The Cardio Roundtable - Part 1

Featuring Charles Staley, Christian Thibaudeau, Lonnie Lowery, PhD and Don Alessi


There aren't many truisms in the fitness and bodybuilding community. However, one thing can certainly be set in stone:

If you want to be lean, muscular and healthy, you must do cardio!

Or is it....

If you want to look good naked, whatever you do, don't do cardio or you'll lose all your muscle!

No, wait, I think it's....

Cardio is the key to a great body!

Or perhaps....

Cardio is overrated garbage!

Oh hell, I forget which "absolute and irrefutable fact" is correct. It seems there are both experts and idiots on both sides of this cardio conundrum. I've always thought the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The only way to figure it out is to try both extremes and see what happens. Over the years I've overdone the cardio and I've avoided it completely. Through trial and error, I found out what works for me.

Luckily, you don't have to go through this whole process. Why? Because gathered here to talk about the pros and cons of cardio are four of the smartest guys on the planet when it comes to fitness: Charles Staley, Christian Thibaudeau, Dr. Lonnie Lowery and Don Alessi. Here's what they had to say when we sat down to discuss everyone's least favorite form of exercise.

Chris Shugart: We probably need to start things off with a definition. Most of us use the word "cardio" very loosely. What are we talking about exactly when we say that? Lonnie, why don't you define it for us so we're all on the same page.

Dr. Lonnie Lowery: Actually, I've never liked the word "cardio." It's a misnomer for many bodybuilders. The term implies an attempt to increase cardiorespiratory function when most guys are actually just trying to maximize fat loss.

Having said that, let's define "cardio" as aerobic activity geared toward gaining peripheral adaptations like increased cell "fat burning" capability (mitochondrial density) and vascularity (capillarization). Of course, there are less direct and more anaerobic approaches to reducing fat deposits while developing muscularity, like HIIT, but more on that later.

Shugart: Thanks, Lonnie. Guys, here's something I've noticed over the last few years. When I first got into this whole fitness/bodybuilding thing, cardio was king. You had to do cardio. Cardio was thought to be superior to weight training for the general population. You weren't really even "fit" unless you ran five miles every morning. The pendulum, in other words, was all the way over to the right.

Then, the pendulum began to swing to the other side. For many in the bodybuilding community, cardio became the catabolic devil. It was thought to not only be unnecessary, but downright harmful if your goal was to gain muscle. The pendulum had swung far, far to the left. What's your take on this and where is that pendulum now?

Christian Thibaudeau: I'd say that we're definitely getting closer to a balanced position. Many coaches who were "anti-cardio" are now realizing that some form of conditioning work offers their athletes a lot. Some die-hard "pro-cardio" preachers are now slowly integrating more high-intensity exercises into their programs.

I don't believe that we'll ever reach a point where everybody agrees on that subject though, simply because we all have different backgrounds, beliefs, and goals. But at least we're getting to a point where we can look at what another coach or athlete is doing and say, "I won't do that, but I understand what he's doing and agree that, for his goals, it's okay".

Shugart: What do you think, Don?

Don Alessi: I don't care much about trends or where the pendulum is now. Anaerobic, resistance athletes learn quickly that excess cardio zaps strength, mass, power and quickness and even promotes excess fat! As far as John Public is concerned, well, where are those "fit" runners now? Broken down and fatter! Worse yet, some are disillusioned with the entire fitness industry as a whole.

Shugart: Nothing I hate seeing worse than some otherwise skinny guy with a pot belly running his flabby ass off every morning. If only we could score points by running them down with our suped-up hotrods, just like in Death Race 2000! I'll put tommy guns on my Toyota and we'll all adopt cool nicknames like Shotgun Shugart and Lawnmower Lowery and... Oh, sorry, I totally geeked out there for a second. What's your take on the cardio pendulum, Lonman?

Dr. Lowery: I think the definition of fitness itself needs to be clarified first. Classically, fitness is defined by five components. 1. Cardiovascular endurance (like a marathoner would exhibit), 2. muscular endurance (like a boxer or wrestler would have), 3. muscular strength (e.g. a powerlifter), 4. flexibility (e.g. a martial artist), and 5. body composition (e.g. a bodybuilder).

It's important to understand that the elite in any given sport are generally less "fit" across the board (regarding a balance of the above components) than even a serious recreational athlete might be. For example, a powerlifter excels at strength but suffers in the cardiovascular department (VO2 max) compared to a marathoner.

Therefore, your historical observations about what constitutes a "fit" person are astute. Both popular culture and academic exercise physiology really focused upon the cardiovascular portion throughout the eighties and even nineties. Only relatively recently has resistance training gained more widespread acceptance. Still, countercultures like the anti-aerobic backlash leave parts of the fitness definition lacking.

