Cardio and Muscle Loss: What’s the Big Deal?

If you ask any strength or bodybuilding coach, most of them will tell you the same thing: high endurance activities – i.e. cardio work / aerobic training – are not recommended during a muscle building routine. The reason is simple: high endurance activities, such as long distance running, biking, and even competitive sports, can actually break down muscle tissue and make it even harder for hard gainers who are trying to gain muscle. Cardio and muscle loss are interrelated.

But is it really that bad? How can we prevent muscle loss?

How Can Cardio Cause Muscle Loss?

Before getting into the details of how bad cardio is for muscle building purposes, lets first find out how cardio can actually cause muscle loss.

When the body is put under long-term endurance activities (cardio), it needs high amounts of energy. It first gets this energy first from readily available nutrition – i.e. the food we eat – then it starts to break down fat storage. This is why someone who is trying to lose fat must incorporate cardio work into his/her training programs.

So what about someone who has very low body fat percentage, such as skinny guys and hard gainers? The body will look for the next available energy source: muscle. It starts to break down muscle tissue to get its energy and sustain itself. This is why long distance runners all have very skinny frames in comparison to short distance runners, who have more heavily muscled bodies.

Can You Do Cardio and Play Sports and Still Build Muscle?

So, now that we know the basics of how cardio might work to cause muscle loss, you’re thinking that any type of high endurance activities while trying to build muscle is a bad idea, right?

Not quite.

The truth is, unless we’re dealing with extreme cases of cardio such as consistent long distance running, playing long sessions of competitive sports 4 times a week, or any other extreme cases of high endurance activities, the negative effects on muscle mass are not significant.

If anything, occasional bouts of cardio work, such as playing sports, is a good idea for overall good health. Not only that, but it can help prevent fat build up in unwanted areas like the belly.

cardio and muscle loss is cardio bad for muscle building

Personal experience has shown me that it’s very possible to do cardio and play your sports and still gain lean muscle mass. But there are some very useful tricks that can be implemented to protect your muscle and allow you to enjoy your high endurance activities at the same time.

What Are Some Useful Tricks to Prevent Muscle Loss Due to Cardio? 

Having said all of that, there are some useful tricks to incorporate that will help prevent muscle loss due to cardio and high endurance activities. Here’s a list of simple measures that I personally take to help me maintain my muscle mass, and these should be followed by any skinny guy / hard gainer (like me) who’s trying to build muscle and maintain it. No one likes to build something just to lose it right away. Let’s get to it:

1. Pre-cardio protein drink

The exact same way you might take a pre-workout shake, take one before your cardio and/or sports sessions. One cup of juice of your choice mixed with a scoop of high quality whey protein isolate works very well. Do NOT drink a protein shake mixed in milk, as milk is slow digesting and you need something fast-digesting pre-cardio. Milk will slow you down and slow down protein absorption in the body.

2. Post-cardio banana (or other fruit)

This one is nice and simple but very effective. Make it a habit to take a banana with you whenever you’re going to be doing cardio sessions and/or playing sports. Have it right after you finish and finish off with water – by the way, this is the exact same concept that energy drinks, like Gatorade, are made of. The banana mixed with water works to hydrate you and provide the necessary electrolytes (through potassium) that the body craves after an intense session of cardio. The combination of pre-cardio protein and post-cardio banana work amazingly to give your hard-earned muscles a much needed break.

3. Don’t schedule cardio work on the same day as workout days

This is important not only to prevent overtraining and muscle loss, but to prevent injury. If you MUST play sports and/or do cardio on the same day as your workout, do it BEFORE heavy lifting. Still, it’s best to avoid doing cardio on the same workout day altogether. Warmup cardio before heavy lifting is fine, as is light sessions after your workouts – remember, we’re only talking about intense sessions.

4. Keep cardio sessions as short as possible

If you can, cut out any unnecessary sessions and try to keep them to a minimum. If you workout 4x a week, then no more than 3 high intensity cardio sessions per week. Again, if you follow the above listed guidelines, you will be just fine.

Final Word on Cardio and Muscle Loss

Again, high endurance activities can be any high intensity sessions that are sustained for a longer period of time. Some examples include long hikes, long distance running, competitive sports, swimming, etc. One of the reasons hard gainers have such a hard time building muscle is because they burn muscle just as fast as they build it. This is a problem that must be fixed in order to ensure a surplus in muscle growth. Growth must be greater than loss. Follow the above listed guidelines and tricks and you will ensure that your heard-earned muscles are protected (plus you will be more energized for your sessions).

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Author: Yous Kas