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The idea that cardio or aerobic training will make you weaker, smaller and ruin your body composition is about as misguided as the girl at the gym who thinks lifting weights is going to turn her into the hulk.
Will that girl turn into the hulk after a couple of weight sessions? Definitely not. Could she pack on what she perceives to be a ‘manly’ amount of muscle mass over the course of a decade if she trained, ate and dedicated her life to doing so? Of course she could.
The fact is, somewhere in the middle is where she probably wants to be. Muscular, lean and strong – with a feminine shape and no man-face going on.
The same goes with cardio. Dedicate your whole life to endurance training with zero regard for strength and performance, and yes – you’re probably going to get that starved marathon runner look to your physique. But chances are you’re not going to do that. Again, there’s a middle ground.
Cardio and Aerobic Conditioning
Whenever I say that devilish word “Cardio” people seem to run in terror, believing they’re going to lose all their gainz. However, one of the most important things you can do to accelerate your results is set up and maintain a strong aerobic base.
It’s not about creating an energy deficit or pure fat loss at all. And for most people who see it as that, that’s exactly why they start their ‘cutting’ phase doing 20 minutes of cardio, 3 times per week – and wind up doing 2 hours of cardio, 7 days a week by the end of it. And what typically happens in those cases? The athlete usually winds up a starved, smaller, weaker and unhealthier version of themselves.
Instead of focusing on it purely from a calories in/calories out perspective, we need to look at it for what it really is – Conditioning for the Cardiovascular System and improving your Aerobic Capacity.
It’s a tool. And should be used as such for the specific purpose of improving your aerobic capacity. The same way you wouldn’t program a Bench Press specialisation program for someone who wants to bring up their Back Squat, you don’t need to program in Aerobic Conditioning work for someone who has a sufficient level of Aerobic Capacity.
But what if you identify a deficiency in someone’s Aerobic Capacity? That is, in their ability to uptake and utilise oxygen efficiently, to oxidise fat, produce energy or to handle and recuperate from stress in all it’s forms?
This is exactly where most people struggle – they’re chronically tired, their hormones are a mess and they’re not recovering from their weight training properly. Their resting heart rate and heart rate variability is a mess. They’re working harder and getting less results – in short, they’re simply not functioning optimally. That’s exactly the time to program in some Aerobic Conditioning.
So the million dollar question – how often should I be doing it?
The answer is simple – What would I do if I came across someone who wanted to increase their Back Squat? I’d get them to squat as much as possible, as frequently as possible.
And the same holds true for Cardio. If a client comes to me needing improvements here to help them produce energy more efficiently, recover from their strength training better and improve their ability to oxidise fat – I’d go hard out the gate and program in as much as possible to get the adaptations required.
The difference between Aerobic Conditioning work as opposed to Back Squatting is that the intensity is low. It would be fantastic to squat maximally, every day. In theory, you’ll make awesome progress – but then, reality sets in and you head right towards Snap City (trust me, I’ve been there). On the other hand, you can do Aerobic work daily, and for long durations with minimal impairment or injury risk. The more you do, the faster the adaptations come.
Once you acquire these adaptations in your aerobic capacity, you can drop it out completely or scale it down to maintenance amounts – and shift focus to dedicated strength and hypertrophy training.
The best part is – now you’re actually going to see all of the results you were promised from lifting – you’ll rapidly drop fat, slap on muscle and eat more than you ever thought possible.
Closing Thoughts – But what about weights?
I know what’s going to happen next if I don’t address it now. What about simply increasing volume of training – throwing in more supersets, giant sets, circuits etc, to create this metabolic effect? If all we’re going for is a particular heart rate ‘zone’ for aerobic conditioning, surely weights are sufficient?
In short – no. I’m not going to argue with you on this. Do a 30 rep set of squats or 10 station giant set and I won’t deny that you’ll be keeling over and coughing up a lung for the next 10 minutes. Again, trust me, I’ve been there.
But while your heart rate does get jacked up like mad – you’re also accumulating a lot of muscle damage, metabolic waste products and stress. You’re no longer focusing purely on building aerobic capacity, but now have to recover from even more stress – which can have the exact opposite effect, making your energy production pathways even more inefficient.
I love training in that manner, with high reps, volume and density – but again, it serves a specific purpose – and improving aerobic capacity for long term progression is not one of them.