Your goal is to build muscle and gain weight, but you don’t want to get fat in the process. So adding cardio makes a lot of sense as it should keep fat gain in check.
But you’re confused…
On one end you hear the recommendation that you should perform one hour of low intensity cardio multiple times per week during your lean-bulks in order to stay lean.
While on the other end you hear the recommendation that you should avoid all activity outside of lifting weights, especially cardio, as this will harm your gains in muscle mass (and strength).
So, who’s right?
Well, no one really, the human body is a very complex organism, and there’s no black or white answer to anything when it comes to changing it. But there are a lot of nuances that we can make decent recommendations from.
In this article (and video) you’ll discover why it’s smart to do at least a bit of cardio when bulking and the benefits that comes with doing cardio. You’ll also learn what kind of cardio that’s best to invest in.
Should You Do Cardio When Bulking?
Let’s get right to it, should you do cardio when bulking?
Yes, there are enough evidence to support that doing some cardio is better than doing no cardio at all.
And when scouring all over the internet, including research papers, it seems that cardio helps you in 5 ways when you’re bulking:
The 5 Benefits Of Doing Cardio When Bulking
1. It Helps Prevent Fat Gain When Bulking
Here’s the thing:
Cardio doesn’t burn fat in and of itself, in order to burn fat you must be in a caloric deficit. And when you’re bulking, you’re supposed to be in a surplus of calories. So the way cardio helps prevent fat gain is by burning some additional calories to ensure that the calorie surplus isn’t getting too big.
A lot of people, myself included, get way too relaxed with the diet when bulking. It’s very easy to go a couple hundred calories above what you planned to eat during the day, and not even realize it.
This is so normal, typically when I’m setting up my caloric surplus for bulking, I say to myself “god this will be so easy to stick to.” But, one night out with my friends, or during an all you can eat buffé with my girlfriend I’ve indulged in 200-300 calories more than I’m supposed to.
Sure, I might not realize this immediately that night, but I see it on my average scale weight that month. My goal was to gain 1 lb of weight per month, but I gained 1.5 lbs, and that’s my receipt that I overindulged during a few days.
And this is where cardio comes in. By doing a few cardio sessions per week you can increase your energy expenditure and negate those extra calories you’re likely to eat.
Furthermore, a potential benefit of cardio is improved calorie partitioning. Calorie partitioning has to do with where calories “go” in the body when you overeat.
It’s been shown that the most potent calorie partitioning tool we have is training. Where regular low intensity cardio activity increases nutrient uptake in our muscles, instead of the nutrients getting stored in our fat cells.
This is still in debate, and research isn’t completely sure about the effects of nutrient partitioning and overfeeding. However, it certainly won’t hurt to do some cardio in reasonable amounts, as this may help you build more muscle and put on less fat during a long lean-bulk phase.
2. Improves Recovery Slightly
There are two types of recovery: active recovery and passive recovery.
The right kind of cardio can work as a sort of active recovery.
If you are sore from your lifting, doing some light cardio may help reduce your DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) which is usually an indicator of improved recovery.
The way cardio helps with recovery is by increasing blood flow to the trained muscles. When you increase blood flow, you improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to the trained muscles from the air you breathe and the food you eat.
Now, this effect might not be the biggest, research isn’t completely certain on this topic either. What we do know is that you certainly don’t need to do cardio to get recovered from your workouts, but it can help.
3. It Maintains Some Work Capacity & Conditioning
It’s not uncommon that people who only lift weights lose a lot of their metabolic conditioning. Lower repetition and long rest interval type training seems to have the greatest impact on reducing conditioning and work capacity.
Okay but now you might say;
So, I lose some work capacity and conditioning, but is that really important if all I want is to be lean, muscular and strong?
Well, actually it is. Keeping at least a baseline of work capacity and conditioning is important as it will help your overall recovery both during a workout and in-between workouts.
