Cardio Won't Steal Your Gains

There's a belief in the world of strength training that cardio steals your gains and should be avoided like the plague. The truth? Programming the right type of cardio into your training program can not only speed up the recovery process, but actually build muscle as well.

Here are three training schemes that will hammer your glutes, hamstrings, and quads into growth while also enhancing general health.

1 – Rowing — Glutes & Quads

This metabolic conditioning and cardio tool can also be one hell of a way to add muscle to the lower body. One of the biggest misconceptions about this machine and the sport of rowing in general is that it's an upper-body emphasized movement pattern and can be great for building your lats and back.

As anyone who's used this machine long enough knows, improving your efficiency, power, and work is all about the lower body. The powerful extension of the ankles, knees, and hips together make this an excellent way to build the quads and glutes. However, because the upper body row lacks a true eccentric action and the concentric (negative) motion is dominated by the lower body, this machine is less than ideal for building upper body mass.

Do It Right

Though using the rowing machine has a very easy learning curve, set yourself up the right way so you don't waste your time adjusting your butt position or feet during max-effort interval bouts.

No matter what type of machine you're using, the seat will most likely be slick against your gym shorts or spandex. To fix this common problem, place a small piece of a more grippy, yoga-mat type material under your butt. This will decrease the chance of slipping mid pull.

Also, take the time to get your feet strapped and secured into the footholds, as loose feet can lead to ripping the Achilles to shreds and "leaking" force on every single pull.

Focus on exploding back and pushing off dynamically with the lower body, driving the knees and hips into extension and keeping the core and torso solid to transfer lower body force and energy production into the arms and handle of the machine.

Stay smooth with your leg drive and upper-body pull and avoid overdoing the late range of motion of the pull with the arms, which will cause you to leak force and lose time that's better spent crushing more reps.

How to Program It

The rower can be programmed in a myriad of different schemes, but the most successful way to build the glutes and quads is centered around 30-60 second work periods with extended rest periods. This will keep the quality of reps high and increase the total volume of work.

Experiment with these two protocols on the tail-end of your lower body or upper body training days as a cardiovascular finisher:

Row Finisher 1

  • Rounds: 15
  • Resistance: 10 (maximal on machine)
  • Work Period: 30 seconds
  • Rest Period: 60 seconds
  • This scheme allows for more complete rest.

Row Finisher 2

  • Rounds: 10
  • Resistance: 10 (maximal on machine)
  • Work Period: 60 seconds
  • Rest Period: 60 seconds
  • This scheme challenges muscular endurance and metabolic-stress.

The rower can leave you with your head in a garbage can in a round or two, so proceed with caution. Start with finisher 1 and work your way up to completing 15 full rounds with strict adherence to the work and rest periods. Once you're ready, obliterate yourself with some intervals like those in the second scheme.

2 – Incline Treadmill Sprinting — Hamstrings & Abs

Nothing defines a powerful athlete more than the ability to explosively move the body through space by sprinting. Too bad that most lifters and people in general are unprepared for such a dynamic athletic movement. They can't muster up the type of volume and intensity needed to achieve the best training effect. But inclined treadmill sprinting is a great alternative.

Do It Right

When doing incline treadmill sprints, it's important to master the "hop on, hop off" skill to keep the treadmill at a constant speed and incline. This will help you avoid having to wait for the treadmill to accelerate and decelerate between interval sprint bouts, which is the last thing you want to be worrying about when your goal is hammering out sprint-based finishers.

Also, by jumping onto a treadmill already moving at a high constant speed, you'll be able to skip out on the acceleration phase of sprinting, which is something most people struggle with. Jumping on and getting right to a top-end stride with a more vertical torso angle is best for targeting the hamstrings.

Simply take a few warm-up rounds to work up to your top speed, jumping on and off between bouts, and using your hands on the rails to make sure you safely hit the treadmill at the proper running speed each time. Once you're at your top-end speed with the correct incline, you'll be ready to go all-out.

How to Program It

This scheme was invented by Brent Callaway, the NFL Combine prep coach and speed guru responsible for a majority of first round draft picks the last few years. This scheme is simple but sinister. Here's exactly how to do it:

  • Rounds: 10
  • Speed: 10 mph
  • Incline: 10%
  • Work Period: 10 seconds
  • Rest Period: 10 seconds

On paper this doesn't look like much, but when placed at the end of a lower-body day or a stand-alone cardio/conditioning day, it can be an absolute killer. Fight the urge to extend the rest periods and focus on driving each and every stride with precision and power.

3 – Airdyne Bike: — Quads & Calves

Biking is one of the most effective cardiovascular-based activities for packing muscle onto the lower body. While both archaic exercise science and common sense lead us to believe that using longer duration and lower intensity bouts of cardio don't build much muscle, there's no denying the type of lower body aesthetics that are developed by elite cyclists.  Biking is one of the most overlooked methods for building muscle for lifters and strength athletes.

Do It Right

Compared to the treadmill sprint and the rower, the setup of the bike is pretty simple. For many types of indoor bikes, the only variable that you need to account for on the setup is the height of the seat.

To fit the bike to you, stand next to the bike and position the seat height in line with the big bony prominence on the side of your hip (the greater trochanter). From there you'll be ready to rock. Always use an Airdyne-style bike, which incorporates both the pedals for the lower body and the handles that you can grab and pump for the upper body as well.

Due to the air resistance and ability to use both your lower and upper body in reciprocal fashion, this type of bike is brutally challenging and will skyrocket your heart rate and pump your quads quickly. No access to an Airdyne or Assault Air bike? Spin bikes are a nice alternative. These bikes usually have manual knobs that allow you to quickly change the resistance.

If you're stuck with one of those electronic exercise bikes on the cardio deck, you'll be able to make do. Remember, it's more about your focused execution and effort than the tool you're using. You can punish your quads on any of these setups.

How to Program It

The one advantage that the bike has over both the treadmill and rower in terms of building muscle is the ability to program extended duration work bouts. Since the bike places you in a more passive position and targets the lower body, cranking hard is both safe and highly recommended.

Here are two challenges that will light up your quads and make your lungs feel like they're going to bleed:

Bike Challenge 1

  • Rounds: 1
  • Speed: As Fast As Possible
  • Distance: 10 Miles
  • Rest Period: None

Bike Challenge 2

  • Rounds: 15
  • Speed: As Fast As Possible
  • Work Period: 30 seconds
  • Rest Period: 30 seconds

The first challenge works very well for a stand-alone cardio/metcon day, but the amount of total work and stress placed on the quads may be a little too much to tack onto a lower body training session as a finisher. Use this scheme on a recovery day after an extended dynamic warm-up, followed by 5-10 minutes of deep positional breathing to enhance the recovery process while getting in some meaningful work.

The second challenge can be programmed as a lower body finisher. If you're on the Airdyne or spin bike, pedal as hard as you can for 30 seconds, and then take your feet off the pedals for the 30-second rest period.

If you're stuck using a bike machine, increase your resistance to between 8-12 for work periods and then decrease it down to 2-4 on rest periods, pedaling slowly. You'll need to keep the bike going with slow pedaling so it won't shut off on you. It's less than ideal, but it gets the job done.

Related:  Two More Cardio Workouts That Build Muscle

Related:  Do Cardio, Keep Your Gains