Regarding the "pendulum," it depends on one's goals, body type and yearly training periodization schedule. Are you trying to add mass to a thin, ectomorphic body or rip-up an already thick physique at all costs? To me, aerobic activity is ultimately a necessity for maximum muscularity, whether it's done just two or three times weekly for thirty minutes during mass building phases or almost daily for an hour during ripping phases involving purposeful negative energy balance.

I don't want to get ahead of myself, but the catabolism fear stems from excessive negative energy status and cardio sessions that are too intense and prolonged. When sessions are kept to a low-moderate intensity, there's less risk of excess cortisol release, protein loss and glycogen depletion. Fat mobilization and oxidation (as well as GH release) can still be stimulated, however.

Charles Staley: I think things are coming back to a rational center. No matter what the argument, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. Aerobic exercise has a place for those seeking improved body composition, but less of a place for those seeking maximal strength and power.

Shugart: Okay, here's something that's always bugged me. I hear many speak out against cardio, then recommend GPP work, energy systems training, no-rest weight training circuits, etc. But isn't that all basically "cardio"?

Alessi: If you want to generalize, then playing an energetic game of Xbox is basically cardio. See, just like the question, the confusion is because of the lack of specificity. All exercise systems have general similarities. Cardio denotes cardiovascular conditioning of the heart and lungs and their role in managing cellular function – or in gym talk, your "wind." So you gotta ask yourself how much of and what type of wind you need for a very specific outcome.

Thibaudeau: First of all, I think one problem is that we get either confused on the terminology we use or we get stuck on static concepts of what's what. I don't like the term "cardio" either; it's way too general. It's obviously an abbreviation of "cardiovascular exercise" and basically means a form of training that improves cardiac efficiency/health. But if you think about it, any exercise that leads to a significant increase in heart rate and energy expenditure could be included as "cardio" work.

People often confuse "cardio" and "aerobic work." Don't make that mistake! You can get an elevation in heart rate and a significant energy expenditure (thus an activity that could be classified as "cardio") without involving the aerobic pathway to produce your energy. In that case, you can be performing "cardio" without actually doing an aerobic exercise.

That's why I coined the term "energy system work." Now we can classify exercises according to how we produce energy to sustain the activity. It thus becomes easy to select the method best suited to our needs. Energy system work (or ESW) can be divided into three categories:

1. Anaerobic alactic work: Activity of very short duration (less than 25 seconds) and very high intensity: short sprints (shorter than 150m), plyo drills, heavy lifting, etc.

2. Anaerobic lactic work: Activity of short duration (25 seconds to 3 minutes) and high intensity: medium to long sprints (150-800m), bodybuilding-type lifting with short rest intervals (Charles' EDT program being a prime example), conditioning circuits, etc.

3. Aerobic work: Activity of relatively long duration (at least 12 to 15+ minutes) and low intensity: jogging, biking, etc.

Note that there's a gap between anaerobic lactic and aerobic work (3-12 minutes). In that case, the energy demands are from both sources.

GPP is a recent buzz word (despite the fact that it's been in use for over thirty years). It stands for General Physical Preparation and simply refers to an exercise developing organic conditioning (whole body general fitness/conditioning) while not being specific to the main sport or activity. As a result, GPP can include pretty much any exercise involving the whole body. It's only a matter of how you're using it to get a good systemic effect.

Shugart: Very nice answer, Christian. People would never guess we're conducting this roundtable in a strip joint or that you were receiving a lap dance from "Big Bambi" while you gave that answer. Anyway, what's your take on this question, Charles?

Staley: Any exercise modality can be either aerobic or anaerobic, depending on how you structure the loading. In fact, my university thesis was entitled "Effects of a sixty minute bout of cow-tipping on physiological and psychological variables in post-pubescent males with acute Tourette's Syndrome." Basically, the study has been criticized because about 34% of the subjects had to withdraw due to injuries; nevertheless, what we found was that virtually anything can occur at any point on the energy spectrum. Of course, some activities lend themselves better to aerobic loading than anaerobic and vice versa.

Shugart: What about the no-rest weight training circuits, Lonnie?

Dr. Lowery: It's my experience that aerobic exercise is best left as a separate entity from resistance training, at least when one's physique is the only consideration. It's physiologically and psychologically appropriate. Trying to get big muscles with reduced rest intervals and (by definition) lighter weights, flies in the face of the specificity principle. That is, the body adapts specifically to the stimulus applied. Weight training circuits may be more efficient (some cardiovascular endurance plus some muscular endurance plus some hypertrophy) and convenient, but won't maximize hypertrophy like heavy weights.

Shugart: Good point. I'm going to throw out some very general questions now and let you guys duke it out. Here we go. What's better for the average guy wanting to be lean and muscular? HIIT (high intensity interval training) or long bouts of jogging at one pace (low-intensity)?

