The Cardio Roundtable - Part 2

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


When Part 1 of our Cardio Roundtable wrapped up last week, Coach Thibadeau had just concluded that many trainees mistakenly think that if "it's not done in the gym, it can't be cardio," and what they should take into account is that "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?

Dr. Lowery: I don't have an opinion on your penis, Chris.

Shugart: No, I mean the question about outside-the-gym cardio.

Dr. Lowery: Oh, that! Great point about those who don't consider other energy demands. If, for example, I mow the lawn for an hour, then walk across town with my wife, why would I go put in an hour on the treadmill? I've already expended hundreds of calories! Of course, this approach carries the risk of missed "cardio" sessions for lazy guys. Moving one piece of furniture for the wife, then opening a stuck jar of peanut butter for her doesn't count, if you get my drift.

Shugart: I used to think sex was cardio, but my last girlfriend said it was more like a one-rep max. Bitch.

Okay, a couple of loaded questions: What's the best form of cardio and what's the ideal time to do cardio? Some say after training, others say in a separate session apart from weight training. What do you think?

Thibaudeau: Best form of cardio? An evening with Trish Stratus after a triple dose of Tribex! Seriously though, the best form of energy system work is the one you'll actually do! I could say that 400m sprinting with very short rest intervals is the best way to shed the fat. However, how many people will actually have the guts to stick with 400m sprints? Not many! It's just about the hardest thing you can do as far as physical training is concerned (a close second is sets of twenty reps on the squat or deadlift). So even if it's great, if you don't stick with it, it won't work.

Staley: I like short bursts of maximum effort interspersed with adequate rest periods (usually a 1:3 work/rest ratio works great). Activities that involve impact (like running) may burn more calories because they cause more microtrauma – the repair process burns more calories.

The best time of day is highly individual. While there are studies suggesting optimal times to perform various types of physical activities, usually this benefit is offset by other factors. For example, you may read that anaerobic work is best performed early in the morning, but if that interferes with work or family obligations, it may not be worth it. Optimal training must be viewed within the context of your life as a whole.

As for performing "cardio" separately from weight training, yes, that's the ideal scenario from a physiological standpoint, however, as I alluded to earlier, there are other factors to consider as well.

Dr. Lowery: I've already tackled the issue of when and how intense, I think. Regarding the mode of the exercise... not the bike! Why do bodybuilders obsess over it? Not only does one burn fewer calories on an exercise bike during a given session compared to natural walking or jogging, but he's also concentrating the exertion mostly onto his quads, which could cause some loss of leg mass due to hampered recovery (personal observation). I think uphill walking at three miles per hour on a treadmill at a heart rate between 120 and 136 beats per minute rocks for direct fat loss while minimizing interference with muscle recovery.

Alessi: I recommend exercises that work the arms and legs concomitantly and if qualified, involves jumping. My favorites include jump rope, rowing ergometer, elliptical with arm motion, and bike with arm motion.

Shugart: It's been said that athletes training for pure strength and power should probably do no cardio at all since cardiovascular exercise can interfere with strength development. Agree or disagree?

Alessi: Disagree. As mentioned previously, for in-season training, one forty-minute cardio session every six days will maintain optimal VO2 levels while strength and power are being maximized. This is more important in Olympic lifting than powerlifting or bodybuilding.

Staley: All absolute statements are faulty, and this one's no exception. From my experience, measured amounts of aerobic work (like twenty minutes every three to four days) can improve recovery. Think about it this way: intense muscular efforts (heavy weight training) can be viewed as "anti-circulatory" (because intense muscular contractions can temporarily shut off the muscle's own blood supply), so mild aerobic exercise can
counter this and facilitate recovery.

Shugart: Interesting point. Thib?

Thibaudeau: Well, it all depends on the type of "cardio" we're talking about and the capacities of the athlete. A super-heavyweight powerlifter or Olympic lifter who loads heavy on squats would be ill advised to go out jogging for thirty to sixty minutes, that is unless he has a spare pair of knees at home!

However, I feel that most strength athletes would benefit from getting into better general shape. Most powerlifters and Olympic lifters have a very low work capacity. It's true! As a result, it's much harder for them to recover from a certain training load. On the other hand, a super conditioned athlete can handle a much higher volume of strength work. The more strength work you do without overtaxing your body, the more you'll progress.

