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cardio for strength gains: muscular man running

6 Rules For Creating A Cardio Routine That Supports Strength And Muscle Gains 

You may think cardiovascular training and strength gains go together like ham and peanut butter (a.k.a. not at all), but the two can have a peanut butter and jelly-like relationship. In fact, exercise professionals say it’s a misconception that aerobic training automatically undermines your anaerobic efforts. That said, there are some rules you’ll want to follow in order to maximize the benefits of both your cardio and strength efforts. Here, the pros break down the importance of ample cardio (even if your top priority is building strength and mass) and how to balance your routine so that your gains don’t suffer.

For The Record, You Should Be Doing Cardio 

Before we go any further, know this: Cardiovascular exercise is a must-do for overall health, regardless of specific fitness or physique goals you might have. 

Cardio is the broad term for any kind of movement that increases your heart rate for some duration of time. Known formerly as aerobic exercise, cardiovascular exercise improves your cardiovascular health and capacity, says exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. Basically, it improves your heart’s ability to pump blood throughout your body and teaches your lungs how to pump oxygen to your muscles faster and more efficiently.

“Doing cardio regularly can also decrease your risk of many chronic diseases, extend your lifespan, improve your mental health and brain function, increase immune function, improve sleep, and much more,” says Gam. So if your overall health and well-being are as important as having massive biceps (which they should be), cardio is non-negotiable. 

Read More: The Biggest Cardio Mistakes Trainers See

Forgoing cardiovascular exercise won’t just rob you of these health perks, either; it can actually also rob you of strength gains, according to online performance and nutrition coach Seamus Sullivan, C.S.C.S. “Cardiovascular capacity is foundational to your overall fitness,” he explains. “The better yours is, the better you will feel and function during your strength routine.” The better-trained system is, the more effectively it can function when your heart rate gets high (which it will during strength training, particularly when doing higher reps). The result, over time, is greater gains. 

No, Cardio Won’t Ruin Your Gains

There’s a common misconception that cardio ruins strength gains like a loud whisperer ruins a movie—but that actually isn’t the case. According to Gam, this misconception, which has been known as “the interference effect,” started brewing when a 1980 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology observed that doing cardio on top of strength training could interfere with strength gains. 

However, that one-line summary of the findings is a bit misleading. “The participants of the study exercised very frequently and very hard,” shares Gam. More specifically, they did 40 minutes of intense cardio six days a week, plus 30 to 40 minutes of hard strength training five days a week. That’s more than most gym-goers have time for. “Not to mention, the participants in that study actually did get stronger,” Gam says. “They just didn’t get quite as strong as another group that was doing only strength training.”

Thankfully, more recent research has set the record straight, showing that, so long as it is dosed appropriately, cardio won’t interfere with strength gains or muscle growth, says Gam. One 2022 study published in Sports Medicine, for instance, found that concurrent aerobic and strength training does not compromise muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength development so long as the training sessions are separated by at least three hours.  

6 Rules For A Cardio Routine That Supports Strength And Muscle Gains

If you want to optimize your routine in order to simultaneously reap the benefits of cardio exercise while getting jacked or super strong, you’ll want to keep a few guidelines in mind.

1. Keep your routine realistic

Broadly speaking, only serious competitive athletes need to spend enough time and energy on training to have to worry about how their cardio and strength splits might be impacting their muscle and strength goals, according to Gam. And if you’re a high-level athlete (kudos!), you’ll likely hire a coach to write up personalized programming for you and your specific goals so that you don’t have to think about whether the various elements of your exercise program are working in harmony. 

Most people don’t have to spend too much brain power on finding the right mix. “The average person who’s trying to get healthier, stronger, or put on muscle should follow a balanced exercise program including both cardio and strength training,” says Gam. A good model, she suggests, is simply following the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) physical activity recommendations. As a refresher, it recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate cardio (or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous cardio) plus two days of moderate strength activities per week. “Your gains won’t be affected if you follow a well-rounded exercise program like this,” Gam says. Use these recommendations as a reference and your muscles will be just fine.

2. Order Your Exercise Correctly 

Want to support your cardiovascular health while getting huge as the Hulk? Schedule your sessions appropriately. You have two options: Either strength train before your cardio work if doing them within the same session or split up your weekly aerobic and anaerobic work into different sessions. “Doing cardio before strength training in the same session is more likely to interfere with strength and muscle development than the inverse,” says Gam. So, if you’re going for a two-in-one, just remember: strength first. 

For reference, one 2018 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that sequencing strength training before endurance training in a single session benefited lower body strength adaptations, without negatively impacting improvements in aerobic capacity. 

Meanwhile, a 2015 The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study found that individuals who lifted after doing cardio—specifically, cycling or running—experienced a dip in lifting performance. The drop makes sense if you think about it: Cardiovascular training is tiring! Naturally, going into strength work already fatigued will result in some drop-off in how much you can lift, Gam explains 

This drop-off can be particularly notable if you’re starting with high-intensity interval training for cardio and then doing compound lifts, according to Sullivan. In addition to churning through energy, “high-intensity interval training also depletes the central nervous system (CNS), so there may not be as much neural force for the strength session afterward,” he explains. Meanwhile, compound lifts (like the clean or back squat) require more energy than isolated exercises (like the bicep curl or leg extension), so you’re more likely to notice lags in performance when attempting them after hard cardio.

