You love lifting. You love the plain challenge and the simple rewards—beating your previous best and feeling a great pump afterward. And maybe you hate cardio. Devoting gym time to cardiovascular exercise feels as if you’re burning away hard-earned muscle. But you’re not—you’re revealing it.
If gaining mass is all you focus on, soon no one will be able to distinguish your traps from your deltoids. For a lean and chiseled physique, you need cardio work. Relax—no distance running involved.
Besides, you know you need aerobic exercise for a healthy heart. And a healthy heart is more efficient at transporting blood and oxygen to working muscles. The stronger your heart, the stronger each of its contractions. That means more oxygenated blood is pumped out with each beat.
What follows is a set of rules to help lifters build healthy hearts. You don’t need much cardio work, and most of what you do need should be at high intensity, as befits a man with a lifter’s mindset. It’ll help you see more muscle definition without wasting time in the gym spinning your wheels.
Rule #1: Change the Cycle
You don’t lift the same way all year, so why should the frequency, intensity, and duration of your cardiovascular workouts stay the same? They shouldn’t.
When you’re trying to add muscle, keep your aerobic work to a minimum—say, once or twice a week for about 15 to 20 minutes. This will limit your energy expenditure and allow your body to concentrate on building muscle.
When you’re trying to get lean, increase your cardio training to two to four times a week, to help strip away excess body fat.
At all times, alternate your cardio methods so your workout’s not so boring—treadmill running 1 day, rowing or elliptical training the next, cycling the day after that.
RULE #2: Separate cardio from lifting
Serious lifters worry that cardiovascular training will impede their ability to recover from intense strength training. That all depends on when and how you do your cardio.
Keep your cardio days and strength days as removed from each other as possible. That way your cardio won’t hinder gains in strength and size. For instance, doing a tough cycling workout after you hammer your legs with squats and lunges isn’t a good idea if your goal is to build bigger legs. Save your cardio for the next day, or even 2 days later, to rest your legs.
If you must do cardio and weights on the same day, choose a form of aerobic work that emphasizes body parts your weight lifting didn’t focus on that day. So, if your cardio choice is rowing, which works your upper body as much as it does your legs, row on a day when your weight session doesn’t concentrate on your upper body.
Whichever route you choose, just be sure to hit the weights first. You don’t want to wipe yourself out before your weight routine—you won’t get the most out of your session, and lifting when you’re tired can be dangerous.
RULE #3: Don’t make an impact
Your body has enough to contend with in repairing the damage that lifting inflicts on it. The last thing you need to do is break it down further with high-impact cardio training.
Concentrate on cardio workouts that minimize microtrauma—the small tears to muscle fibers that are part of the process of building new muscle. Running on hard surfaces like asphalt or concrete can be traumatic to muscles and joints. Jumping rope can cause similar problems.
Your best bets for low-impact exercise are swimming, cycling, and using an elliptical machine.
RULE #4: Ignore the “fat-burning zone”
It’s a myth that you have to work out continuously for 20 minutes before you begin burning fat. The thinking once was that you needed to exercise in a range between 60 percent and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. Any lower was too easy, and any higher made it too difficult to efficiently use fat for fuel.
Ignore that theory. Your body uses more energy overall when training at high intensities—just look at the physique of a sprinter. Going all out also makes better use of your time. You can finish your cardio in an intense 10- to 15-minute workout.
Stick to interval workouts that feature short bursts of high-intensity movement followed by active recovery periods. (See the sample workouts on the next page.) This approach is best for your heart and for fat loss.
RULE #5: Choose the path of more resistance
Changing the gears on a bike and altering the gradient on a treadmill, for instance, are great ways to increase intensity. Just be careful to find a level of resistance that won’t reduce the amount of work you’re able to do when you return to the weight room.
BULK CYCLE (12 weeks)
Do this when you’re trying to add muscle.
Frequency: Twice a week
Duration: 10 to 15 minutes (not including warmup and cooldown)
Example: Stationary cycling
Warmup: 5 minutes of light pedaling
Work interval: 20 seconds of pedaling as fast as you can
Recovery interval: 40 seconds of light pedaling
Total reps: 10 to 15
Cooldown: 3 to 5 minutes of light pedaling
LEAN CYCLE (8 weeks)
Do this when you’re trying to gain definition.
Frequency: Two to four times a week
Duration: 15 to 20 minutes (not including warmup and cooldown)
Warmup: 3 to 5 minutes of light rowing
Work interval: 45 seconds of hard rowing
Recovery interval: 90 seconds easy
Total reps: 7 to 9
Cooldown: 3 to 5 minutes of light rowing
Perfect Form: Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press works primarily the upper region of your chest. It also involves your front deltoids, triceps, and serratus anterior—a small but important muscle that helps move your shoulder blades.
Add the incline press to your chest workout after your flat-bench or pushup routine. Three sets of eight to 12 repetitions will help you build a larger chest.
A common mistake: sitting too vertically, which incorporates your shoulders too much in the move, preventing you from lifting more weight. Position the bench at an angle between 45 and 60 degrees.
Also, a lot of men like to lower the dumbbells so they’re next to their upper chest. Don’t—this puts too much stress on the shoulder joints. Lower the weights farther forward, in a plane that intersects your body just below chest level, until your elbows form 45-degree angles and the weights are at shoulder height over your upper arms.
Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie faceup on a bench. Place your feet flat on the floor, draw your abs in, and push your lower back into the pad. Press the dumbbells above you in a slightly arcing line toward the midline of your chest.
It’s not necessary to clank the weights together—that can cause shoulder impingement, plus it annoys the rest of us trying to work out. Keep them 1 to 2 inches apart. Squeeze your chest muscles at the top of the move. Then reverse the same slightly arcing motion to lower the dumbbells under control.