The good thing is that it takes very little cardio training to maintain some conditioning, a lot less that what it does to develop it in the first place. So keeping at least some cardio in your training program goes a long way when it comes to keeping baseline work capacity.
3. Supports Future Fat Loss
One huge benefit of doing cardio when bulking is that it will make it easier for you to lose fat in the future.
Here’s the thing:
If your goal is to build a lean and muscular physique quickly and effectively, then adding some fat during your bulking phases simply comes with the territory, as this will maximize your muscle growth.
And adding fat to your frame means that, eventually you’ll have to diet the fat off, ideally at around 15 % body fat for males. This is also the reason why I recommend utilizing bulking and cutting cycles.
Anyways, doing cardio when bulking helps a lot with the transition from bulking to cutting. And here’s Lyle McDonald’s explanation of why:
4. Good Cardiovascular Health Is Very Important
Cardio when bulking is important for the same reason that it always is, health!
It improves the flow of oxygen throughout your body, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and some kinds of cancer.
Not only will adding some cardio in your strength training routine promote greater health, it’s also been shown that low intensity cardio reduces stress and thus promotes a healthier environment in the body.
This environment also promotes better recovery, which can potentially lead to more muscle growth as discussed earlier.
5. It Will Make You Feel More Energized
This is something I think is connected to the health aspect of doing cardio.
In the beginning of my fitness journey I didn’t do any cardio. All I did was watching my diet and strength trained. Even though this approach worked, as you can see in my transformation video, one thing I learned recently was that I lacked a lot of daily energy back then.
Here’s how I learned that:
When I began PT school a few months ago, I started doing cardio twice per week with my class. And this had me feel so much more energized.
I feel more productive and alert during the days, and best of all my sleep quality went up immensely. This is a very positive benefit, since sleep is one of the most important factors when it comes to maximizing muscle growth.
What Types Of Cardio To Do
When it comes to cardio there are generally three different types people refer to:
- Low intensity steady state (LISS)
- Moderate intensity steady state (MISS)
- High intensity interval training (HIIT)
I’m sure you’ve heard that doing moderate intensity steady state (MISS) is negative when it comes to muscle growth and strength development, and that Low intensity steady state (LISS) and High intensity interval training (HIIT) is fine.
Well, this isn’t entirely true. The reason why people believe this is because it’s so easy to do too much training when you do MISS. It’s not a problem with the training modality, it’s a problem with doing too much training volume, so recovery becomes an issue.
This means that it’s completely fine to pick any of the modalities as long as you’re not training too much. Let’s look at what too much is:
How To Program Your Cardio
Low Intensity Steady State Cardio
This type of cardio is the easiest kind, but it requires time to give noticeable effects on calorie burn.
Low intensity cardio is only suppose to raise your heart rate a bit, for most people low intensity would happen somewhere between a brisk walk or a slow jog. You should be able to keep a conversation going without much effort.
Medium Intensity Steady State Cardio
This is the type of cardio that you should be careful with, since it’s very easy to go overboard on the amount of training you do in a week.
MISS is when you do some sort of cardio activity repeatedly at a moderate intensity. As opposed to LISS, this is when it’s hard to keep a conversation, you’re sweating, and your heart rate is elevated to moderate or high levels.
High Intensity Interval Training
This type of cardio is great.
It’s awesome for conditioning, burns more calories per minute compared to low intensity cardio and it’s also been shown to support strength gains because it’s very similar to weightlifting in terms of high effort and rest periods.
However, you shouldn’t do too much of this cardio, since it’s very taxing on recovery, which could potentially steal recovery from your strength training.
Instead of doing HIIT routines like the one above, you could play sports 1-2 times per week on rest days for 20-30 minutes. Sports usually involve short periods of high intensity efforts with periods of walking or resting, so it’s very similar to HIIT.
A great benefit of playing sports is that they’re typically more enjoyable than normal “cardio” because you do something that’s not as repetitive, and you can have fun playing with your friends or a team in the meanwhile.