Cardio has many benefits, it can improve your fitness, health, and it can also help you mentally. But cardio is often blamed for a drop in muscle mass, and many lifters avoid it. But what about bodybuilders? Do bodybuilders do cardio? This article will attempt to find out.
Bodybuilders use cardio for fat loss during cutting phases. Often favouring low-intensity steady state (LISS) cardio workouts such as jogging or cycling. Resistance workouts also count as cardiovascular exercise, so by default, all bodybuilders do cardio.
In this article, we will banish the myths around cardio and muscle building, and talk about how and why bodybuilders add cardio into their training programs. Helping you to get a clearer idea of why cardio is important and a useful tool for bodybuilders.
There’s an old joke about weight lifters and cardio. It’s not particularly funny, but it illustrates how a lot of lifters think of cardio. The joke goes along the lines of “Cardio? Why of course I do cardio, I just lift my weights faster”.
Once you’ve calmed down from that joke and can breathe normally again, we can move on with the rest of the article. The point that I am making is that the simple act of lifting weights for ten reps (or whatever) at a time is a cardiovascular activity. So even if a bodybuilder claims not to perform any cardio, they are technically wrong.
This may feel like a pedantic comment because we all know that when we talk about cardio we mean structured cardio. But actually, my pedantry is valid. Because weight lifting counts as cardiovascular, you don’t actually need to run or cycle or swim to get the heart health benefits.
This explains why many lifters can be fit and healthy without even owning a pair of running shoes. If they are deadlifting twice per week then they are probably working harder than most joggers ever do! But bodybuilders tend to add in cardiovascular exercises such as running, jogging, walking, or cycling when they are looking to burn fat.
The reason is that low-intensity cardio can burn a lot of calories without affecting their workout volume and leading to overtraining. Check out my article on training twice per day in bodybuilding to learn more about the cardio/resistance split.
Whether you should add cardio to your routine or not kind of depends on what phase you are at in your training. If you are a complete beginner, then adding cardio to your routine is actually a smart idea. Improving your cardiovascular fitness can not only help you to train harder, but it even offers some small hypertrophy benefits.
A 2014 study found that aerobic exercise can actually induce small increases in muscle hypertrophy, particularly in beginners or in older participants. Aerobic exercise is better suited to the prevention of muscle loss than muscle building, but it can still offer a slight improvement at the start of your training.
If you are an established bodybuilder (you have been training for several months or years) then you aren’t going to see any hypertrophic benefits from adding cardio to your routine. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful.
If you are bulking then cardio can help you to prevent excess body fat gains while you build muscle. Just ensure that it is low in intensity so that you don’t tire yourself out (which could affect your muscle building).
If you are cutting, then cardio can help you to burn more calories than you would normally. Leading to greater fat loss over time. It also allows you to eat more calories while still losing weight. Which is beneficial for both your physical and mental health.
Bodybuilders do a lot more cardio than people expect them to. Particularly during a cut. Many bodybuilders will follow a step count, with the aim of hitting 10,000 steps per day (or whatever number they decide) as walking is very low intensity.
The traditional image of a bodybuilder is someone spending hours in the weights room, but many bodybuilders will climb on a recumbent bike, walk on a treadmill, or use a cross-trainer to shed some fat. They may also perform resistance workouts that are more cardio-focused.
All of this counts as adding cardio to your workout, and any bodybuilder who is in the last few weeks of a pre-competition training program will have some form of cardio in their schedule.
Adding in recreational cardio such as basketball, tennis, or other team sports is much rarer during a pre-competition period, but during a bulk, it can be fairly common. Depending on how flexible and supple the bodybuilder is of course! Though bodybuilders are often more flexible and dynamic than people presume. Check out my article on the subject to learn more.
How much cardio is performed depends on the bodybuilder in question, but towards a competition, they could be performing cardio every day. If you count walking as a form of cardio, then it is certainly every day.
Unlike many other fitness professionals, bodybuilders will avoid high-intensity cardio. This is ostensibly to prevent muscle loss or fatigue. In truth, high-intensity cardio should be absolutely fine for bodybuilders to perform, and it is unlikely to lead to muscle loss. In fact, it may even contribute to muscle gain in new lifters!
However, low-intensity cardio performed for 60 minutes or more will ultimately burn more fat than high-intensity cardio, and due to their large frames, many bodybuilders may find it hard to run/cycle at maximum intensity. Not all bodybuilders, but certainly the vast majority.
Most bodybuilders tend to love seated cardio machines such as recumbent bikes or upright exercise bikes. They may also use treadmills or cross-trainers. These are performed at a gentle pace often while listening to music or watching TV. The resistance will be pretty low and it is seen by many as a chance to unwind rather than a dedicated workout.
John Meadows has a really cool YouTube video where he discusses the best cardio for bodybuilders, check out the video here. In it he states that there are two uses for cardio: to improve your heart health and to burn fat. Each type has different requirements and relies on different types of cardio. His top three for each are as follows:
Cardio for Health
Cardio for Fat Burning
What I find quite interesting about Meadows’ take on things (bear in mind that he’s a legend of bodybuilding) is his uninterest in low-intensity cardio for fat loss. Not only does he say that it’s pretty ineffective as a fat burner, but he also says that you shouldn’t be aiming for too many calories being burned anyway. You should instead focus on creating a calorie deficit through diet.
I can’t really argue with either of those points. But this article isn’t so much about what bodybuilders should do for cardio, but what bodybuilders currently do for cardio, and low-intensity long duration cardio is the most common.
My personal opinion is that Meadows is right, though I’m not so sure that plyometrics is a great idea for many people. I would also point out that Meadows picked cycling outdoors and walking outdoors as a personal preference because he enjoys the feeling of having the sun on his back.
As a citizen of Great Britain, I can confirm that this advice does not travel well! In Britain, you’ll be lucky to see sunshine more than 12 times in your life. The last time I saw it was in 2006. Great memories.
The advice is pretty straightforward. If you want to burn fat then don’t leave too much of it to cardio focus on your diet. Pick low-intensity exercises such as walking or cycling, but you can also pick higher intensity exercises such as plyometrics if you have the energy and ability to perform them properly.
Bodybuilders definitely perform cardio, mostly for fat burning, but also for cardiovascular health and improved fitness. The most common form of cardio that bodybuilders perform is low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS). This is good for fat burning and is low impact so should not affect the resistance sessions in any way.
While many bodybuilders avoid HIIT, this does not have to be the case. It is absolutely possible to incorporate HIIT into your workouts without it affecting muscle mass, though a bodybuilder who is in a calorie deficit may find it hard to train at a high enough intensity.
Walking, cycling or swimming appear to be the best cardio options whatever your goals are. Spending time outdoors has small mental health benefits, but you can get excellent results in a gym or outdoors. Even though most cardio workouts are designed to be low-intensity, that does not mean that they should be easy. Increasing the duration is a great way to burn calories.
That being said, if fat loss is your goal, then you should place more emphasis on cutting calories from your diet, rather than trying to burn 500-1,000 calories through cardio. 200-300 calories from cardio each day is more than enough, you could even get away with fewer calories than that.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.