There’s an old saying about bodybuilding, which says that whatever you did to build muscle, also preserves muscle. The best tactic to build muscle, as we already know, is to lift weights at relatively high levels of intensity depending on the individual’s overall fitness level.
However, cardio training can also be employed as a useful tool to build muscle alongside lifting weights. Various types of high-intensity functional cardio and circuit training can engage both your cardiovascular system and trigger muscle tissue growth at the same time.
Intensity Zones – Strength Training, Hypertrophy Training, Muscular Endurance, Cardiovascular Training
If we try to imagine the training stimulus we provide to our bodies as a continuum, on one side we would have the highest possible intensity (intensity meaning the amount of weight we’re trying to lift) which would mostly increase our muscular strength.
As we decrease the intensity, we enter those rep ranges which trigger optimal muscular growth (hypertrophy). As we further decrease the intensity, we enter the range of muscular endurance and at the end, we enter the zone of cardiovascular training.
One might get the impression that doing cardiovascular training at low to moderate intensities, the kind of steady-state cardio usually done by physique athletes and bodybuilders looking to get lean and shredded, should be the last thing they should be doing to maintain their muscle mass while dieting.
Instead, they should be performing HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and high-intensity functional training (performing strongman-type farmer’s walks, using kettlebells, battle ropes, etc. in high-intensity intervals) which is placed on our aforementioned continuum in the muscle growth range, which promotes the retention of as much muscle tissue as possible.
What type of cardio helps you build muscle?
There is, however, another crucial variable we need to consider in this particular equation. Namely, what other type of training is that individual doing? It is certainly logical that if the said individual is only doing cardio, then high-intensity training is the best way to protect muscle, however, depending on the duration of this phase, there is a possibility of losing a certain amount of muscle.
For a beginner, training this way can promote muscle growth and improve overall fitness simultaneously, which is why it’s so popular with personal trainers who are eager to “get the best of both worlds” out of their new clients. The reason that this way they can stimulate muscle growth and by using a high energy output in a relatively short period also reduce body fat.
However, for a professional bodybuilder, who carries a ton of muscle on his frame, by decreasing the effective stimulus, they may lose some muscle, because this type of training can’t replicate the same training stimulus needed to grow muscle, which will lead to the body adapting to the new demands and decrease muscle tissue.
It’s precisely for this reason why those looking to retain their muscle mass while dieting still need to lift weights and try to apply the same amount of intensity and volume in their workouts, with cardio included for its high energy output effect.
In this scenario, where lifting weights is still the major focus of the training, the type of cardio done will be a smaller issue regarding muscle tissue loss, for the simple reason that the lifter will still be generating the necessary stimulus to maintain muscle daily. If any muscle loss occurs at this point it will likely be caused by not following a proper diet, i.e. not getting the optimal amount of nutrients and energy to protect the hard-earned muscle.
The whole thing boils down to two things. Firstly, you need to ask yourself how much time you have. HIIT is short and demands lots of energy, so it’s better suited for people who are pressed for time yet still want to get in a full workout.
For people who have some time to spare, they may go for longer periods of lower-intensity, less demanding cardio. The second thing is simply what various people enjoy. Some people like the variety that high-intensity training can offer, using various bits of cardio and training equipment, whilst others prefer steady-state cardio, which they’ll use as an opportunity to listen to music, podcasts, or watch movies, something that’s impossible to do when training in high-intensity intervals.
In summary, high-intensity interval training, as well as functional training used in combination, can trigger the optimal conditions for muscular growth which makes them the best for muscle tissue retention when done as a standalone activity.
If we look at cardio as an addition to resistance training, however, the differences between high and low-intensity cardio are likely to be small, since we are giving the optimal stimulus to maintain muscle in other parts of our training.