If I had to choose the most controversial topic in bodybuilding, aside from steroids, I would definitely say cardio. The differences on cardio can probably be narrowed down to two topics, and I'd venture to say that if you've been around bodybuilding for even a limited amount of time, you've probably heard of both:
- Performing cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach versus after eating.
- Performing short-duration, high-intensity cardio versus low-intensity long-duration cardio.
You'd think something that sounds as simple as burning calories through physical exercise wouldn't leave much room for controversy; however, that's definitely not the case.
- There is a sticky thread on the bodybuilding.com forum entitled, "Morning Cardio," and it has over 750 replies: Here.
- When I searched the bodybuilding.com site for the word "cardio," I received the following response, "Your search for cardio resulted in 1589 matches."
Following are the links to some quality cardio articles I've read and a quick note about each one. Some of the articles have similarities, but as you can imagine, some are also completely different, based on the recommendations to perform cardio in the morning on an empty stomach and whether it should be done at a low or high-intensity. I would encourage anyone to read each of these articles when you have the time and develop your own opinions:
Cardio Articles To Check Out
- Anabolic Aerobics by Eric Satterwhite is the best article I've ever read in favor of performing high-intensity cardio not in the morning on an empty stomach.
- Maximize Your Results, Part 4- Don't Just Do Cardio, Do It Right! By James Cipriani is an article about Max-OT cardio and is very similar to Eric's article.
- HIIT and Run is written by Shawn Phillips and is very similar to James and Eric's articles, but Shawn recommends performing cardio (and weight training for that matter in the morning on an empty stomach). Most people would probably recognize Shawn as Bill Phillips' brother, and the man on the cover of the movie Body-of-Work.
- Take Your Physique to the Next Level by Chris Zaino is completely opposite of the first three articles, and recommends low-intensity cardio in the morning on an empty stomach for a longer period of time.
- Slow Cardio: Great Technique or Bad Advice by Bob Cicherillo recommends low-intensity, long duration cardio and is very similar to Chris' article. The main reason I included this article is for the reader reviews at the end.
There are 378 replies from the different people arguing back-and-forth about Bob's article. For some reason there also ended up being a number of replies talking bad about Layne Norton when he asked for research from Bob supporting his article. Read the reviews here.
Some of you might remember an article by Bill Phillips entitled Get Ready to Grow Big Time - Breakthrough Discovery Reveals Legal Source of Powerful Muscle Building Hormones.
The program is called ABCDE (Anabolic Burst Cycling of Diet and Exercise), and the article isn't centered on cardio. For that reason I've briefly summarized the concepts behind the program, and I've copied and pasted those parts that do pertain to cardio; however, the article is still a good read for anyone interested in learning about a periodized way of eating and training.
The Basics Are As Follows:
- 2 weeks of high calorie consumption with low-rep weightlifting and no cardio, similar to a typical bulking cycle.
- Followed immediately by 2 weeks of a calorie-reduced diet, lower intensity weightlifting, and regular cardio, similar to a typical pre-contest regimen.
- These two cycles are continually alternated. The idea is that when the body is about to start storing calories as fat on the bulking cycle, the body switches to a low-calorie diet and shocks the system. After two weeks of cutting, it's time to bulk again, and theoretically, your hormone levels are supposed to go through the roof. I've never tried it, but if anyone does I'd love to hear an honest report.
In the movie Body-of-Work, two of the original Body-for-Life Champions said they followed this type of training and diet.
Bill & Torbjorn's Conversation
The concept behind ABCDE came from Swedish scientist Torbjorn Akerfeldt, and the article is written as a conversation between Bill and Torbjorn. If you're not interested in the contents of the article, then scroll down to where I talk about how I perform cardio. Here are the highlights of the article pertaining to cardio:
TA: During the dieting phase, it is very important to include aerobic exercise, and the best time to do this is in a fasted state; i.e., in the morning, before breakfast. Recent studies at my lab strongly support this.
I have experienced excellent results doing 40 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 4 days a week-I keep my pulse around 120 beats per minute. During aerobic exercise, your body is more likely to stimulate the production of fat-burning chemicals like epinephrine.
