Cardio: How Much is Too Much?
Author: Sara Willis - NPC Figure Competitor
When it comes to cardiovascular exercise (AKA cardio), there is not a ďone size fits allĒ approach. I have heard stories of people who, when preparing for a competition, did upwards of two hours of cardio a day. I, myself, at one time did two 45-minute cardio sessions a day to prepare for shows. I did lose fat, but at the same time, I also lost a lot of muscle and went into the shows a little on the skinny side. I decided to change it up for my last show. My last show, 2013 NPC Nationals, I trained with weights five days a week and did only ten minutes of cardio a day as my warm up. That is it. No HIIT, no distance, no steady state. I went into the show with more muscle and my weight was the same as it was when I went into my last three shows. So to say that everyone should do 10 minutes a day, or that everyone should do 2-45 minute sessions a day, would not be wise. There is no cookie cutter approach to what contest prep cardio should look like.
You have to figure out what works best for you. Give yourself a few weeks to test it out. Keep your diet the same so that results are not based on calorie intake. Try a week or two at 45 minutes a day, then take it down to 20 minutes a day, and then try 10 minutes a day. See how your body responds. Does it feel tighter? Does your energy levels remain at a normal level? Does your weight change? These are all things you have to look at.
You also need to compare what type of cardio exercises you do and how you respond to them. Cardio has the ability to burn muscle but, if done in excess, it also has the ability to diminish your muscle gains by burning it off as well. You want to find that happy medium where your cardio sessions lean you out without making you skinny. I am going to describe two different types of cardio (HIIT and constant/steady state).
HIIT, or high intensity interval training, is described as moderate level intensity intervals are alternated with high intensity intervals. It has been shown to speed up metabolism, burn more fat than steady state, and increase endurance in both your aerobic and anaerobic systems. Constant, or steady state, is when your activity is performed at the same pace for the entire time of the cardio session. Your body adjusts to this and tries even harder to conserve energy.
Studies have shown that HIIT burns more fat than steady state. However, you also want to make sure that fat is all you are ridding yourself of. Physique competitors spend hours in the gym building their bodies and the last thing they want to do is hop on a piece of machinery and cancel it out. Performing 20 minutes or less of HIIT during a cardio session will help you burn muscles without diminishing the gains you make during your weight lifting workouts.
I am going to give you three examples of three different types of workouts that can be used for cardio as well as two cardio machine exercises. First letís look at how you can use resistance exercises as cardio exercises. There are some great ones that come to mind but three of my favorites that really get my heart rate up are the power clean, dumbbell snatch, and plate push. Plyometrics are also great ways to bring your cardio to the gym floor. Three that I highly recommend are lunge jumps, burpees, and bench hop-overs. Some exercises that you donít even need weights for, but can be used for cardio, are bodyweight squats, walking lunges, and walkout pushups.
But we all know that when it comes to cardio we think of the machines. There are some really in-depth, complicated routines out there that will knock your socks off, but Iím just going to give you two relatively easy ones that you can remember. You can take either of these and apply them to other pieces of cardio equipment as well. One deals with resistance, and the other with speed adjustment. First, the resistance: the elliptical and AMT machines offer fantastic resistance options. Try alternating 30 seconds at a resistance level of 15, and 30 seconds at a resistance level of 5. Do this for 10-20 minutes to get a great cardio session in. You can also go for speed. I love doing this one of the stationary bike. Go for 45 seconds at a moderate pace and then 15 seconds all out, as hard as you can go. Complete this 20 times and your legs will feel like jelly!
Again, thereís not one specific plan that every competitor takes when they prep for a show. Each person has one that works specifically for him or her. It depends of the body type (ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph) as well as their metabolism. Try changing things up to see what your body responds to and Iím positive that youíll find what works for you.