How A lot Cardio Can I Do With out Shedding Muscle?

Program your runs and weightlifting routines with these expert techniques to not only maintain muscle, but build size as well.

Most fitness fanatics define themselves as either a runner or a lifter. If you fall into the latter camp, then you probably feel most comfortable clinking weights, smashing through supersets, and perfecting your Olympic lifts. Heart? It's not for you - that's what you think.

We spoke to Joe Holder, wellness expert, Nike master trainer and founder of The Ocho System, to show you how you can incorporate cardio in a way that improves your workout without sacrificing your hard-earned muscle.

First, stop thinking of it as cardio; it is conditioning

"Conditioning is the tool for improving your cardiovascular system, and it's possible to do it without losing muscle," says Holder. For many, “cardio” is uninspired elliptical training, long jogging, or tiring treadmill workouts. But that doesn't get muscleheads - or runners, for that matter - anywhere. This is also an incomplete view. Typically, regular cardio only trains your aerobic system — and not even to maximum efficiency. Conditioning, on the other hand, takes a systematic approach to prime, train, and push* all your energy systems, improving your overall cardiovascular fitness.

Related: 50 best leg exercises of all time

Remember: cardiovascular fitness is the bottom line; Conditioning is the means by which you improve it. And you can do this with sprint and weightlifting workouts, as well as tempo and recovery runs, as long as you program them properly.

"In fact, if you have good enough base form, you can build muscle," Holder says. As you exercise, your muscles are constantly breaking down and flipping, micro-tearing and getting bigger (aka hypertrophy). To supplement hypertrophy, you need to eat right so you're consuming enough calories to promote muscle growth while keeping fat levels to a minimum.

"To build muscle with cardio, you need to stress your anaerobic and aerobic systems," he adds.

*So what are these systems, what do they do and how do you train them? Continue reading. But if you just want fast and dirty, scroll down.

Identify your energy systems:

You have three basic energy systems, all of which are key to improving your cardiovascular fitness and efficiency:

1. Anaerobic alactic: This system delivers massive bursts of energy in short bursts of time (about 20 seconds) to increase maximum power, speed and/or power. It does not consume oxygen and does not produce lactic acid; However, once the 20 seconds have elapsed, the anaerobic lactic acid system kicks in.
2. Anaerobic Lactic Acid: This system provides energy for activities up to one minute. It does not require oxygen but produces lactic acid.
3. Aerobic: This system provides energy for longer periods of activity by breaking down carbohydrates, amino acids and fatty acids. It needs oxygen and, depending on the intensity, can form lactic acid.

"Each type has a purpose, but depending on your goals, some should be emphasized more than others," says Holder. And to tap and train everyone while maintaining maximum muscle mass, you need a different approach or stimulus, which means proper work, rest protocols, and volume, Holder says.

Related: Best running workouts to increase speed and endurance

The training sessions

If you want to keep as much muscle as possible, do two workouts a week – three max.

If you're doing excessive amounts of low-intensity cardio (3+ days per week), you probably aren't engaging in strength activities that will preserve the muscle you already have and encourage the growth of new muscle. You're also likely neglecting conditioning activities that improve the fitness of your energy system. You can train your aerobic energy system and still build muscle, but you have to work at the right intensity.

On the other hand, three days of conditioning will not break down all of your muscle mass, although more than 4 days a week probably will. Your body will break down muscle through constant, low-intensity training to optimize your size for the task at hand (aka you'll develop the lanky physique of a long-distance runner).

So, if you follow this approach of doing three cardio workouts per week, two of them should sprint the anaerobic lactic and lactic systems. "Using sprints is essentially a 'cardio' exercise that can help maintain muscle mass," says Holder. Look at elite sprinters - they're jacked for a reason. "Sprint workouts primarily target the atactic and lactic energy systems, improving your recovery, work capacity during exercise, fuel utilization, and energy production in the gym," explains Holder.

The other workout should be aerobic (e.g. running, spinning, swimming, hiking, boxing/kickboxing) as a pace or recovery pace.

Check out the sample workouts below.

Don't forget to warm up properly before each of these workouts.

Example sprint run

2 rounds: 5 x 20-40 meter sprints with full rest in between (2 minutes) and 4 minutes rest between sets. "Effort is the key here," says Holder. "Incrementally increase the number of sprints and distances you cover over the weeks." If you can find a hill to do this on, even better. You can do this on a stationary bike, too, Holder says. “A good circuit consists of 8 second bike sprint, 12 second recovery for 20 minutes, 3 times a week; this has been shown to promote fat loss and muscle gain,” he adds.

Example tempo run

3x800 meters
3x400 meters
1x1600 meters

This can be done on a track or the treadmill. Rest 60-90 seconds between each interval. "On a scale of 1-10, the runs should feel like a 7-8."

Example recovery run

Take a brisk, brisk walk on an incline on a treadmill, easy jog, or bike for 20-30 minutes. Follow up with mobility-focused training.


Add cardio to your strength routine by doing sprints after warming up before loading the weights. Try 5-second sprints, each with about 30-60 seconds of rest in between, for 5 laps. Allow yourself a full rest (4 minutes) before starting your full strength training.

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