+ 30 October 2020

When your aim is to gain muscle mass, doing cardio can sometimes appear as counterproductive as it’s often associated with weight loss. In this article, we’ve asked some of the most common questions asked on the topic of cardio and whether it is something that can help or hinder your weight gain goals.


Will doing HIIT negatively affect my weight gain goals?

High intensity interval training, better known as HIIT is a form of cardiovascular training consisting of short bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of rest. The structure of these workouts often demand large recovery periods due to the intensity of the sessions. However, a lot of the HIIT workouts online today feature very short rest periods, often just 15 seconds long and so from a sports science perspective, that is not true HIIT. In addition to this, you will often find that the ideal level of intensity is not maintained throughout.

The reason why this new style of HIIT can be detrimental to your weight gain goals is because you end up floating in this really hard cardio work zone, while not training hard enough that it demands for interval adaptations. At the same time, you’re also training too hard for your body to gradually increase its cardiovascular ability and benefits of recovery. Therefore, you just end up somewhere in the middle of this calorie destroying zone.

Also, when this is mixed in with a lot of jumping exercises, maintained for a prolonged period of time, you could be causing some damage to your joints. So, if you’re doing that alongside your weight training with the intention of gaining muscle (since we know how important calorie surplus and recovery is), this style of HIIT training is everything you don’t want to be doing because it can really interfere with your progress. In reality, it can take 3 to 4 days to fully recover from a HIIT session and while you may not notice this in your muscles as such because you’re only using body weight, the effects of nervous system fatigue can really interfere with your weight gain goals. What you really want is well-rested muscles which then have the ability to work hard for your next weight training session.


What about more traditional cardio?

Slow steady cardio is brilliant when done alongside weight training because you’re essentially training your muscles to work for a prolonged period of time and to be able to recover as well. How this translates into your training is that when your muscles begin to tire, you have that extra little push and so cardio enhances the tools that you need to do other kinds of training. You could potentially do slow, steady cardio 3-4 times a week at an intensity level of 65-70%. Then by slowly increasing the duration of the exercises, you will see great benefits in terms of heart health and oxygen availability without damaging your gains too much. 

Also with this type of cardio, it is easier to manage and anticipate your output. Since you’ll know how long you’ll be training for and the intensity applied, when tracking how much you’re doing through a heart rate monitor or reads on the machine, you can easily manage and plan your output for the future. Whereas, if you’re doing a different type of HIIT workout each week, it can be very hard to keep on top of your output because one week could be a lot more taxing than the previous week. Therefore, when that feeds into how many calories you would need to consume in order to stay at a calorie surplus, it’s a lot harder to gauge.

With that being said, with regards to doing cardio and weight training, always prioritise your main goal first. So, whether that means a weight training session then straight across the gym to a cardio machine, always pick your weights first. This doesn’t mean that you cannot include some sort of cardio in your weight session, for example doing some pulse raises during your warm-up. But you don’t want to be doing a full cardio workout before weights. If you are planning on going from weights to cardio, it may be advisable to consume some quick carbs to replace the glycogen you’ve burned during your training session. If you don’t do this, you’re not giving anything back to your body before burning more energy in an already fatigued state. Another alternative would be to split the cardio and weight sessions across days or to do cardio in the morning and weights in the afternoon if your schedule allows.


Can I rely solely on weight training to improve my cardiovascular health?

Weight training is an aerobic activity (unless you’re doing powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting, where the movements are completed in less than 5 seconds and not focused on taking in lots of air). With the muscle building repetitions in the 8-15 rep range, there’s a longer time period where your muscles are using oxygen and so that is going to improve, to some extent, that level of cardio fitness. However, if your main goal is to improve your cardiovascular health, you should pick cardio-based exercises, but you can definitely get some benefits from weights.


Can you get any muscle growth benefits from cardio workouts?

In terms of cardio being able to stimulate some muscle growth, there have been some studies that show that it can be done. One way this has been studied was by increasing volume over the course of 12 weeks where muscle growth in the lower body was recorded. The general summary is that cardio can be very similar in characteristic to an actual weight training routine in terms of progressive overload. This applies when you’re training in the same intensity zones (so 8-12 reps roughly works out to a 70% effort) and you build upon that week by week.


Cardio is such a huge topic that it is impossible to cover in one article, but hopefully we’ve been able to answer some of the more common questions around its relationship with weight training. Also look out for more content on this topic in the future!

calories cardio fitness weight training