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Cardio and Mass Gains

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Among the numerous never- ending debates in the field is the question of whether or not cardio/aerobic type activity
should be performed when the explicit goal is maximum gains in muscle mass. And as is usually the case, there are a
variety of extreme standpoints in this debate.
At one extreme is the idea that trainees should perform an hour of low intensity cardio daily during their mass gaining
phase. This is usually suggested as a way of staying lean during the period of overfeeding needed to maximiz e
muscle gain. At the other extreme is the idea that any activity outside of lifting weights, and especially cardio, will do
nothing but harm gains in muscle mass (and strength).
As usual, I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle and Id like to look at some of the various pros and cons of
keeping some form of cardio in the overall program when the explicit goal is muscle mass gains. As usual, whether
cardio is good, bad or neutral depends on the situation along with how its performed.
For context, the main type of cardio activity Ill be focusing on in this article is low to moderate intensity steady state
cardio which is usually where the big arguments erupt. For the most part, unless dealing with an athlete who must be
performing interval training for their sport, I dont recommend interval training when the goals are maximal muscle mass
gains.
Yes, you can always find someone who makes it work (and there have been various theories thrown around how
sprinting might enhance muscle gain which never seem to have really panned out) but for the most part I dont think high
intensity cardio training of any sort (interval or otherwise) is optimal when the goal is maximal muscle gain. So Ill be
focusing on low- to moderate- intensity steady state type cardio here.
Benef it s of Cardio During Mass Gaining Phases
Among the pros of maintaining some amount of cardio during a mass gaining phase, Id probably include the following:
1. Improved recovery
2. Appetite
3. Maintaining some conditioning and work capacity
4. Improved Calorie Partitioning
5. Keeps the fat burning pathways active
Lets look at each.
Improved Recovery
Done at low to moderate intensities (Ill come back to specifics at the end of the article) cardio can act as a form of
active recovery. By pumping blood through worked muscles, recovery is often hastened (and for many, active recovery
actually helps more than simple passive recovery: doing nothing).
Id note that most forms of cardio tend to be lower body dominant so most of this effect will be for the lower body.
Trainees who want to achieve a similar effect for the upper body would need to perform rowing or use the EFX or a
machine that also involves the upper body to some degree.
Finally, its worth noting that, by sipping on a dilute carb/protein drink (perhaps 30 grams carbs and half as much protein
per hour), the increased blood flow to the working muscles will enhance nutrient delivery; this should also help with
overall muscular recovery.
Appet it e
The impact of exercise on appetite can be exceedingly variable. For some people, activity, and this is especially true
of high- intensity activity, can blunt appetite; for others it can stimulate it. In the context of mass gaining, trainees who

have trouble consuming sufficient calories often find that including moderate amounts of cardio can be beneficial in
terms of improving appetite.
Maint aining Condit ioning/Work Capacit y
Depending on the specifics of the training, its not uncommon for lifters and trainees to lose a lot of their metabolic
conditioning when they move into pure mass gain phases (where all they are doing is weight training). Lower
repetition/long rest interval types of training tends to have the greatest impact and individuals lose vast amounts of
conditioning and work capacity during this type of training.
For athletes this is clearly detrimental since it means they have to start building things back up from scratch. Even for
non- athlete lifters (e.g. bodybuilders), losing work capacity can hurt overall recovery both during a workout and inbetween workouts.
The good thing is that it takes far less training to maintain some conditioning than it does to develop it and keeping at
least some amount of cardio in the total training program goes a long way towards this goal.
Improved Calorie Part it ioning
As an additional potential benefit, aerobic activity could potentially improve results during a mass gaining phase in
another way and that has to do with overall calorie partitioning. As I discuss in Calorie Partitioning Part 1 and Calorie
Partitioning Part 2, partitioning has to do with where calories go or come from when you over- or under- eat
respectively.
Probably the most potent partitioning tool we have is training. Regular activity increases nutrient uptake into skeletal
muscle; practically that means less excess calories to get stored elsewhere (e.g. fat cells). While its debatable how
much of an effect low- to moderate intensity cardio will have in this impact, it certainly wont hurt done in reasonable
amounts. And it may help in the long- term.
St aying Lean/Keeping Fat Burning Pat hways Act ive
Finally, there is the issue of keeping fat burning pathways active and/or staying lean while mass gaining. Frankly, Im not
hugely convinced that doing cardio does a ton to keep folks lean; especially given that its relatively easy to eat more
calories and overpower any slight caloric burn from the type of cardio that is usually advocated. Frankly, I suspect that
it would be easier to just keep the caloric surplus under greater control (or time that surplus around training better).
However, there is another related reason to keep it in and that has to do with the fact that eventually folks who are
gaining muscle mass will want to lean out. As I discussed in General Philosophies of Muscle Mass Gains, most will get
the fastest rate of muscle growth while allowing some fat gain to occur; this necessitates eventually dieting off the extra
fat.
Now, tangentially (and this is a topic I cant discuss fully here), I think that one of the reasons that cardio has gotten a
bad rap in terms of muscle loss on a diet is that people jump from doing basically z ero cardio to fairly large amounts
often overnight; this is often accompanied by a massive drop in calories and I suspect that it is this combination that
tends to cause muscle loss.
This is a problem as during the overfeeding that is needed to generate maximum gains in muscle mass, the body often
loses some of its ability to use fat as a fuel and this can take a couple of weeks to get fully ramped back up when
calories are restricted (I suspect this explains some of the odd delay that seems to occur in true fat loss when people
start dieting again).
And this seems to be even more pronounced if folks have been doing z ero cardio while they are gaining muscle mass.
By keeping in some amount of cardio during the mass gaining phase, at least some ability to use fat effectively for fuel
is maintained. When the dieting phase eventually starts, the body will be a in better place to use fat for fuel.
Drawbacks of Cardio During Mass Gaining Phases
Having looked at the pros of keeping at least some cardio in during mass gaining phases, I now want to look at the two
major cons, or at least the two that are usually brought up:

1. Burns up calories that could go towards muscle growth


2. Might cut into recovery/Over- training
Burning up Calories t hat could go t o Muscle Growt h
This tends to be one of the major concerns of the no cardio while gaining mass group, that valuable calories that might
go towards muscle growth will be burned off by cardio. And certainly, taken to the extreme where excessive cardio is
being done, there is much truth to this.
As I mentioned above, the calorie burn of reasonable amounts of low to moderate intensity aerobic activity isnt
generally very high unless someone is exceedingly well trained (and can burn tremendous numbers of calories even at
low intensities). The few hundred calories burned during activity is pretty easy to replace on a day to day basis and Im
not sure this is a huge concern in terms of preventing calories and protein from getting to the muscle to support growth.
One exception to this are the perpetually skinny (e.g. the classic hardgainer or ectomorphic type). These are the folks
who have a hard enough time putting on weight in the first place, for a wide variety of reasons (that Ive discussed
elsewhere on the site). Since they rarely have to worry about getting lean in the first place, they probably should avoid
much if any cardio so that all of their energies and food intake go towards training and gaining muscle mass.
Of course, the exception to this exception relates to the appetite issue I mentioned above. The classic
ectomorphic/hardgainer type often has trouble eating sufficient calories (one of the reasons they tend to stay so
lean/skinny is that their appetite tends to shut off pretty readily when they overfeed). In that situation, if performing some
cardio on off days helps them to eat more, then it might still be worth including.
Cut t ing int o Recovery/Over- t raining
The final two issues I want to look at are extremely related so Ill look at them together. The basic concern is that trying
to combine both heavy weight training and cardio/endurance type training will impair results in the weight room. And
there is certainly some truth to that idea.
A great amount of early research (and practical experience) suggested that the combination of cardiovascular and
strength training tended to cause an interference in terms of results. Interestingly (and this is beyond the scope of this
article), while cardiovascular training tended to impair strength performance, the opposite often wasnt seen; heavy
strength training didnt seem to impair the adaptations to endurance training.
Now one factor to keep in mind is that most of the studies looking at this topic were using some fairly high intensity types
of cardio; they were often examining the types of training that might be seen with American football or sports of that
nature. Meaning that they dont automatically have a ton of relevance to whats being discussed in this article. The
intensity is a key factor, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. When intensity is kept down and the
volume and frequency is more moderate, the potential negative impact of cardiovascular training on adaptations in the
weight room is massively reduced.
In that vein, I would still note that excessive amounts of cardio can still cut into recovery, both systemically (whole- body)
and locally (specific muscle groups). The legs are what typically what can take a beating since most cardio modes are
lower body dominant. Excessive amounts of even low intensity cardio can cut into the overall recovery of the legs and
rotating machines to alter the stress on the musculature may be a worthwhile consideration.
So Cardio while Focusing on Mass GainsYes or No?
In my opinion, with the potential exception of the extremely skinny/hardgainer type (who may still benefit from appetite
stimulation), there is more benefit to be had from reasonable amounts of cardio than there are negatives.
I simply feel that most of the problems with cardio training start to come into play when either the intensity or volume get
excessive. As long as the amounts are kept moderate and the intensity is kept under control I think most of the
concerns are mostly a non- issue.
So what defines moderate, reasonable, etc.?
At a bare minimum, 20- 30 minutes of cardio performed three times per week will maintain some basic cardiovascular