BP: A number of readers, who are looking to bulk up, asked if they should skip the aerobics altogether. What do you think?
TA: During the past few years, there has been a trend in bodybuilding to omit aerobic exercise. I guess it's partially because there have been some studies showing that resistance training alone is quite effective for burning fat.32 This, as you just mentioned, has led a lot of bodybuilders to think they should skip "cardio" and instead do more of what we do best-lift weights. I don't think this is a good idea, even though it will work for a small percentage of metabolically gifted individuals.
A natural bodybuilder just can't handle more than four or five hours of intense weight training per week, but we need more exercise than this to burn fat on the cutting phase of my program.
Some people fear that if they do aerobics at all, they'll lose muscle mass. This is not the case. Recent studies [using a sophisticated procedure called "stable isotopes"] have revealed that, "Although aerobic exercise may stimulate muscle breakdown, this does not result in a significant depletion of muscle mass because muscle protein synthesis is stimulated in recovery."
In this particular study, they experimented with aerobic exercise that was moderately intense [40% of VO2max, which corresponds to a heart rate of around 120 beats per minute].8 Also remember that one study with aerobic exercise during dieting indicated an increase in lean body mass.38 And yet another recent trial showed that combining a low-calorie diet with the combination of resistance training and aerobic exercise was the most efficient method of burning bodyfat.24
In spite of this evidence, I don't recommend aerobic work the way many bodybuilders perform it, which is in what I call a "fed state" or after you've recently eaten. For example, I don't recommend doing aerobic exercise at 6:00 at night if you had a meal at 3:00, 4:00, or 5:00. It will take you 30 minutes just to burn the calories from one snack or small meal. My time is more valuable than this, and I suspect yours is as well.
Going back to the last question, I want to emphasize again that the best way to maximize the benefits of aerobic exercise is to do it in the morning, after an overnight fast-after not eating for at least ten hours. Some time ago, at our metabolic lab here in Sweden, we found that subjects burned around three times more fat in the morning [after an overnight fast] during aerobic exercise compared to afternoon exercise in a fed state. We presented this information at the 1996 FASEB conference.
Even more interesting was the finding that the proportion of protein being burned decreased rather than increased during early morning exercise. In other words, at a heart rate of about 120 beats per minute, you will not experience muscle catabolism, even though you are fasting.
Actually, we discovered that over a 24-hour period, a positive nitrogen balance of around 5-9%, depending on protein intake, was measured with something called "leucine isotopes," which is one way we try to trace how much protein is being built up or broken down in your body in response to exercise.
Here's one more tip: drink a liter of water on an empty stomach in the morning, about five minutes before your cardio. This will make your blood "hypo-osmolaric" which helps push fluids into muscle, where they may act to prevent protein breakdown according to Häµ³singer's theory on cellular hydration, which states that, "Protein loss is triggered and maintained by reduced cell volume, secondary to loss of intracellular water."19
The bottom line is, the best way to maximize the results from aerobic exercise during a fat-loss cycle is to do it first thing in the morning. Even if your primary goal with using the Anabolic Burst Cycling System is to bulk up, you have got to keep your system "primed" with each cutting cycle, and part of that is doing aerobic exercise. Thus, even if you just want to get big and strong, do your cardio!
BP: Readers have asked if there are any supplements they can take in the morning, before exercise, that might boost fat loss. Are there?
TA: There is something you can do that helps; in fact, I've discovered something very powerful which helps you increase the amount of fat burned during aerobic exercise, as well as increasing the release of adrenaline, which helps psyche you up a bit-especially early in the morning!
This stuff also helps prevent the exercise-induced decrease in intramuscular potassium, which also plays an important role in keeping water inside the cell. This compound even helps spare glycogen. When you are running out of glycogen, there is a signal to start the breakdown of muscle protein and convert it to glucose. This process is called "gluconeogenesis." Glycogen will also assist in keeping water inside the cell, which, as we've already discussed, is very important.
Fortunately, the compound I'm talking about is readily available, legal, affordable, and has no serious side effects. It's called caffeine. Yes, regular ole caffeine. Not only does it do all the stuff I already mentioned,2,10,13,23,30 studies show caffeine helps increase performance, too.
