Many bodybuilders and fitness athletes today are adopting one of two strategies, either cut cardio out of a workout program in an effort to gain mass or cut carbohydrates (CHO) out of their diet in an effort to lose fat. While both of these strategies do work in most individuals, a far better approach would be to include moderate amounts of both cardio and CHO regardless of your goal. There are both physiological as well as psychological reasons for doing this.
Cardio /// Adding Muscle Mass
When it comes to adding quality mass, many people believe cardio will only hinder your efforts as you will burn away precious calories that could be used to build muscle tissue. It is true that you will be burning calories while performing cardio, however as long as you don't do so much that you begin to resemble your pet gerbil, you can just add the calories that you burn back to your diet.
Performing cardio while putting on muscle mass will allow you to speed up your metabolism, which will therefore help you remove byproducts from your weightlifting sessions and build new, stronger muscle in it's place at a quicker rate. Performing cardio will also help to reduce the amount of fat mass you add while you are eating a hypercalorie diet that is needed in order to gain muscle tissue.
For someone who is on a hypertrophy program, it would be ideal to perform high intensity cardio in the form of sprints 2-4 times a week for 15-30 minutes per session. Just keep in mind that you will need to replace the calories you are burning so the longer your cardio session, the more you will have to eat (and for some of you who are already eating 4000+ calories/day, you probably will want to keep cardio on the shorter end of the scale).
The important thing however is to get your heart rate up high enough to send all your metabolic processes into overdrive.
Cardio /// Fat Loss
On the other end of the spectrum we have people wanting to lose fat mass. Most of the time they are well aware of the fact that they need to be doing cardio, however sometimes they use the wrong approach, especially when it comes to women. Far too often I see women working out at the gym spending hours upon hours on the treadmill or elliptical trainer. Yeah, they are going to burn a large amount of calories, but they are just going to end up being a smaller version of themselves, with the same % of body fat.
It is much more ideal to use cardio to change your body composition and lose weight in the form of body fat, rather than lose fat combined with muscle. This is where high intensity training comes into play as well. The same principles should be followed as someone who wants to put on muscle however you will want to perform a few more sprints (to make the total time a little longer) and maybe decrease the intensity of the sprints slightly so that you can sustain yourself for the longer period of time.
Then, in addition to these cardio sessions, for maximal fat loss you should perform 2-3 longer, moderate intensity duration sessions (just be sure to keep it under one hour). This will give you the best of both worlds.
The longer session will allow you to burn a larger number of total calories while the shorter session will allow you to burn a great deal of calories after you are finished working out while the body tries to repair itself from the good ass kicking you just dealt it (a principle known as EPOC).
Cardio /// Health Benefits
A final reason why cardio should be included in your workouts is for the health benefits it has to offer. Far too often we get ourselves wrapped up in the aesthetics of working out and forget why were here (or should be here) in the first place: to improve our health and increase our vitality. Your heart is a muscle too, and many people seem to forget that.
The best way to give this muscle a workout is to get it beating faster and keep it there for an extended period of time. By doing this you will make your body much more efficient at transporting blood and nutrients around the body, increase the amount of oxygen the body can use at any given point of time (VO2 max) and keep your blood pressure and resting heart rate in check.
Add Cardio, Add Carbs
When you add cardio to your exercise program, it then only makes sense to add carbohydrate rich foods to your diet. The main form of energy used when you perform cardio is stored glycogen (which you get from CHO's) and since you will now be performing cardio on a regular basis, you will need to keep your glycogen levels up, especially if you are trying to add muscle mass.
By keeping CHO's in your diet, you will be eating a sufficient amount of calories, which will serve to keep your metabolism higher as well as provide you with the many nutrients and fiber that these foods offer.
You will also prevent your body from turning to its precious muscle tissue for energy during time when your muscle glycogen and blood sugar are low. The basic principles to follow are to eat a higher amount of CHO's if you are trying to add muscle mass (since you will be taking in a greater amount of total calories), and a lower amount of CHO's if you are trying to lose body fat.
Even if you are trying to shed body fat, you still need to include these foods in your diet, but focus more on the fibrous CHO's that come from vegetable sources such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage that are less calorie dense. To increase mass, focus more on the calorie dense low glycemic CHOs such as oatmeal, whole wheat pasta and bread, and yams.
Cardio's Benefits ///
There are many psychological reasons as well for why you should add cardio to your workout and include carbs in your diet. First, looking at cardio, much research has been shown that cardiovascular exercise of any kind improves mood and reduces depression symptoms. I'm sure almost all of us have experienced this when we get that post-exercise high after a hard run or sprint session. It may feel like torture while we're doing it, but afterwards I bet you never regret that you did!
Another factor that serves to improve mood during cardio is the endorphin rush that is produced. This occurs during long-duration exercise when a hypothalamic neurotransmitter is released from the anterior pituitary gland. These endorphins then block the pain sensation, promote a feeling of euphoria and reduce feelings of stress in the body.
A final factor concerning why cardio helps your psychological well being ties in with our next topic. If you are performing cardio you will be able to include more food in your diet since you are burning more calories on a daily basis. This simple fact alone is enough to put people in a good mood. How many times have you or someone you've known started a diet in which they feel restricted and deprived since they now resemble a bird at mealtimes and wind up cranky, depressed and eventually just decide to "screw" it and go off their diet?
This is the number one reason why diets fail. People don't like to feel deprived. So if you can eat a little more food each day, there is less chance you will feel deprived and turn to binging on unhealthy foods and destroy any progress that you have made so far.
Carbs' Benefits ///
Now to move onto the psychological reasons why you should include carbohydrates in your diet. First and foremost, the number one reason is CHO's give you energy. This is your bodies primary fuel source. If you want to be able to workout hard, perform your cardio and have an abundant of energy during the day, you are going to need some carbohydrates.
Don't get me wrong, eating a high glycemic, all carb meal is not the proper way to include this nutrient. You need to balance it out with a good source of lean protein and some healthy fats. The key is moderation. There is nothing wrong with including a moderate amount of low glycemic carbs with your meals. (assuming your not doing anything that requires more extreme measures such as training for a body building show that requires extremely low body fat levels).
The second reason why you should include CHO's is because carbohydrate foods cause the body to release a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Studies have shown that people who have depressive symptoms are often low in serotonin levels. Therefore, by making sure we are getting some quality carbohydrates in our diets, we will ensure we are providing our body with enough serotonin and help to reduce chances of depressive symptoms.*
The release of serotonin will also help to improve our mood, therefore make staying dedicated to fitness and eating healthy seem like less of a challenge.
The final thing to remember is that everyone is different. Some people will need more or less cardio in order to accomplish their goals. There are plenty of individuals who can stay lean by only doing cardio once or twice a week while others need to include it on a daily basis. People also respond differently to different diet combinations.
I personally do not feel good on a high protein diet, while others I know thrive on chicken breasts and tuna. The important thing is just to not go to extremes and completely cut these factors out of your life. There are reasons, other than aesthetics, that make cardiovascular training and carbohydrate rich foods important in every healthy lifestyle.
*Note: I am not suggesting that depression is caused by low serotonin or that we can cure depression by eating CHO's, but we may help to offset this disorder or reduce symptoms by eating enough carbohydrate foods in our diet.