Not All Cardio Is Created Equal!

Performing cardio at a fat burning rate is much more beneficial to your body both physically and mentally. Everyone should do cardiovascular training because it is great for your health and, most of all, builds character.

Cardio is a dreaded word for many bodybuilders yet, walk into any gym in the world and you will most likely find some benches, barbells, dumbbells, stationary bikes, treadmills, and many other forms of cardiovascular equipment. Cardio is becoming universal in athletics today.

Many sports require at least some amount of cardiovascular endurance but most notably are sports such as running, cycling, cross country skiing, and swimming. The same principle of cardiovascular endurance holds true for other more physical sports such football, wrestling, basketball, and even auto racing. Yet, is cardio really necessary for bodybuilders?

Cardio For Bodybuilders

Sorry guys, but to be a champion in contemporary bodybuilding, one must do cardio. Cardio was not that important back in 1970s and 80s, but it is today. In the early 80's, the average Olympian competitor weighed in around 190 pounds. Today, that figure is over 220. Athletes are not only bigger and more massive, but they also sharper and harder. A prime example is Frank Zane. When Zane competed he was tight, but he competed less than 180 pounds. Try coming in that tight at 225. Twenty years ago, it was about being big and cut. Today, you must be huge and shredded.

Yet, I am often asked how beneficial is cardio to bodybuilders, whose goal is build, shape, and define muscle mass. Most athletes, who have very high cardiovascular endurance such as swimmers and marathon runners, do not display big, full, and shapely muscle due to the fact that they use muscle mass as a fuel source. So do the same principles that apply to long distance runners apply to bodybuilders and what kind of cardio program should a bodybuilder include in his or her training?

If building muscle were the only facet of a bodybuilder's training, the ideal amount of cardio for a bodybuilder would probably be zero because the more cardio/aerobic exercise that you do, the more muscle tissue your body starts to use for energy after it becomes depleted of fat and glycogen. Yet bodybuilding is a sport that not only factors muscle mass into being a champion, but also how lean he or she is. Some people can simply lower their caloric intake through dieting and get ripped without doing any type of cardiovascular exercise.

For the rest of us who have to work our tails off on cardio equipment, cardiovascular training is necessary to achieve a lean and ripped physique. Nonetheless cardio is beneficial for not only losing weight and becoming ripped, but also it is most importantly a great tool in building the heart, which is obviously the most important muscle in the human body. Here are a couple answers to cardio related questions that will help you develop an optimal cardiovascular training program.

When To Do Cardio

Personally I believe cardio to be the best and most effective when it is done first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Your body has not had any type of carbohydrate fuel for many hours, since you were sleeping, so you will burn bodyfat more efficiently as fuel.

I would not advise doing cardio before a workout, unless it is a brief 5-10 minute low intensity cardio to warm up. It is important to remember that your goal here is to build muscle and you want your body to be in an optimal state for your workouts. Weight training after cardio is not an optimal state, because the cardio will deplete your body of glycogen leaving you with less energy to lift weights. You need to save your energy for the important task at hand, which is to lift hard and heavy. Cardio after your workout is better, as you may be able to burn some extra bodyfat, especially after a leg workout. By doing the weights first, you deplete your body of glycogen.

Once depleted, your body can burn fat efficiently. However there is one drawback to doing cardio after a workout is that cortisol levels may become too high and put you in a catabolic state, which can break down muscle tissue and hinder growth. Personally I believe the best bet is to split up your training so that there is ample time between cardio and weight training to recover.

What Kind Of Cardio

Well there are many types of cardio ranging from low to high intensity cardio using a variety of methods. Many large bodybuilders find that their bodyweight is just too heavy for high intensity cardio such as running and jogging, due to the stress it places on their hips, knees, and ankle joints. A good alternative for jogging is the stationary bike, which is practically universal in every gym in the world.

Cycling averts the stress and is a great cardiovascular workout. Power walking on a treadmill is also a good alternative. Gunter Schlierkamp, who generally competes at a massive 300 pounds, power walks on a treadmill with a slight incline for a 45-minute session. Personally I find that I get the best cardio workout is on the Stairmaster. For me, the Stairmaster really works my glutes and hamstring tie-ins.

Whatever cardio training that you enjoy will be the best for you. Pick something that you enjoy doing and it will make the time pass much faster. Just keep focused on your goal. If you a bodybuilder doing his or her precontest program then your aim is most likely to burn calories and keep your resting metabolic rate as high as possible without burning lean mass.

