Many lifters are terrified of cardio.
For years now, we’ve been peddled the idea that “cardio kills your gains.”
Meaning, too much running, swimming, and cycling will literally cause your muscle to waste away! Most of this fear stems from a decades-old study that has since been mostly debunked.
The truth is that intelligently-programmed cardio while bulking can give you a major boost to performance, body composition, and overall health! You should definitely incorporate cardio into your workouts on a bulk.
Keep going for 7 key reasons why, plus my best tips for how to program cardio into your routine.
1. Cardio is good for your heart, lungs, and longevity
Lifting heavy weights is an awesome way to strengthen your muscles, but it doesn’t do quite as much for your heart and lungs.
Aerobic-style training really challenges your lungs to provide enough oxygen, and your heart to pump enough blood through your body. If they aren’t up to the job, you’ll feel it pretty quickly! And with just a little training, you’ll be able to dramatically increase their functionality.
Simply put, this is good for your health! Just forget about your muscle gains for a minute and consider that it might be worth investing a little bit of cardio time to become an overall healthier human being.
Put it all together and you’re likely to live 4 or 5 years longer than people who don’t do any brisk or intense exercise.
2. Cardio helps reduce cholesterol and blood pressure
Speaking of across-the-board health benefits, cardio isn’t done quite yet.
Did you know that doing regular cardio can dramatically improve health markers like cholesterol and blood pressure?
This is pretty advantageous for obvious reasons, but it should be especially interesting to anyone who’s currently on a bulk.
A high-calorie diet (especially one full of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar — or a dirty bulking diet) is a major risk factor for high blood pressure. Lots of saturated fats can also contribute to high cholesterol levels.
You may think you’re “eating big to get big,” but you could be absolutely wrecking your health if you’re not offsetting all of that food with a little bit of cardio.
3. Cardio can improve endurance and work capacity (and likely, strength)
We all know that doing cardio improves your overall conditioning and endurance.
But why should we care about that if all we want is big, rippling muscles?
You’d be surprised.
Improving your conditioning and endurance is highly likely to carry over to better results during strength training.
One reason? With more endurance, you’ll most likely be able to handle more lifting volume in the gym before you become fatigued, increasing your work capacity and busting through old strength plateaus.
Think about it… Ever felt so drained by the end of your lifting session that you had to totally phone in the last exercise or two?
Imagine if you were in better shape and had more energy to attack those sets with gusto. Think that would “kill your gains”?
4. Cardio helps you sleep better
Sleep (and recovery in general) is one of the most seriously overlooked ingredients in the overall muscle-building formula.
Everyone knows about eating plenty of food, lifting heavy, and getting enough protein — but without proper sleep and rest, the whole thing falls apart!
You’ll be happy to know, then, that cardio workouts have actually been scientifically proven to help people sleep better (both quality and duration).
The one important caveat here would be to avoid intense aerobic workouts right before bedtime. That’s likely to screw up your sleep schedule pretty badly.
But throwing in some cardio while you’re awake is an excellent way to get yourself all tuckered out for an awesome sleep later that night.
Your muscles will seriously thank you for the extra time to recover.
5. Cardio creates a smaller calorie surplus and improves body composition
The temptation to overeat on a bulk is incredible.
Had a great workout? Eat a ton of food as a reward!
Had a crappy workout? Eat a ton of food to get stronger for next time!
However, one of the biggest mistakes people make is not being nearly as disciplined on a bulk as they are on a cut.
Ideally, you should be shooting for a pretty small calorie surplus (only 200 or so calories over maintenance) to put on muscle while minimizing fat. Anything over that is probably headed right toward your love handles!
So while doing cardio does eat into your calories and steal some resources away from your muscle recovery, it can actually help you manage your body fat levels while you’re bulking.
If you have a tendency to overeat on a bulk, adding in some cardio will bring the surplus down to proper lean-bulking levels if managed properly.
6. Cardio improves circulation and recovery between workouts
You’ve heard of rest days, but have you heard of “active recovery”?
The idea is, after you blast your muscles at the gym, they need to recover. What do they need? Protein. Nutrition. Oxygen. All things delivered to them courtesy of your bloodstream.
Active recovery is the process of increasing your blood flow and circulation by, well, being active, in order to help your muscles recover. It’s going for a brisk walk versus sitting on the couch after a lifting day.