For example, in one study caffeine users were able to bicycle for 96 minutes until exhaustion, instead of 75 with a placebo, and gluconeogenesis decreased by 55%.30 What this means is that the muscle was using just half as much glycogen when caffeine was present-intramuscular triglycerides were used; thus, less water left the cell.
In another similar study, but with competitive cyclists, caffeine users exercised for 90 minutes until they gave up, compared to 75 minutes for non-caffeine users. And what is even more interesting is that the caffeine group burned 1.31 grams of fat per minute, compared with .75 in the placebo group.10 That's almost twice as much! Yet another study showed that exercising subjects who were using caffeine were able to work for 79 minutes versus 49 minutes [placebo group] until exhaustion.18 Caffeine also increases resting metabolic rate by up to 15%.1,3
All of these studies were using dosages producing urinary concentrations below the level accepted by the International Olympic Committee [12 mcg/ml].29
Now keep this in mind: the optimal effect from caffeine is when the glycogen deposits are low33-for example, after an overnight fast-and when the user is not tolerant or used to caffeine use.14 Thus, you should definitely cycle caffeine. Taking caffeine all the time not only lowers its effects but could also induce insulin resistance,26 which is something we must avoid.
I try to use caffeine only on the mornings I do aerobic exercise, which, during the dieting phase of my Anabolic Burst Cycling Program, is 3 or 4 mornings a week, for 30-45 minutes per session. I drink one liter of water five minutes prior to exercise. I also take in a couple hundred milligrams of caffeine as soon as I get up. Optimally, I like to take this caffeine at least 30-45 minutes before I start my cardio.
BP: What if someone eats lunch at noon and then does aerobic exercise at 6:00 p.m.? Is this enough of a fast to get the full benefits of aerobic exercise?
TA: I'm afraid this would not work out very well. You see, the "starvation time" must be longer than six hours before you encounter a significant increase in fat burning. The ideal time of fasting for optimal fat loss is around 10-12 hours, depending on the amount of glycogen you have stored at the onset of the fast.
Torbjorn Akerfeldt at a conference.
It's also not a good idea to go six hours during the day without eating. As I described already, during the anabolic phase you will not get maximum results unless you eat often throughout the day. And during the dieting phase, fasting during the day will likely produce low energy levels, making it difficult to exercise at all.
It's a lot easier to fast during the nighttime-our bodies were obviously built for this. Some researchers now believe that one of the most important functions of this "hot" fat-burning hormone called "leptin" that you hear about in the news is that it inhibits hunger during the night hours.28
I don't know if you've ever thought about it, but it's actually pretty easy to go from 8:00 at night to 8:00 in the morning without eating. Think about why this is. There's got to be some type of physiological mechanism that makes this possible. Leptin could have something to do with this. Think about how difficult it would be to go from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night without eating-it would be literally painful.
So What Does All This Mean?
After personally reading all of these articles, countless other articles, and listening to the experience of others, the one thing I've learned is that I don't think anyone knows the "best" way to perform cardio to lose fat and retain as much muscle as possible.
The fact is that anyone can find information to support their opinion. You want to do cardio in the morning on an empty stomach? There are plenty of articles that will tell you that work best. You think cardio in the morning on an empty stomach burns as much muscle as fat, so you want to do it later in the day, or after eating? You can find plenty of articles supporting that viewpoint. I don't think anyone should say one way is best, because nobody really knows.
If you want to find some natural bodybuilders (I included Bob's article for the replies at the end, not because he's a professional bodybuilder - I don't think natural bodybuilders can compare themselves to bodybuilders who take steroids) to support either case, there are plenty to choose from.
Chris Zaino supports low-intensity cardio in the morning on an empty stomach. Shawn and Bill Phillips also recommend cardio on an empty stomach, but they recommend high-intensity cardio. Layne Norton and Eric Satterwhite also support high-intensity cardio, but not on an empty stomach. Clearly, there is no definite winner on this subject. If the debate over cardio continues to be argued for years, I won't be surprised.
Here's when I performed cardio during the Body-for-Life contest, and I still perform it at the same time now?