How Much Cardio & How Long

As to this area of cardio, it is very subjective because every person is different and reacts differently to cardio. As I mentioned earlier, there are those freaks out there that do not have to do any cardio at all and get cut up primarily through dieting, but there are also people that must do 2 hours of cardio a day. The general rule here is not to do any more cardio than you need, because who likes doing endless hours of cardio.

I generally find that most bodybuilders and I achieve good results training 30-40 minutes of cardio about four to five times a week. This is about the limit for burning calories and increasing definition while still maintaining size. If your primary goal is to put on muscle mass then should use cardio sparingly. If you are looking for a more ripped look then do more cardio. Have a cardio plan that is in tune with your goals. If you are eating a lot and still are not growing then cut back on cardio.

Remember, cardio does not just get you lean; it also gets your muscles hard. How much cardio you can do without losing muscle mass is something you will need to experiment with and determine on your own. The intensity of the cardio is also subjective in regards to doing cardio based on your target heart rate or using the "talk test." The "talk test" is a little different and much less scientific than the target heart rate method.

Basically you perform cardio at a rate where you still are able to talk without being extremely out of breath. Personally, I prefer the target heart rate method because I like things to be more precise. The target heart rate method is a simple formula: take 220 and minus your age. Then take that number and multiply it by .75 - .85, which will give you your percentages of 75% -- 85% of your Max. HR.

Calculate Your Heart Rate!
(The Easy Way)

To determine your Maximum HR, use the calculators below. The simple formula: Take 220 and minus your age which is accurate to approximately +15 BPM. You then take that number and multiply it by .75 - .85, which will give you your percentages of 75% -- 85% of your Max. HR.

This is the Target Range or Zone that you want to stay in when doing any type of cardiovascular (aerobic) activity. When in this range your body is getting an optimum workout with maximum benefit, and it stays in a Fat Burning mode.

There are two different ways to calculate your maximum heart rate and your target heart rates. The method I just explained is the simple method. Read the full article here.

Simple Target Heart Rate Calculator
Using the 220 - Age formula.

Enter Your Age - Then press Calculate.
Heart Rate
Heart Rate per minute
(75% - 85% of Max)
Heart Rate
15 sec count

The Karvonnen formula is more advanced since it also takes into account your resting heart rate. This is your heart rate at complete rest. To determine this, take your pulse for 60 seconds just before you get out of bed... or take it for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.

Advanced Target Heart Rate Calculator
Using the Karvonen Formula.

  • For your age, use a whole year. (Between 0 and 100)
  • Put your Resting Heart Rate in the next box. (Between 30 and 100)
  • In the % box, use a number between 50 and 85. Do not include the %.
  • Click on the Calculate button, and it will calculate your target heart rate or that percentage.
Your Age in Years
Resting Heart Rate
% of Maximum Effort
Your Target Heart Rate

This is your target heart rate, which is where you want to stay in when doing any type of cardiovascular (aerobic) activity. When in this range your body is getting an optimum workout with maximum benefit, and it stays in a Fat Burning mode.


Keep in mind that cardio for bodybuilders is primarily a means of burning fat and increasing definition that should be done in moderation. When I was younger, I used to do cardio all out for hours on end and, as I got older and wiser, I learned that this is not the way to reap the best results.

Performing cardio at a fat burning rate is much more beneficial to your body both physically and mentally. Everyone should do cardiovascular training because it is great for your health and, most of all, builds character.

Be Sure To Also Check Out:
MAXIMum Cardio!


  1. Schwarzenegger, Arnold. The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon and Schuster. 1985, 1998.
  2. Schwarzenegger, Arnold. The Education of a Bodybuilder. Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition January 1, 1993. 2003.
  3. Schuler, Lou. The Testosterone Advantage Plan : Lose Weight, Gain Muscle, Boost Energy. Fireside; December 24, 2002 2003.


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Showing 1 - 2 of 2 Comments

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  • rep this user

Great article! Thanks for the insight!

Mar 7, 2013 2:02pm | report
  • rep this user

Great article, can I lift heavy weight and do cardio at a fat burning rate to loose my small gut and build muscle at the same time!

Apr 27, 2013 1:55pm | report
Showing 1 - 2 of 2 Comments

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