Fitness: Let cardio help you define yourself

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READ MORE | Troy Meyers’ fitness tips from past weeks on Project Q Atlanta

imageYou love the challenge and the simple rewards of lifting. Devoting gym time to cardio exercise feels like you’re burning away hard-earned muscle. But you’re not–you’re revealing it.

If gaining mass is your entire focus, soon no one will be able to distinguish your traps from your deltoids. For a lean and chiseled physique, you need to do cardio.

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 more oxygenated blood is pumped with each beat.

Here’s a set of rules to help lifters build healthy hearts. You don’t need much cardio, and most of what you do need should be at high intensity. It’ll help you see more muscle definition without wasting time in the gym spinning your wheels.

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, about 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 one day, rowing or elliptical training the next, cycling the day after that, and swimming, etc.

Separate cardio from lifting
imageSerious weight 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 workout 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 two 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 that your weight lifting didn’t focus on that day. 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.

Don’t make an impact
Your body has enough to contend with in repairing the damage that lifting inflicts. The last thing you need to do is break it down further with high-impact cardio. Concentrate on cardio workouts that minimize micro trauma–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 the elliptical.

Ignore the “fat-burning zone”
imageIt’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. 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 below.) This approach is best for your heart and for fat loss.

Choose the path of more resistance
Changing the gears on a bike and altering the gradient on a treadmill 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.

Now that you know the rules, the guidelines:

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)
Protocol: Intervals
Intensity: High

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)
Protocol: Intervals
Intensity: High

Example: Rowing
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

image Contributing blogger Troy Meyers is a certified personal trainer and sports conditioner with more than 10 years of experience. He owns Atlanta-based JockBoyLocker.com and contributes to the site’s Lockerroom Blog.

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