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If you’re like most bodybuilders you lift weights to build muscle and do cardio to get ripped. You’ve probably been lifting for a while now and might be wondering why you haven’t gained any muscle lately. Your diet is clean and high in protein; you’re taking quality muscle building supplements like BSN No-Xplode, but still nothing. Well have you ever given thought that all that cardio you are doing is counteracting with your body’s ability to build muscle?
Before you stop running on the treadmill, you still need some cardio for overall fitness, calorie burning and health. You don't want to be one of those massive bodybuilders who can barely climb one flight of stairs and is huffing and puffing by the time he finally reaches the second floor. Besides, a certain amount of cardio is a proven aid in fat loss. But you don't need grueling 90-minute sessions every day.
An adviser to several elite bodybuilders, Eric Serrano, MD, assistant professor of family practice at the Ohio State College of Medicine in Columbus, says doing more than 30 minutes of cardio a day, three times per week, is an exercise in futility. "For a competitive bodybuilder or the girl or guy simply interested in looking his or her best, the key to getting lean is diet and hitting the weights."
Serrano agrees that the combination of strict dieting and excessive cardio can wreak havoc on muscle mass. "Dieting, or a state of caloric deficit, in and of itself is catabolic. You then add cardio to an already depleted body, and you literally cannibalize your own muscle tissue to help the body meet its energy needs. The result is a loss of strength and size."
If you need more convincing about the pitfalls of excess cardio, consider a long-distance runner's physique. Ever seen a runner carrying a large amount of muscle mass? I haven't, and you never will either. Bodybuilders who subject themselves to grueling cardio sessions are doing the same thing: turning themselves into aerobic athletes, not bodybuilders.
The body is a protean structure, able to alter its physiology to meet almost any physical demand asked of it. If you subject your body to long cardio sessions, it will adapt to lessen the physiological stress placed on it, thus enabling you to perform that type of exercise without taking away from other vital functions like brain activity, digestion and immune system integrity. One of these adaptations is an overall decrease in body mass, which is necessary to facilitate temperature regulation.
To endure large amounts of aerobic exercise, your body will get rid of what it perceives as unnecessary baggage in the form of both lean and adipose tissue. For this reason, cardio should be done in moderation. Some cardio will help you lose fat, but too much can strip away the muscle tissue you're working so hard to build.
Your body adapts far differently to weight training than it does to aerobic exercise. Unlike Type II fibers that get bigger when they're trained (as in weight training), Type I fibers (as trained in cardio or endurance work) don't hypertrophy to the same degree and instead make metabolic adaptations (increased enzyme activity, increased mitochondria).
Type I, or slow-twitch, oxidative fibers are resistant to fatigue, don't produce much force and rely heavily on oxygen for energy production, making them the antithesis of the muscle fibers bodybuilders need more of, called Type II or fast-twitch. When you do a lot of cardio, you train Type I fibers to the detriment of the Type II fibers and their corresponding motor units, which are part of your nervous system responsible for initiating muscle contraction. The result is that you aren't able to train as heavy. Coupled with the caloric cost of aerobic exercise, a decreased weight-training load will result in a decreased hyper-trophic response.
Too much cardio also takes calories away from muscle growth. In extreme cases when you simultaneously diet and do high amounts of aerobic exercise, your body may actually break down muscle tissue for energy. This process, known as catabolism, is the last thing a bodybuilder wants.
How Much Is Too Much?
So how much cardio should you be doing? A general recommendation — from respected organizations such as the American Heart Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is 90-120 minutes per week, in 3-4 half-hour sessions of moderate- to high-intensity nonimpact aerobic exercise (bike, cross-trainer, stair-stepper). Since some experts advise 90 minutes max, you could keep one of your weekly sessions at a lower intensity, at about 60% of your maximal heart rate.
For those of you who run, more isn't always better. Running — as opposed to fast walking or jogging — can be one of the most catabolic forms of aerobic exercise. Because of the high amount of stress it places on the body coupled with the caloric costs involved, running isn't usually recommended as a large part of the cardio program for either recreational or competitive bodybuilders.
Don't be afraid to try different cardio workouts — variety can facilitate the fat-burning process. For example, do the stair-stepper or the rowing machine instead of the stationary bike.
For best results, Serrano advises changing the mode of cardio rather than mindlessly increasing the duration. "Simply changing from a seated exercise like stationary bike riding to a standing one like stair-stepping or an elliptical cross-training device serves as a strong stimulus for fat-burning. With regard to getting lean, I've found with my patients that small changes make a huge difference. They change from biking to stair-stepping and within 3-4 weeks decreases in body fat occur. This is without increasing the time!"
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