There is an old saying about bodybuilding that everything you did to build muscle is to keep muscle. As we already know, the best muscle building tactic is to lift weights at a relatively high intensity, depending on the individual’s overall fitness.
However, cardio exercise can also be used as a useful tool for building muscle in addition to lifting weights. Different types of high-intensity functional cardio and circuit training can both activate your cardiovascular system and trigger muscle tissue growth at the same time.
Intensity zones – strength training, hypertrophy training, muscular endurance, cardiovascular training
If we try to think of the training stimulus we give our body as a continuum, we would on the one hand have the highest possible intensity (intensity means the amount of weight we are trying to lift), which would mainly increase our muscle strength.
When we decrease the intensity, we enter the rep ranges that trigger optimal muscle growth (hypertrophy). If we decrease the intensity further, we enter the area of muscle endurance and, at the end, the zone of cardiovascular training.
One might get the impression that low-to-moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, such as is usually done by athletes and bodybuilders who want to get lean and shredded, should be the last thing they should be doing to maintain their muscle mass during a diet.
Instead, they should be doing HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and High-Intensity Functional Training (performing strongman-type farmer walks, using kettlebells, battle ropes, etc. at high-intensity intervals) placed on our aforementioned continuum in the Muscle growth area that promotes the retention of as much muscle tissue as possible.
What Kind of Cardio Will Help You Build Muscle?
However, there is one more crucial variable that we need to consider in this particular equation. What other type of exercise is this person doing? It certainly makes sense that if this person is just doing cardio, high-intensity exercise is the best way to protect muscles. However, depending on the length of this phase, there is a chance that a certain amount of muscle could be lost.
For beginners, exercising this way can promote muscle growth while improving overall fitness. That’s why it’s so popular with personal trainers looking to get the best of both worlds out of their new clients. The reason they can stimulate muscle growth in this way and utilize high energy output in a relatively short period of time is also reducing body fat.
For a professional bodybuilder who has a lot of muscle on his body, decreasing the effective stimulus may cause them to lose muscle, as this type of training cannot reproduce the same training stimulus required to build muscle, resulting in an increase in the body that adapts to the new demands and reduces muscle tissue.
It is precisely for this reason that those who wish to maintain their muscle mass while on a diet must still lift weights and try to get the same intensity and volume into their workouts, including cardio for its high energy release effect.
In this scenario, where lifting weights is still the focus of the workout, the type of cardio being performed is less of a problem in terms of muscle tissue loss, for the simple reason that the lifter continues to generate the necessary stimulus to maintain the muscles daily. If muscle loss occurs at this point, it is likely caused by improper nutrition, i.e. not getting the optimal amount of nutrients and energy to protect hard-earned muscle.
It all boils down to two things. First of all, you need to ask yourself how much time you have. HIIT is short and requires a lot of energy, so it’s better for people who are pressed for time and still want to get a full workout.
People who have some time can do longer periods of lower intensity and less demanding cardio. The second is simply what different people enjoy. Some people like the variety that high-intensity exercise on various cardio and exercise machines can offer, while others prefer stationary cardio, which they use as an opportunity to listen to music, podcasts, or movies that is impossible when you train at high-intensity intervals .
In summary, high-intensity interval training and functional training used in combination can trigger the optimal conditions for muscle growth, making them best suited for muscle tissue retention as a stand-alone activity.
If we look at cardio as a supplement to strength training, the differences between high and low intensity cardio are likely to be small as we are giving the optimal stimulus to keep the muscles up in other parts of our workout.