Cardio sucks. Plain and simple. No one likes cardio, especially on a diet designed to get you ripped. In a perfect world, you should be able to get ripped by manipulating your diet and training in such a way that you wouldn’t need to do any cardio. But this world is far from perfect, and if your aspirations are aimed at getting ripped enough for the stage, or anywhere close, you’re going to, in addition to starving to death on your diet, find yourself on a stair climber, a treadmill, rower, bike, etc. doing cardio, on top of your diet. Back in the Arnold era, there were guys who actually did no cardio, but you can’t compare the condition those guys brought to the stage to how ripped bodybuilders get today. Clearly, there was a big difference, and the biggest difference was the addition of cardio to the diet phase.
Too much cardio can sacrifice muscle and way too much cardio can actually cause your body to hoard fat! And, of course, not enough will not get you ripped. However, cardio is not the bodybuilder’s friend. . .
So, there’s a fine line you have to tread here, between enough, not enough and too much cardio.
The cardio implementation barometer is always going to be your sticking point. You have to pay close attention to how your fat level is dropping with weekly monitoring. While the mirror, and even another set of eyes, are great measures of body fat, the best, the most accurate, is taking weekly body fat measurements.
How you do that is quite simple. Forget those complicated contraptions such as bioimpedance machines, Bod Pods, scales that measure body fat, etc. These things are never accurate and never consistent. The best way to measure body fat is by some kind of skin fold caliper. They range in price and complexity from $9.00 for a simple plastic, spring loaded caliper from China, to the $400 digital Skindex model, and a variety in between. Any of them will do. Obviously, the more you spend, the more accurate the total measurement will be, but you really don’t need that.
What you need is to see the skinfold measurements at the various testing sites go down, week by week. It really doesn’t matter what the total percentage is. The key is getting good at taking the measurement. Getting a good skin fold measurement is an art and it takes practice to get it right. Thankfully, there are plenty of good videos available on YouTube to show you how.
It’s important, for accuracy’s sake, to take your measurement on the same day of the week, at the same time of day, under the same circumstances – before or after you train, or do cardio, take a shower, weather or not you’ve been in the sun or the tanning bed, eat, etc. Almost everything affects the water content under your skin, and the leaner you are, the greater the variance will be. Learn to take a good skin fold measurement, do it consistently, and you will get a good idea of which way you’re going. All you want to see is the skin fold measurements going down. There are various sites you should test. There are various formulas out there requiring anywhere from three to seven sites.
What I’ve learned is that most accurate areas that indicate measurable change are:
• Biceps • Triceps • Oblique • Sub scapula • Thigh
Having someone take these measurements for you is really the most preferable. Taking the biceps and triceps measurements by yourself is a bit difficult and the sub scapular is impossible to take on your own. Most, if not all, gyms have trainers or diet centers that take body fat measurements. Or, you always have your training partner.
Before you go jumping on a piece of cardio equipment, there are a couple of things you should try first when you hit the inevitable sticking points.
First, change up your workouts by picking up the pace. Add in an unrelated exercise between sets of your main exercise (super sets), reduce the rest period between sets, add in drop sets, giant sets, high rep sets, etc. Anything to get your heart rate up and increase energy expenditure.
The next thing you can do is adjust your diet. But at some point, you can only reduce your total calories so much; you’ll eventually either go out of your mind or run out of food. Before you hit that wall, it’s time to do cardio.
Because you stayed relatively lean in your off season, you shouldn’t have to add very much cardio to get the job done. Remember, you want to get away with as little as possible.
Now, there’s two kinds of cardio: steady state, or low intensity cardio, and high intensity interval training (HIIT). I start off with low intensity and then graduate to HIIT as I get closer to the show and the sticking points get tougher to push through.
First I’ll start off by adding three cardio sessions a week, of 20 min each. You’ll want to do these sessions either first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, or after you train. This is when your glycogen levels will be the lowest, forcing your body to liberate fat stores for energy. Your heart rate is going to be an important indicator, because if it’s too high the immediate energy requirement will be more than the liberated fat can satisfy, causing your body to convert protein to glucose for its faster burning energy needs. Because you’re running on empty, that protein is probably going to come from muscle.
The proven range for optimal fat burning occurs when your heart rate is beating at 70 – 75 precent of your maximum heart rate. To make that calculation, you simply subtract your age from 220. That number is then multiplied by .70 and .75 to calculate your optimal fat burning range.
If following this plan for a week or two doesn’t yield results, bump it up to four days a week at 30 minutes a session. Then you can bump it up to six days a week for 45 minutes a session. The goal here is to add cardio as your body changes, slowly increasing it as your body hits plateaus.
Eventually, right at about the hour mark, rather than increasing your time on the treadmill, you’ll switch over to HITT. The easiest way to modulate your HIIT cardio is to divide a minute into a 20 second and a 40 second interval. We’ll call that minute a “set” and endeavor to start out with 15 of them. Five days a week.
First walk on a treadmill at your regular 70 – 75 precent pace for five or ten minutes to warm up. Then, set the treadmill at a decent angle, probably five or six, and set the speed of the belt so that when you run on it, it’s an all out 100% sprint, as fast as you can possibly go. Do that sprint for 20 seconds, then grab the side rails and jump your feet to either side of the belt. Rest there for 40 seconds. Then, jump back on the belt and sprint for 20seconds, rest for 40 seconds, etc., until you hit 15 of those, 20/40, one minute sets. You can add sets, and/or another day, gradually, if your fat burning slows down or stops. HITT is far more exhausting than steady state, but the trade off is that you don’t have to do as much. You’ll probably never have to do more than 20 sets (20 minutes), six days a week.
Cardio is one of those things that will cause your body to strive for efficiency. If you do 30 minutes of steady state cardio on the treadmill with your heart rate at 75% of your maximum, eventually your body will accomplish this work, utilizing fewer and fewer calories. That’s why we change it up. The goal is to keep your body confused.