Most powerlifters at my gym cringe when they see the program that my hockey players do. Most of them couldn't finish half the weekly workouts! But not only do my players finish every session, they progress at every session. Why? Simply because they're well conditioned! Their bodies are used to handling physical stress. So they can do more strength work, they recover faster, and thus they progress faster. Most of my players will put on anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds on their squat, bench press, and power clean in four months of training. Some have even improved more than that!

So in that regard, I believe that it's important, even for a pure strength athlete, to get in good shape. Now, the choice of activity will depend on the athlete. I find that sprint work with short intervals and sled dragging are the two best options for strength athletes.

Dr. Lowery: Overall, I agree. At least in terms of treadmill, stepper, cycling, distance swimming, etc. We're back to the specificity principle here: committing one's physical resources toward different stimuli and presumably very different adaptations leaves less for pure strength. These individuals are probably better served by cyclical volume training with moderately heavy weights and "accessory work" in the name of overall conditioning.

Shugart: Okay, a person is trying to lose fat. Should he do cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach?

Alessi: Yes, if you have the luxury of time choice, then early morning, empty stomach training with caffeine and Power Drive works best. If a bodybuilder is looking to drop a weight class, then PM is better as they can afford to shed both muscle and fat. Separate cardio sessions from weights work best when sport specific energy pathways are being developed, for example, vertical jump.

Staley: Hmmm, I'm starving, half-asleep, my joints feel like they have sand in, no, not a good time for cardio!

Look, seriously, when you do it is secondary to doing it in the first place, right? Also, isn't that idea predicated on the theory that if your glycogen supplies are low from an overnight fast that your body is more likely to go after stored bodyfat for fuel? Well, the only way your glycogen will be low enough to accomplish that would be if you're low or no carbing. And if you're low or no carbing, then your glycogen is always
low, and you can do your cardio later in the day when you feel at least half alive!

My good friend Alwyn Cosgrove has a great argument for why morning cardio on an empty stomach is a faulty idea: everyone always extols the value of eating every three hours to prevent catabolism; so if this is true, why would you do hard exercise after an eight hour fast? I mean, it's either one way or the other, right?

Thibaudeau: That's hard to say. I don't really like the term empty stomach. It would be more appropriate to say "on an empty gas tank" (as in "depleted glycogen state"). Like Charles said, the logic for morning cardio is that if you have no glycogen available to produce energy, you'll readily dip into your fat stores to fuel your body. However, one thing that many people forget is that this could also increase the rate of protein breakdown (catabolism). Furthermore, I've not seen any evidence that doing aerobic work first thing in the morning leads to a greater proportion of fat being used to produce energy.

Dr. Lowery: Truthfully, I do cardio in the morning. A thinner, ectomorphic guy looking to harden up shouldn't though. He'd be better served by time under the weights while drinking protein and carbs throughout. I tend to favor fasted treadmill work because I've seen firsthand how much more dramatic fat oxidation can be in this state during lab experiences.

The liver is mostly depleted of stored carbohydrate (glycogen reserves approximate just 90g which keeps us alive at night), there's a natural diurnal release of GH upon rising, and even cortisol is higher upon waking. This latter fact is dangerous for muscle loss but actually facilitates lipolysis (fat breakdown). Admittedly, I've been experimenting with about five grams of glutamine and even about ten grams of protein in this otherwise "fasted" pre-breakfast state. I do fear cortisol and hope to counteract any unnecessary catabolism without interfering with lipolysis.

Shugart: Since most people don't have the luxury of training twice per day, should cardio be done before or after their weight training workouts?

Alessi: After. Strength training or weight work is the single most valuable component so it should be prioritized and done first in a program. It's been determined with several studies from biomechanics, metabolism and function that absolute body strength (as determined by the squat or deadlift) is the single most important factor in any trainees program or quality of life.

Staley: If you've established the need to do it in the first place, then for the most part, cardio should be done after. Here's why: if you perform aerobic exercise immediately prior to strength training, the fatigue residue will negatively affect the strength workout. However, if you reverse that, then the fatigue created from your strength training will give you a "head start" on your aerobic workout.

Dr. Lowery: I agree – after. Muscles and liver are somewhat glycogen depleted at this time, which may hasten a shift toward fat oxidation, and one's endocrine profile (such as GH and adrenaline release) is already primed for fat loss. Conversely, who wants to pre-fatigue themselves systemically with cardio when that freshness and energy is better applied to heavy weights?