So instead of sitting around and “resting” between workouts on a bulk, throw some cardio in the mix and get your blood pumping. All that extra circulation will deliver vital nutrients and energy to your battered muscles, helping you feel better and stronger when you’re ready to hit the gym again.
7. Eases stress and puts you in a better mood
Is it going too far to say cardio makes you happy?
Maybe not! Research studies have actually shown that even a relatively mild cardio routine can have a profound impact on your mood, stress levels, and any symptoms of depression.
And it makes sense if you think about it. As much as I enjoy lifting weights, there’s nothing quite like the happy-elated-exhausted feeling you get after an insane cardio workouts. It’s like you’re so wiped out that any trace of sadness has literally been purged from your body.
Plus, there’s the release of endorphins — brain chemicals that create a blissful feeling similar to morphine.
If you struggle with feeling down and low-energy, especially in the winter bulking months, adding cardio to your routine might really help.
The best way to do cardio on a bulk explained
OK, convinced yet?
Doing cardio — yes, even on a bulk — has a ton of amazing benefits that you definitely don’t want to miss out on. But what’s the best way to incorporate it into your bulking program?
Here are a couple of tips you can use:
Always prioritize your strength performance
If you don’t get stronger in the gym, you won’t have a very successful bulk — even if you’re eating perfectly.
So what do you do? Always put your lifting workouts FIRST. Build your routine around progressing in the gym on key lifts, and add cardio in afterward or on off days to supplement your health and conditioning.
You don’t want to blast your body with 45-minutes of high-intensity cardio and then try to hit a new bench press PR — you probably won’t like the results.
But doing cardio after weights or on active rest days is unlikely to hinder your performance, at all. In fact, it will probably improve your performance!
2-4 thirty minute cardio sessions every week should be the perfect amount to start with.
Monitor your calories in and calories out
Remember, a proper bulk requires the same amount of discipline you’d need on a cut to get lean and toned.
Count your calorie intake, along with how many calories you’re burning lifting weights and doing cardio, and ensure you’re in the right calorie surplus.
(Bodyweight x 17 seems to be a good number of calories to eat every day on a bulk, or a surplus of about 250 above maintenance.)
Cardio won’t “kill your gains,” but it will steal calories away from your muscles that they need for growth. Make sure you’re eating enough to continue to make gains.
Do the right kind of cardio for you
There’s not necessarily a best or worst kind of cardio, but each one has several different benefits and drawbacks.
Pick the one that aligns best with your training style.
Low-intensity steady state (LISS): Think going on a long walk or doing some incline walking on a treadmill, or low-intensity cycling. It’s a great way to burn calories and some body fat without stressing your body too badly — these workouts are very easy to recover from.
However, they can be pretty long and boring — they also don’t improve your conditioning quite as much as the next options.
High-intensity steady state (HISS): Think a long run or churning away on the elliptical. The benefits? You’ll burn through calories quickly and definitely improve your aerobic endurance.
The downside is that these high-intensity workouts can beat up your body and sometimes hinder recovery if you overdo it (especially doing high-impact work like long runs).
High-intensity interval training (HIIT): Think those 7-minute workouts where you quickly hop between air squats, push ups, planks, jumping jacks, burpees, and more with short rest intervals in between. These workouts are usually really quick and absolutely scorch calories, making them a great time bargain. They’re also incredible for your conditioning.
However, too much HIIT can definitely beat your body up and cause recovery problems if you overuse certain muscle groups.
Your best bet is probably to choose a mix of these different cardio styles and experiment with all of them on your next bulk!
Cardio is a must while bulking. Let’s recap the benefits:
- Improves your overall health markers and longevity
- Dramatically improves conditioning and physical performance
- Improves recovery through circulation and better sleep
- Improves your mood and lowers stress levels
- Has a positive impact on body composition and fat levels
So the whole “cardio kills gains” thing? Mostly a myth.
Unless you’re absolutely hammering your body with tons of cardio volume every week, you’re likely to see only good results when you start implementing it into your routine.
Again, just a handful of thirty-minute cardio sessions every week (done after lifting or on rest days) will do wonders for your performance and body.
And for more bulking tips, check out a few of my favorite muscle-building posts:
- When to start bulking (season and body fat percentage)
- What to do if you’re bulking but not getting stronger
- The best and most convenient bulking snacks
- Why you shouldn’t alternate bulking & cutting days/weeks
Hope this helps, everyone!