too much at an intensity that is too high, and you’ll likely experience negative impacts on your lifting and recovery. Do too little, and you won’t get the benefits.
The easiest way to add it in so you get the benefits without worrying about the impact on your lifting is to add some low intensity exercise into your daily routine. Adding in a 30 minute walk each day at a pace that slightly elevates your heart rate will help to improve your cardiovascular capacity without impacting the quality of your resistance training. It’s also a great stress management tool as it gets you outside in the sun and fresh air, which in turn will help to improve sleep and recovery.
If you have the time and ability to add some higher intensity aerobic training into your program, this can really benefit your overall training and this is something we incorporate in our GoFit programming.
However, even adding in some low intensity cardio will give you some great benefits and I can assure you, it won’t kill your gains.