3. Rethink The Type Of Cardio You Do

Let the record show that, despite its popularity, high-intensity interval training isn’t the only type of cardio. It’s also not the type you should prioritize if you’re looking to put on or keep mass amounts of strength, according to Sullivan. Going at such high intensities for such a long time (many HIIT classes are 45 to 60 minutes) depletes the central nervous system, he explains. This robs your body of the energy it needs to show up to your strength workouts with the power, intensity, and focus you need to make gains. 

Read More: It’s Time To Stop Hating On Steady-State Cardio

Instead of doing HIIT, Sullivan recommends adding lower-intensity movement to your daily routine (at least some of the time). “Adding in some low-intensity steady-state cardio, such as walking, can be an adequate way to improve cardiovascular capacity,” he says. “Getting up to 10,000 steps per day or even walking with family and/or dogs for 30 minutes a day is a great goal,” he says. (Keep in mind that the 30 minutes don’t even have to be all at once!)

Depending on your current fitness level, another option is to try heart rate zone training, which entails hanging around 60 to 70 percent of your max heart rate, says Sullivan. (For an estimate of your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220). The most popular form of heart rate training, this method (which is also known as zone 2 training) improves cardiovascular capacity while improving insulin resistance and increasing VO2 max (a measure of how much oxygen your body can utilize). 

FYI, the higher your VO2 max, the more physically fit you are considered. During strength training, this pays off by making the weights feel lighter than they actually are, Sullivan says. You’ll also need less rest between sets. What’s more, “research indicates that having a higher VO2 max can help increase your life and health span by up to as much as five times that of someone who does not have a cardiovascular routine,” Sullivan says.

4. Eat A Pre- and Post- Workout Snack

Sound nutrition is an essential ingredient in any exercise routine—and that is especially true when your exercise routine combines aerobic and anaerobic work, and your primary goal is strength gains, according to Gam. Two critical components: pre- and post-workout snacks.

“Before a workout, you need to give your muscles the fuel they need to get through the workout,” she explains. As a general guideline, she recommends consuming about 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, plus 20 to 30 grams of protein. The carbs provide your muscles the energy they need to move and groove, while the protein limits muscle breakdown during your workout and supports muscle repair following it. 

Read More: 5 Fitness Pros’ Favorite Pre-Workout Snacks

“Then, within about 30 minutes of finishing your workout, it’s important to replenish your muscles with more carbohydrates,” says Gam. Consuming 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight post-workout will help restock the glycogen stores you tapped into for energy during training and fight fatigue so that you can perform your best in your next workout. A banana (or two), a carbohydrate drink, a fruit smoothie, oatmeal, and cereal are all good options. 

You also want to eat some protein after your workout. “The timing of protein after a workout isn’t quite as important as it was once thought to be, but it’s a good idea to get another 20- to 30-gram dose of protein within a couple of hours of a strength training session,” Gam says. Throw some protein powder into your smoothie, oats, or cereal, whip up some eggs, grab a protein bar, or cut into some chicken or steak.

5. Eat Enough Overall 

On the topic of sound nutrition, it’s also important to eat enough throughout the day if you want to maximize muscle while engaging in cardio. “In order to build or maintain muscle mass you need to be in a calorie surplus,” says Gam. Indeed, per the National Federation of Personal Trainers, men and women should aim for a surplus of 500 and 300 calories per day, respectively, to make strength gains. 

Consuming a surplus of calories is especially important if you’re doing a lot of exercise, including cardio, according to Gam. Why? Because a large proportion of your energy intake will go towards helping your body recover from that training, she explains. Failure to consume enough calories will interfere with your muscles’ ability to rebuild following workout-induced breakdown. 

Being under-fueled can also lead to you feeling fatigued, lightheaded, and unmotivated during exercise—not ideal for anyone trying to lift heavy and go hard. Feeling meh can impact how much you lift during a given workout session, which sabotages your strength gains long term, Gam says. 

If it’s accessible to you, a sports nutritionist can give you personalized daily calorie intake goals. Otherwise, you find this number with the help of an app like MyFitnessPal

6. Prioritize Protein

Of course, where your overall calorie intake comes from matters, too. “If you want to put on or maintain strength, you need to make sure that you’re getting adequate protein across the day,” says Gam. “Aiming to consume about one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is a good starting point for most people.” Yep, that’s 150 grams of protein for a 150-pound person, which is a lot!

If you’re serious about making strength progress, Gam recommends measuring out your protein intake and tracking it on an app like MyFitnessPal (as long as doing so won’t negatively impact your mental well-being). It’s very easy to overestimate how much protein you’re eating, so she suggests that if you’re not making the strength gains you want, it can be helpful to fact-check yourself by tracking your macronutrients. (Here are nine easy ways to up your protein intake if you’re falling short.)

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