Staley: Clearly the former. There's really no debate on that. And you don't need a university degree or advanced physiology textbooks to understand why this is so: when you expose your body to repeated long-duration excursions, your body wants to weigh less in order to become more efficient at doing what you're asking it to do. And the easiest way for your body to weigh less is to catabolize muscle (which of course, weighs more than fat).

Shugart: What do you think, Coach Snippy?

Alessi: If they're a qualified HIIT trainee, that is, under the age of 35, without a pre-existing heart condition or family history and have at least six months prior training experience, then it becomes a simple energy game (calories in, calories out). For that, HIIT burns more calories in less time. 

Shugart: HIIT or jogging, Thib?

Thibaudeau: Well, the only thing you have to do is compare the physique of a sprinter to that of a marathoner. Which one is leaner and more muscular? The sprinter of course! In fact, sprinters, as a group, have a better body than 95% of all the people spending hour after hour in the gym. This is all the more impressive considering that most sprinters will strength train three, maybe four times per week using only basic movements such as the bench press, squat, the Olympic lifts and hamstring work.

Of course, one could argue that the top sprinters are genetically gifted for leanness, strength and muscle. However, put the same guys on a hefty regimen of long distance running and chances are the quality of their physiques will vastly decrease.

This is not to say that low-intensity aerobic work is to be avoided. However, it shouldn't be abused. Let's face it, as T-men we like to shout high and loud that aerobic work isn't manly. But the fact is that aerobic work does offer several benefits, including the shift toward a better lipid profile, a lowered risk of cardiovascular diseases and hypertension, as well as fat loss. So aerobic work isn't the Devil; however, it's not the fastest route towards a muscular and lean physique.

In my opinion, long sprints, 200-400m (even 800m) with short rest intervals are best when it comes to losing fat while minimizing the potential for muscle loss. Most people wanting a great physique should engage in this type of activity. Furthermore, a recent study concluded that 400m running actually involves the aerobic energy system and lead to improvement in max VO2 similar to long, slow-pace aerobic work.

That being said, slow-pace aerobic work isn't to be discounted as it offers several health benefits. I know that health is always something that bores the athletes to no end, but good health is important: you can't improve if you're in the hospital can you?

Shugart: Good point. Lonnie?

Dr. Lowery: The way you posed that question makes for a difficult "right" answer. In short, either approach will work for an average guy wanting a little of each (some leanness and muscularity). Again, I prefer 100% specific, usually heavy, weight training sessions of 45 to 60 minutes for the muscle building, and then either 20 to 30 minutes of treadmill or 45 to 60 minutes of straight treadmill separated from the resistance exercise by at least four hours.

The treadmill session is scarcely even a workout, per se, for any intensity-crazed bodybuilder. Burning fat can be done at intensities that are low enough as to not interfere terribly with muscle recovery (e.g. a non-panting ten-second heart rate in the low 20's for a college-age male).

I respect the different approaches (HIIT vs. slow-and-steady) as equally valid but I'm old school in that I believe the crossover effect (burning fat at lower intensities and shifting to mostly muscle glycogen use at high intensities) can be manipulated to the bodybuilder's advantage. Slow-and-steady is a more direct and specific method for reducing subcutaneous body fat without interfering with muscle building efforts.

Shugart: I think I went anti-cardio for a while there because I got sick of people using it as a crutch to support their crappy diets. My thoughts were, hey, maybe if you didn't eat junk all the time you wouldn't have to do an hour of cardio per day! Do you guys see people abusing cardio in this manner?

Thibaudeau: Oh yeah, I've seen it. A very good friend of mine actually behaves in this manner all the time. He'll sit on the stationary bike for 30 to 45 minutes just so that he can party all night guilt-free. Obviously you can decrease the negative impact of lousy nutritional and lifestyle habits with training. Burning more calories will enable you to eat a bit more without gaining too much fat. In theory, if you use 1000 more calories per day you could eat 1000 more calories without gaining fat. I say "in theory" because it assumes that those 1000 calories come from foods that make you look good nekid, not grease burgers, ice cream and pizza.

However, if you think about it, cardio actually burns very few calories. Did you know an average individual would need to jog for close to two hours to expend 1000 calories? And we're talking about a relatively fast jogging tempo here. For most people, expending 1000 calories can actually require close to three hours of activity! Considering that a medium-size pizza has close to 3000 calories in it; that an average cheeseburger has anywhere from 400 to 600 calories; a medium portion of fries around 350 to 400 calories and a medium soft drink 200 calories, you can see that an average fast food meal would require you to do anywhere from three to six hours of jogging! And that's only to prevent fat storage!