fitness, burn off a few calories, act as active recovery, and help to keep the fat burning pathways active so that the shift
to dieting is a little bit easier; all of the good things that I mentioned. And it should do that without having any really major
impact on progress in the weight room.
A higher frequency can be used but I wouldnt see much point to more than five per week unless the intensity is kept
very low (e.g. you can do brisk walking daily if desired). Going longer than the bare minimum of 20- 30 minutes will burn
a few more calories but there are limits to time availability (and people start to get bored) and I might set a reasonable
limit of 40 minutes of moderate intensity cardio at the maximum; if the intensity is kept way down (again, think brisk
walking), an hour is acceptable.
In terms of intensity, I think keeping things in the low to moderate range is going to be best. More specifically, a
maximum intensity of 70% of maximum heart rate (140 beats per minute for someone with a maximum of 200 beats) or
even lower should achieve some benefits without cutting into recovery or growth.
As I referred to in the first part of this article, its damn near a bodybuilding tradition to walk on the treadmill for an hour
every morning and, while I think that amount is overkill for most, the intensity is definitely going to be low with that type of
activity. That bodybuilders have done this successfully for so many years would seem to be an important lesson,
especially for those folks who think that the only type of metabolic work worth a damn is high intensity stuff.
A final issue to examine is that of timing and when to perform the cardio. In an ideal universe, any cardio would
probably be done completely separately from weight training. Cardio in the morning (fasted or not) and weights evening
would probably be ideal but cant always be realistically scheduled when people work full- time.
A very common approach is to perform some type of cardio on off- days from the weight room and this is certainly
workable if scheduling will allow it. Of course, not everyone can make it to the gym daily and the weather or what have
you may preclude doing it outdoors or at home. As well, for a short 20- 30 minute session, making the trip to the gym
(driving time may take longer than that) may not be realistic.
In practical terms, that means performing cardio in conjunction with the weight workout; this raises the question of whether
or not it should be done before or after the workout.
As long as the intensity is kept low, doing a short cardio workout before weights shouldnt hurt intensity in the gym (just
think of it as a prolonged general warm up). Doing it afterwards has less potential to impact on the weight room session
itself but, for those compulsive about post- workout nutrition, does delay eating. A reasonable compromise would be to
drink your post- workout drink while doing your cardio after the workout.
I would note that, after heavy leg training, most probably wont want to do much in the way of cardio. Keeping the
session to the bare minimums (e.g. 20 minutes of pretty low intensity work) is probably best. Cardio done after upper
body workouts can be a bit longer and/or more intensive if desired (within the guidelines I gave above).
Summing Up
So summing up, under most circumstances, I think keeping a reasonable amount of moderate intensity cardio in the
training program, even when the goal is explicitly mass gaining can be beneficial for most trainees (the major exception
being the extreme hardgainer types).
Potential pros include improved recovery, improved work capacity, better calorie partitioning, improved appetite
(sometimes), perhaps staying leaner and an easier time shifting back into dieting when the mass gaining phase is over.
The cons, including hampered recovery and systematic overtraining only really become an issue when too much
volume or too high of an intensity is performed.
A minimum of three sessions per week (up to perhaps a maximum of 5) of reasonable duration (20- 30 minutes minimum
up to perhaps 40 minutes maximum) at a low to moderate intensity (70% of maximum heart rate or less) should achieve
the benefits I talked about above without causing any of the problems that I also discussed.