A lot of people misunderstand what it means to have good cardio. Good cardio is when you are able to push the fight, and I’ve shown that in all of my fights.
Do you need cardio if you lift?
Some lifters like to pretend cardio doesn’t exist. Others do so much for fear of fat gain that you might wonder if they were not, in fact, marathon runners. Lastly, some only do strategic amounts whenever they need to lose fat, then they ignore it during their gaining phases.
Years ago, in the throes of my eating disorder, cardio (running and HIIT) was the reason I allowed myself to eat. When I emerged from that pit, I took my “vengeance” by banning running and HIIT from my training.
More recently, I have embraced a more balanced view of cardio as a tool to achieve athletic and physique-related goals. In this article, I intend to tackle the potential benefits of cardio for lifting performance, fat loss, and general health.
Ready, set, go!
1. Cardio for performance
We get better at what we practise often.
If you lift a lot, you will get better at lifting. If you run a lot, you will get better at running. So, as a lifter, you may want to limit cardio as much as possible.
However, there could be a benefit to increasing your aerobic fitness, as it may help you improve your lifting performance.
Simply put, heavy lifting requires effort. If you get out of breath after a single set, are you going to be able to handle your weekly volume and to recover well from it? Unlikely.
You might do less volume, which may hinder muscle growth. Or you might push through one, two, or five sessions, but eventually burn out and be forced to deload early because you aren’t recovering. This also hinders muscle growth, in case you’re wondering.
For this reason, achieving a basic level of aerobic fitness isn’t a bad idea. Getting there might require doing more cardio for a while, but, when you get to the level you’re aiming for, you can reduce frequency and duration to simply maintain your results.
In The Art and Science of Lifting, Greg Nuckols recommends to shoot for a resting heart rate in the low 60s. Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart contracts in a minute when you are in a resting state. The best time to measure it is the moment you wake up, when you’re still lying in bed, before you do any activity.
Well-trained individuals can have resting heart rate values as low as the 50s and 40s, so don’t freak out if you achieve that. It’s a good sign! (Unless you have any reason to think your slower heart rate may not be caused by an improvement in fitness, in which case it may be best to talk to a doctor.)
Having spent six years doing long-distance running, since I’ve been “converted” to resistance training I find that, in a gaining phase, walking is enough for me to maintain a good resting heart rate and an adequate level of aerobic conditioning.
However, I have the opportunity to walk a lot during the day, which may not be the same for everyone. Depending on your circumstances, you might need more or less regular cardio in order to get and maintain your desired results.
2. Cardio for health
Another term for aerobic fitness is “cardiorespiratory fitness”. Cardio improves heart and lung function; helps with weight and stress management; plays an important role in reducing mortality risk; and provides a host of other benefits that increase the more aerobic exercise you do.
Not only is more better, but a 2018 study on over 100,000 people found no upper limit to the amount of aerobic activity one can do to enhance their health.
As mentioned previously, if your main focus is lifting, you wouldn’t want to get to the point where you have less time and energy for resistance training due to the interference of cardio with your recovery capabilities.
However, some form of regular aerobic training will complement your resistance training, boost your health, and help you become a well-rounded exerciser or athlete.
3. Cardio for fat loss
Cardio can contribute to a calorie deficit when you decide to enter a fat loss phase, but it may be better suited to longer rather than shorter periods of caloric restriction.
For example, mini cuts* are shorter fat loss phases of four to eight weeks on average. These tend to be quick and aggressive, so doing cardio could be detrimental as it may lead to lean mass loss along with fat loss.
For longer fat loss phases of more than six weeks, some cardio might prove necessary to keep losing fat and avoid dropping calories to such low levels that you could become deficient in some nutrients or develop mental health issues like disordered eating. This may be especially true for females and smaller people, who tend to eat (and burn) fewer calories than males and bigger individuals.
However, the body undergoes adaptations to increased activity. For instance, if you aren’t doing much cardio at the moment, 20 minutes of running or cycling two to three times per week may drive your fat loss for a few weeks, but eventually the rate of loss may slow down and stall.
This is because your body has become more efficient at performing the same amount of activity with less energy. In order to kickstart fat loss again, you may need to keep increasing the duration or intensity of your cardio every time you hit a plateau.
For example, when I used to run four times a week, my weight stayed the same for about two years despite the fact that each session was an hour long. My body had long since adapted to that stress, so it was doing nothing but curbing an irrational fear of gaining weight.
For this reason, it may be more effective to prioritise achieving a calorie deficit through your diet and to identify the minimum effective dose of cardio that will help you achieve your short-term fat loss targets.
Ultimately, cardio is a potential fat loss aid, but your primary focus should be reducing your food intake.
Don’t make the mistake I used to make and try to run yourself into the ground. What you’ll get is a little less muscle mass and a lot less happiness.
Neither your physique nor your psyche will thank you for it.
*To learn more about mini cuts, I would recommend The Mini Cut Manual by Dr. Mike Israetel and Jared Feather.
For aerobic activity, the ACSM guidelines recommend 150 minutes at a moderate intensity, 75 minutes at a high intensity, or a suitable combination of the two when the purpose is overall health.
Examples of this would be a 30-minute walk five times a week, a 45-minute walk three to four times, or a couple of 40-minute runs.
You may need more if you have more specific goals. For instance, for if you are looking to lose fat, these basic recommendations may not be enough.
As a different example, if you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness, it’s unlikely that 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity would allow you to make progress, unless you were a complete beginner aerobic trainee.
Either way, try some cardio every now and then. It won’t bite.
In Future Episodes:
How do you choose a personal trainer that’s right for you? Next week’s article will consider a few factors to take into account when you’re making the choice.
Do you do any cardio?
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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