Please let me first say that I have performed my cardio in the morning on an empty stomach. I've performed my weightlifting sessions in the morning and cardio sessions in the evening. I've performed my cardio in the morning after consuming a meal, or a shake. The only thing I've never really done is perform my cardio after weightlifting. I have decided to always keep my cardio and weightlifting sessions separate: one in the morning and one in the evening.
After everything I've read, heard and personally experienced I choose to perform my cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. I know some people are yelling, "You're burning muscle for fuel." Maybe other people already closed the article in disgust, and others have already started writing their replies about how I couldn't be more wrong. I don't know what to tell you.
I like performing my cardio in the morning on an empty stomach, because I bring my bible with me and read during the session. The way things are today with television, the internet and the phone ringing regularly, we don't have much quiet time to think, and for me, cardio makes a great time for me to think and pray.
I used to watch television, but there's hardly anything good to watch, and I truly believe this makes better use of my time. I enjoy this time so much that I look forward to it, and I don't feel the same when I don't start my day in this fashion.
If I wasn't going to read, I would still perform my cardio in the morning on an empty stomach. I'm always able to get lean and see my abs within about two weeks of regular early morning cardio; therefore, I think if it isn't broke, why fix it? Also, I enjoy starting my day this way, and would enjoy starting my day this way even if I wasn't reading.
During the contest I performed my cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, and you can look at my pictures to see how lean I was. Did I lose some muscle? Probably. Can anyone lose fat without losing some muscle? Probably not. Is it possible that I would retain more muscle if I performed my cardio at a time other than first thing in the morning on an empty stomach? Maybe. I don't really know. I've tried other ways, but this is what I like.
Do I Perform High-Intensity Or Low-Intensity Cardio?
I used to perform my cardio as intense as possible. Once I started reading, I decided to perform low intensity cardio for a longer period of time. Which way do I think is best? I don't know. I perform low-intensity longer duration cardio, because I enjoy it the most now that I spend my time reading. I think high-intensity cardio works great too though, and if I wasn't reading, I would go back to high-intensity cardio.
If I went back to high-intensity cardio though, I would still keep it around 30 minutes, instead of 16 like Max-OT, or 20 minutes like many other programs recommend. Why? Because when I start performing high-intensity cardio for a shorter period of time, like 16 or 20 minutes, I start feeling overtrained, and I think it hurts my immune system; I start feeling a little more worn down and even occasionally I start feeling like I'm getting sick.
What Should YOU Do?
Do I think everyone should perform cardio in the morning on an empty stomach? Do I think everyone should perform low-intensity, long-duration cardio? I don't know the answer to either of those questions. If someone tells you they know for sure, they probably don't. If they did know for sure, how do they explain the successful number of bodybuilders doing each different form of cardio?
Experiment for yourself and see what works. This is what works for me, but I would encourage you to find what works for you. How will you enjoy the cardio the most? In the evening? In the morning? After lifting weights? On an empty stomach? After having a snack or a shake? If you make your cardio as enjoyable as possible, there's much more chance of you sticking with it.
If you do what someone else is doing, and you hate it, you probably won't stick with it. The bottom-line is that I think cardio works no matter how or when you're doing it, as long as you're doing it; therefore, the most important thing isn't how or when you do your cardio, it's just that you do your cardio. So find what you like best, and do it.
| Low Intensity Cardio.
High Intensity Cardio.
Tom Venuto, author of Feed Muscle, Starve Fat, wrote an article on a.m. cardio entitled, "A.M. Fat Burn." He carefully examined both sides, and I think he said it best, "In conclusion, it seems that morning cardio has enough indisputable benefits to motivate most people to set their alarms early. But let's talk bottom line results here: Does it really result in more "real world fat loss" than aerobics performed at other times of the day or after eating? I have to believe it does.
Experience, common sense and research all tell me so. Nevertheless, this will obviously continue to be an area of much debate, and clearly, more research is needed.
In the meantime, while the scientists are busy in their labs measuring respiratory exchange ratios, caloric expenditures and rates of substrate utilization, I'm going to keep waking up at 6:00 AM every morning to get on my Stairmaster."