How much cardio should you do if you’re trying to gain muscle?
Cardiovascular training alone will not help you to gain muscle. More specifically, low-intensity cardio doesn’t stimulate the muscles enough to induce a growth response. In fact, if you are a beginner looking to build muscle, it’s recommended that you focus on progressive resistance training first, before incorporating additional cardio.
For more regular gym-goers who are looking to build muscle, whilst staying fit and healthy, we would recommend adding light cardio, either after resistance training sessions or on different days. This will ensure they get the health and fitness benefits of cardio training, without interfering with strength gains and optimal recovery (crucial for muscle growth).
While you can achieve some muscle gain by combining both strength and cardiovascular training (known as concurrent training), cardio alone will not yield the results you are looking for. Muscles need to reach a certain stimulatory threshold to grow, which is why strength training is much better suited. Traditional cardio (low intensity, endurance training) won’t provide an adequate stimulus and may even be counterproductive to muscle growth.
In order to grow, the body needs stimulus, recovery and energy
In order for muscles to grow, the body needs to be in an anabolic state (a state of building and growing), as opposed to a catabolic state (a state of breaking down and utilising stored energy).
An energy surplus, or at least maintenance, is required to achieve an anabolic state. The best way to think about this is imagining your body as a battery; we are all well accustomed to seeing the battery bars on our phones. The more energy we use, the less battery power we have available for growth and repair. Resistance training induces the necessary stimulus for muscle growth, without using up too much energy. Excessive cardio can drain the battery of the energy required to recover and grow.
Your body’s energy balance (calories in vs calories out) should be tilted in favour of energy intake in order to gain muscle. For instance, an average height 80kg male may need around 2200 calories per day to maintain his weight, meaning that energy balance is equal (calories in = calories out). Increasing their intake or decreasing output (calories in > calories out) will ensure they gain weight. Decreasing their intake or increasing output (calories in < calories out) will ensure they lose weight.
So, if you want to gain muscle without stopping cardio training, this is possible by ensuring you are doing resistance training, whilst tracking your energy balance.
Cardiovascular training should not limit your capacity to strength train
With all of this in mind, it is crucial that you do not let cardiovascular training limit your strength training due to fatigue – especially if building muscle is your goal.
The main mechanism by which muscle increase in size is known as muscular hypertrophy (increasing muscle fibre size). The primary factors which affect muscle hypertrophy are adequate mechanical stress, metabolic stress and muscle damage.
If your body is fatigued from excessive cardiovascular training, you will find it difficult to train hard enough to achieve this hypertrophic response.
That should not mean you stop cardio altogether
Cardiovascular exercise can be a great addition to your strength training, and for a more balanced training program, we’d suggest you always mix in some form of cardio.
Why? Well, there are two key benefits. One, you’ll get fitter by improving your cardiovascular system which has multiple health benefits and will also positively transfer into your performance in the weight room.
Secondly, including some cardio on your non-weight training days can help increase your appetite, therefore enabling you to eat more and enter the caloric surplus required to gain muscle.
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