Thibaudeau: I vote for after, too, especially if strength, size and power are more important to you than being lean. I really don't think that riding the bike for thirty minutes or running a series of 400m right before a squat workout is all that smart!

Shugart: Oh my gosh, you all agreed on something! Let's try another one: how much cardiovascular exercise is too much? Are there any signs?

Thibaudeau: You wake up one morning looking like Richard Simmons! Seriously, there are several signs to look for: having the feeling of flat muscles, loss of strength, feeling light-headed when you stand up, and loss of appetite. For strength athletes the best sign is probably a decrease in strength and power. As such, a good test to conduct is the vertical jump. Test yourself every morning; if your results go down 5 to 10%+ for more than three days in a row, you may be doing too much aerobic work.

Shugart: When does cardio cross the line, Don?

Alessi: When you feel the urge to wear a headband and matching socks to the gym! Seriously, one sign is a sudden increase in mid-thigh skinfold to a greater thickness than the subscapular site. This indicates a drop in free Testosterone and a rise in local fat substrates (stored around the thigh).

Other signs: a sudden loss in max strength, power or speed; the inability to progress on a strength, power or speed program, even with adequate calories and rest; and increased duration in morning joint soreness. For most bodybuilding and strength/power sports, ten miles or ninety minutes per week should be a maximum limit.

Dr. Lowery: It's tough to generalize due to body type differences, androgen status, etc. but I'd limit HIIT to 20 to 30 minutes per session and steady-state treadmill work to 45 to 60 minutes three to four times weekly. I'm a proponent of doing no cardio whatsoever on otherwise "off" days. During self-abusive, emaciating contest dieting, one might need five or six days of cardio weekly. Even in the most extreme conditions, at least one day of total rest is crucial.

The parasympathetic type of overtraining is related to aerobic exercise when total training volume is too high. Depressed maximal heart rate and high RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) come to mind. If one feels too fatigued and exhausted to get enthusiastic about weight training, he's already gone too far. Biologically, a loss of more than half to one pound of body mass per week is another indicator of overdoing cardio and negative energy status.

Staley: I'd say one thing: if you find yourself at the sporting goods store deliberating over whether or not you should pick up one of those strap-on flashing light gizmos to prevent yourself from getting hit by a car, you probably need to taper off the cardio a bit!

If you'd like a more serious answer, look at the results: are you doing tons of cardio and getting leaner? If so, who am I to tell you to stop? People need to do more testing: measure your current status, then perform a program, then re-measure. What were the results?

Shugart: Dr. Lowery, how about post-workout nutrition after a cardio-only training session? Any guidelines?

Dr. Lowery: Fluids are important of course, with most guidelines calling for as much water as can comfortably be drank (perhaps 250 cc) every 15 to 20 minutes during aerobic exercise. Often such guidelines are convoluted by carbohydrate replenishment schedules however, so just replacing fluids to prevent acute weight loss (maybe 500 cc/ hour of cardio) is appropriate.

Thirst is a lagging indicator of hydration status, so stick to the 15 to 20 minute schedule. It should be kept in mind that a sports drink contains carbs that interfere with fat oxidation, especially if consumed within an hour prior to the cardio.

As far as post-workout carbs, that depends upon one's goals. If maintained performance is a focus (it usually is), 50 to 100 grams of high glycemic carbs within two hours of the exercise is important. For those not wishing to replace the calories spent, this could be cut in half – perhaps 25 grams 30 minutes post-exercise and another 25 grams 90 minutes post-exercise. This isn't enough to replace glycogen stores however, and wouldn't be a great option if weights preceded the "cardio." Just-exercised muscles demand substantial protein and carbs post-exercise for maximal growth, as we all know.

Post-cardio protein could be set anywhere from half of the post-exercise carb intake to roughly equal that of the post-exercise carb intake. Then again, just following a regular eating schedule every two to three hours will bring protein into the picture, though, eh?

Shugart: True. Okay, let me close with another observation that perhaps sums all this up. It's interesting to talk about cardio timing, the best form of cardio etc., but for me, what it really comes down to is this: do something! Call it cardio, GPP, energy systems work, speed golf... whatever. Just move your body, get the ol' ticker pounding and break a sweat. A little cardio, when not taken to extremes, has a bevy of health benefits, plus you'll look better with your clothes off.

Thanks Christian, Don, Lonnie and Charles. It's been enlightening!

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