As far as our "party dude" is concerned, it's interesting to note that a regular beer can have anywhere from 140 to 240 calories per serving. If our beloved dude drinks only one or two beers he can get off easy. But if he drinks seven or eight beers (the minimum amount which allows him to believe that he actually has a chance to score with one of the many vixens at the bar), we're up to a whopping 1000 to 2000 calories! Considering that a good party is rarely complete without an after-hour binge, nothing short of a marathon would actually prevent the damage done on the body as far as fat gain is concerned.

Dr. Lowery: Well, as supportive as I am of exercise as a cure for Western society's obesity problem, I certainly agree, Chris, that it can't replace a carefully planned diet. One can control his energy balance and body fat with "junk food plus cardio," but he's still missing out on the bevy of health benefits specific to varied nutrient intake including whole natural foods. Like Christian said, health is a consideration too! Being lean loses some of its luster if you're counteracting some of the health benefits with high-trans fatty acid, low-fiber, poor-micronutrient, low-phytochemical diets.

I used to know runners and cyclists who'd actually brag about their junk food diets. "Oh yeah, I live on hot dogs and cheese crunchies..." Whatever. They couldn't see beyond their present leanness to big issues like nutrition-related chronic diseases later in life.

Shugart: Very good point. And nice use of the word "bevy." We should all try to use that word in a sentence today. Charles, what do you think?

Staley: Sure, you're better off eating properly. My rule of thumb is this: if your goal is to improve body composition, any activity that burns calories is a good thing as long as you can recover from it and it does no harm. The problem is, protracted aerobic work seems to be catabolic, as I mentioned earlier. Doing "cardio" to counteract a poor diet is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Shugart: And Paul Chek doesn't care where his money comes from, trust me! Here's another gripe of mine: I hear from athletes who practice basketball three hours a day and then say, "Oh, now I have to go get my cardio." Isn't the basketball game "cardio"? It's like some people don't think they're doing cardio unless they're on a machine in front of a TV at the local gym! Also, if I'm keeping my rest periods short and therefore my heart rate up during weight training, is extra cardio even needed for fat loss? Comments on all of this?

Staley: Okay, when you find an athlete with that attitude, you're talking about what I call a "fatigue seeker." It's not all bad; these people have great work ethics and they love exercise. That can get you a long way (as opposed to lazier people). But it's hard to gain or even preserve muscle this way! Only quality (read: high intensity, anaerobic) work builds muscle. Quantity must always be subjugated to quality.

Shugart: What say you, O tanned one?

Alessi: Generally, additional cardio is overkill and contraindicated – unless it's only a technical (skills) practice. If an athlete is over 7% fat, then two to four HIIT sessions per week will aid in fat loss, specifically waste removal. If under 7%, then one session every six days will maintain high VO2 and capillary/mitochondrion density. It's primarily this cellular metabolism that's not conditioned or even made worse with an interval weight workout. Also, venous, return flow, back to the heart i.e. stroke volume diminishes somewhat with the weight interval system.

Thibaudeau: The all-time best quote I've ever heard on the subject was made by Dennis Leary. Basically he made fun of individuals who would drive thirty minutes to the gym only to walk for thirty minutes on the treadmill! "Have we turned into gerbils, ladies and gentlemen?" Leary said.

For some odd reason, people believe that if they're not doing it in a gym, it won't work! According to Kino-Quebec (a Canadian organization responsible for promoting health and physical activity), a game of soccer, basketball, racquetball or squash will actually lead to a greater caloric expenditure per minute than jogging on the treadmill or doing the Stairmaster! In fact, the former will be approximately 25% superior to the latter in that regard.

Now, another thing that sickens me is when people talk about walking to promote fat loss. How many times have I seen some out of shape guy (or gal) walk twenty minutes on the treadmill expecting to lose fat like crazy? Did you know that washing your car, dusting your furniture and playing pool has approximately the same caloric expenditure as walking (about four calories per minute)? Housework will burn more fat than walking! Try this one when your wife complains about doing all the work around the house!

In physical training, like with most things in life, what you get out of it is proportional to what you put in. If your heart rate increases a lot, is maintained at a high level for a relatively long time, and you use a lot of energy, you'll get some fat loss, conditioning and health benefits. In that regard, intense weight training with short rest intervals can actually have a better effect than walking and even jogging. Strength training alone will not give you the same cardiovascular effect as intense cardio or energy system work. It won't get you ready to run the Boston marathon, but it will give you significant health and fat loss benefits.

Now, not all strength training exercises will lead to same energy expenditure. For example, a one-arm concentration curl won't make you use as much energy as a power clean, push press, squat, or deadlift! Basically, the more muscles involved in an exercise, the more energy will be used: the bigger the engine, the more fuel you use!

Shugart: I use that same line when talking about my penis. What's your opinion on that issue, doc?

What's Dr. Lowery's opinion of Chris' penis? Will our panel come to a consensus on the subject of cardiovascular training for fat loss? Stay tuned for part 2 in next week's issue of T-mag!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram