Slow Cardio: Great Technique Or Bad Advice?

There have been many questions asked online and PM to me lately as the competition season has crept upon us. One of the more frequently asked questions is what kind of cardio is the best for getting ripped?

There have been many questions asked online and PM to me lately as the competition season has crept upon us, and is in full bloom. One of the more frequently asked questions is what kind of cardio is the best for getting ripped? There are obviously many forms of cardio to choose from, but most of them fall into two distinct categories: Slow paced and fast paced.

I've been hearing about how the HIIT program is the newest rage for contest prep. HIIT isn't revolutionary or even new for that matter. It's not much different than plain old, simple Step Aerobics.

We must first distinguish whether or not your goal is to simply lose some fat, or getting ready for competition. If your goal is to drop a few lbs. or tighten up, then HIIT is a great way to do it. Simple premise, you burn "X" amount of calories over and above what you consume, it will eventually lead to weight loss.

However... if your goal is to be a competitive bodybuilder, contest ready, and not look like a zipper when you stick your tongue out...then HIIT is definitely not for you. The difference is keeping muscle mass.

The only two goals for a competing BB are:

  1. To keep muscle mass as high as possible
  2. To get fat % as low as possible

Calories Are Calories, Right?

It's important to know where the calories are coming from. Virtually everything has caloric value, so it matters a great deal from where they are being burned. The higher/harder the aerobic activity...the more energy is being used from the first available source of energy...Carbs. It's for this very reason that I've seen countless overweight aerobic instructors be able to run circles around you (cardio-VASCULAR wise), BUT, can't figure out why they cant lose 20 lbs. even though they're teaching 3-4 classes a day!

Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
Virtually Everything Has A Caloric Value.

If the calories your burning are from primarily carbs, it will be at the expense of hard earned muscle you trained all year to beat your competitors with, leaving you with a much smaller version of what you were expecting to see on stage. Simple mathematics... if you burn 100 calories from carbohydrates, and then consume 100 calories from carbohydrates... where are you? Back where you started!

First, Second, Third Energy Sources

Just how does slow cardio actually bypass the carbs and get to the second source of energy (fat)? Easy, in laymen terms...after a few minutes of doing consistent but slow paced cardio, the body will automatically switch over to the fat stores for energy, sparing the carbs. WHY? Because your not working at a high enough level that the body needs to use it's #1 source of energy (carbs), but it has to give you something to utilize for fuel... that "something" is fat!

This can only be achieved by getting to the fat burning stage...It's generally after about 10-15 minutes of cardio. (Depending on a million factors!) Some will get there a few minutes faster, some a little slower. This is why we do anywhere from 30 min to 1 hour of cardio. Variables being your conditioning, how close you are to the show, set point metabolism, etc...

Just how slow to go? I personally use the treadmill at about a 3.0 MPH pace, and the stationary bike at about 65 RPM. Remember the faster you go, the harder you work, the more carbs will be used for fuel!

Let's assume that you're in the 45 minute to 1 hour category and you still have a lot of body fat to lose. Can you exceed the 1 hour mark to burn even more fat? The answer is No. Why? It seems like everything else pertaining to your bodies ability to conserve and store? That what actually happens in the post hour point, is that your body once again becomes aware that your going to extremes and attempts to conserve... this time the fat.

Once your body has gotten to this point it goes to it's only source of energy left. Protein! When this happens your basically burning muscle for fuel. Ever notice how many long distance runners although being skinny, seem to be soft? Fat is a great source of slow long burning fuel for the body (why do you think animals store fat for their winter hibernation?)

You Have To Have Faith!

One reason that many guys (and girls) are afraid to try this method is that they're afraid it won't work, or because it doesn't "feel" like they're doing anything. People are so used to sweating, and getting the "target" heart rate, that if those two things aren't happening... they can't accept that in their mind, and often revert to the old "calorie burning" techniques which will leave them smaller, softer, thinner and wondering where all the muscle they put on in the off season went to!

Knowledge is power and the key to your success. The biggest factor in all phases of contest preparations is giving your self enough time to prepare properly. Use this tried and true oldie but goodie.

I've personally been doing this since the late '80's (DOH!) I can tell you first hand that this is the overwhelming preferred method of every pro I've ever met and discussed training strategies with. It works for us... it will work for you!