It’s competition season. That means comp diets, de-carbing and, yes, that dreaded cardio.
But cardio eats muscle, doesn’t it? It’s a common view held by novice and experienced competitors alike, and it certainly can. That’s why even the most experienced athletes out there battle with how best to implement cardio as part of their prep plans.
Is cardio an exercise in futility?
What tends to happen is athletes starve themselves and do countless hours of cardio and in the process lose hard-earned muscle, in what can only be described as an exercise in futility.
A typical scenario is as follows: With a show deadline looming, a competitor who has put on a bit too much fat in the off-season starts their prep by aggressively cutting their dietary intake. After a few weeks cardio is added to the prep plan, with an option of cutting out carbohydrates when fat loss inevitably stops altogether. With still more fat to loose the competitor is under intense pressure – his metabolism has stalled, he has no energy and his body refuses to give up any of its stored fat.
Does this sound familiar? If it resonates, then it’s time to ask yourself why this metabolic slowdown occurs and what can you do to prevent it?
Beware the hormonal shift from cardio
If you ask any bodybuilding or prep coach, they’ll tell you that the metabolism will slow down on any diet.
When the body senses an energy deficit, it starts lowering thyroid levels and diminishes nervous system output to maintain homeostasis.
When calories are cut further and cardio is increased, the body amplifies this response. This leads to hormonal changes that result in more muscle loss and a greater propensity to store fat.
Consequently, the metabolism will then slow even further because of the loss of metabolically-active muscle tissue.
However, while cardio is loathed by almost everyone and can be deleterious to a physique when proper guidelines are not followed, it has its place in a prep plan.
Some form of low-impact cardio can have benefits, particularly where insulin sensitivity and fat mobilisation are concerned. This would depend on your diet composition and macronutrient manipulation techniques, though.
Cardio is also an important way to improve your overall health and wellbeing through a wide range of cardiovascular benefits.
Different schools of thought on cardio for conditioning
When talking about cardio, physique athletes are generally divided between different schools of thought: long duration low-intensity cardio sessions, commonly known as steady-state, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio.
Steady-state cardio keeps your heart rate at a constant level for a longer period of time. It is usually performed after lifting weights to maximise fat loss because you deplete glycogen when you lift weights, which means that your body will burn fat for energy when you follow your weight session with steady-state cardio.
HIIT, on the other hand, is cardio that creates a higher energy output than steady-state cardio. If you are pressed for time, 30 minutes of HIIT will burn more calories than regular steady-state cardio.
HIIT sessions are usually performed for about 20-30 minutes and can elevate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) for up to 24 hours after the session, which means you burn additional calories throughout the day.
Cycling a better form of cardio than running
A minimum amount of cardio is warranted if an athlete’s diet is on point. What matters most in your battle against the scale is your daily calorie consumption.
The majority of your carbohydrates should be eaten before and directly after your training, while protein and fats should be spread throughout the day. If you don’t replenish your glycogen stores after training your body will use protein (including your muscle tissue) to fulfill its energy needs.
In addition, the type of cardio you use is also important. Low-impact cycling is generally more advantageous to physique athletes than running because it releases lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, keeps your average heart rate lower, and seems to cause less muscle tissue damage. This means you recover quicker and hold on to more of your hard-earned gains.
The best cardio approach
To ensure you achieve the results you’re after, it’s best to start with the minimal amount of cardio needed to achieve your goal. You can then gradually increase your cardio in small increments as needed when you hit a plateau.
Individuals will require different amounts of cardio depending on their genetics, condition, timescale and goals.
In terms of HIIT versus steady state, competitors who incorporate both forms of cardio tend to realise the best results, while avoiding overtraining and boosting recovery. A common approach is two HIIT sessions on non-lifting days and two low-intensity sessions after your regular weight lifting workouts.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.