The net result is that you over-diet for a show, lose muscle, lose fullness, and your physique suffers. Or, for the non-competitive bodybuilder, you just cut into your muscular gains come summer when you all you wanted to do was cut down for the beach. Not the outcome you wanted.
The answer isn’t to refrain from ever doing cardio, but to employ it intelligently. Imagine this hypothetical scenario:
Bodybuilder A trains high-frequency six days a week on the Reactive Pump program, and each training session burns on average of 450 calories over a 1.5 hour period, and he uses peri-workout nutrition. He weighs 240 pounds in the offseason and he’ll be dieting down to 220. He stays lean year round and his caloric intake is 4200 calories while his expenditure is 3800.
Bodybuilder A’s active metabolic rate is 3800.
Bodybuilder B does his own type of training. He trains high-frequency as well, 5-6 days a week, but his workouts aren’t as intense and they take about 2 hours. He also does an additional 45 minutes of cardio every workout, which equals about 650 calories.
He uses IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) and doesn’t pay much attention to food quality, and his peri-workout nutrition consists of a shake before and after training, followed by tons of low-quality carbs. He gets fat in the offseason and his caloric intake is about 5500 calories, but his expenditure is only 4500, which puts him into a significant surplus. His offseason weight is 270, but he’ll walk on stage at 220 as well.
Bodybuilder B’s active metabolic rate is 4500.
Now let’s move into the competition prep phase. Both start 24 weeks out. Bodybuilder A has to lose only 20 pounds, which is less than a pound a week. Bodybuilder B, though, has to lose 50 pounds, so approximately 2 pounds a week.
Bodybuilder A does ZERO cardio during his offseason, other than going for leisurely walks that don’t stress his adaptive response at all. So by reducing his calorie intake very gradually and maintaining his peri-workout nutrition, his cut is easy to manage. Only the last couple of weeks before the contest does he do any cardio, and it’s only for 30 minutes a pop. He also does a few HIIT bouts to really accelerate the fat loss.
Because his loss has been more gradual, he has to resort to fewer dirty tricks to lose the weight and his metabolism hasn’t slowed significantly. He still has a cheat meal a week before the contest. He steps on stage big, ripped, and vascular.
Post contest, he enjoys another cheat meal and eats dirty for a few days, but he hasn’t been calorie or nutrient deprived, so his metabolism doesn’t have a huge rebound. After 2-3 weeks he’s back to regular training and he’s set himself up for solid muscle gains.
Bodybuilder B, though, has a lot of fat to shed. Even though his initial caloric output his higher, he needs a bigger daily deficit to lose weight. He ups his cardio to 2 hours, but now he’s increased his metabolic rate while at the same time cutting calories. He’s constantly hungry and his workouts really start to suffer. He’s not very smart about his peri-workout nutrition, he’s often flat, and his strength starts heading south.
His metabolic rate starts to slow significantly because of his lowered caloric intake and his body begins to deplete muscle. Increasing his overall activity while heavily decreasing his calories makes his cut absolutely miserable. Oh, he still gets to 220, but he’s soft looking and he’s lost significant size.
Once the contest is over, he binges like crazy because he’s been calorie and nutrient starved for weeks. Subsequently he gets even fatter than before, setting himself up for another hard cut a year from now.
Obviously, scenario A is where we want to be, so here are the major takeaways:
- Clearly define whether you need cardiovascular training for physical performance or purely for body composition management.
- The most effective cardio for retaining muscle is the kind you don’t need to recover from, which is walking.
- When using cardio while dieting, begin by doing the minimum necessary for fat loss, not the maximum.