I know you muscle heads out there are shaking your head. "What?! Everybody knows that cardio saps strength... I mean at best cardio is neutral and you're lucky if doesn't burn up your muscle and strength gains and leave you looking depleted like an '80's aerobics instructor!"
Stay with me my fellow behemoths and junior behemoths who are trying to grow up and one day carry an acceptable amount of muscle.
There's a famous one-liner World's Strongest Man contest winner, Phil Pfister said. He was being interviewed by another World's Strongest Man winner, Bill Kazmier about the riggers of long duration strongman events to which Phil quips, "Everybody needs cardio Kaz."
I too once thought that being the biggest and strongest you can be, required you to not do cardio. To avoid it religiously, along with several other deadly sins. I was wrong and you are too. Here are some of my experiences that changed my thought on this and some reasons why almost everything you hear about cardio is wrong.
I grew up as a faithful powerlifter and football player. Football spring and fall, powerlifting every other available week of the year and even in-season. Squats on Mondays (this is old school – I realize that Monday’s are now officially bench-day worldwide), bench on Wednesdays, deadlifts on Fridays. Never above five reps, well except calves and crunches and that was limited to one set lest vanity take hold. It worked. I got big and strong! Then the unforgiveable happened – I began to become an infidel. I began to read.
Learning the very basics of how to train was one of the biggest blessings of my strength career. It set me on the right path, but it gave me this thirst for knowledge about everything strength and performance related and I began to outgrow the style that I was trained in. I began to hear stories of people doing insane feats of strength that didn’t involve squats, benches and deadlifts.
Wildman Cardio Warmup
People doing all kinds feats with many different implements and even their own bodyweight. Stories of old school supermen who were both insanely strong and in incredible shape. Then I made an even bigger mistake. I watched the original UFC.
So being the semi-sane red-blooded American that I am, I said, “Well shoot, I got to try that!” So I did. I found a local Jiu Jitsu/MMA place, I was very blessed in that they had pro-fighters who had actually fought in Japan and I had a good athletic background. Martial arts as a kid, football up into college, powerlifting with records at the regional, national and world levels and I found out a few things.
I was the strongest guy there and I was real dangerous for about one minute. Then I got real not-dangerous. In fact, after the first couple of minutes with some talented fighters I was downright helpless. I didn’t like that.
Other turning points for me were meeting people who had killer cardio and were still big and strong. (Rugby players, heavyweight MMA fighters, even a bodybuilder). Also watching huge monster strength guys whom I knew had health problems. Watching guys who could squat a grand, but quite literally couldn’t walk across the parking lot without being out of breath. I also watched my father suffer from heart disease and diabetes, both of which are preventable if you’re willing to change.
The reading, fighting and experiences changed my ideas on what strength is. Are strength and muscle incredibly important? Yes, that’s why I’m writing the article. But strength comes in so many forms it is mind boggling. Strength isn’t just what you can squat in the gym or how big your arm is. It is those things, but it’s also, can you pick up and carry something awkward and heavy?
Can you manipulate your bodyweight through space efficiently? Do you have enough endurance to save yourself if zombies try to steal your protein powder? Would you survive more than five minutes with a 145lb Jiu Jitsu specialist? Are you going to live past 45 or be one of those idiots with a sticker that reads, “I’ll die young, but it’ll be in a big coffin,”? Really strength is much more than all this, but back to the cardio.
So I decide that if there are dudes who have massive cardio and massive strength and muscle all at the same time, then I’m going to get it too. In fact I’ve become a specialist in combining massive muscle and world class strength and endurance together. I’ve spent the last few years of my career learning and experimenting how to do it. Here are some of the things I found out.
Developing Wild Man Cardio
Combining Cardio with Strength Training and Muscle Building
1 – Cardio doesn’t mean you’re going to lose muscle or strength.
If it does, you’re doing it wrong. Most people go on enthusiastic kicks with cardio, over do it and end up with a temporary loss of strength.
Think about it like this: Your body has a certain amount of adaptive energy. Push past that – gains stop. If you’re lifting hard and pushing near the edge of that adaptive energy then throw in a heavy cardio routine and you go over the edge.
It’s not that the cardio makes you weak, it’s that your body doesn’t have enough total energy to recover from what you’re asking of it. You have to make allowances when you’re first starting for your body to adapt.
2 – Top end strength and cardio are reciprocal.
Here’s what I mean; this may be hard to imagine unless you’ve been under this kind of iron, but it plays out the same even under proportionately smaller numbers. You’re about to try to squat 900 pounds and you’re only going to do one rep.
The intensity of that can burn up your energy to the point that you fail from fatigue even though it’s only one rep and even though your body is actually strong enough to do it. Eventually you get strong enough that you need higher heart strength and output to be able to keep up with your possible strength.
3 – You’ve got to get through the wall.
Here’s the reciprocal part to number two. When you are very big and strong and this applies to average people too, but when you start doing endurance training it will feel wrong. It will feel like suffering, as though it’s just robbing you of muscle and strength and it’s exhausting you, but push a little and you can get past this.
Here’s the bonus; all of that heavy work has actually built a strong heart. Because that heart is stronger, it and your muscles have the potential for great endurance. You simply have to get past the adaptive period and open up the pathways to express it.
Wildman Forearms and Grip
4 – You don’t have to do that much of both strength and endurance to actually get them.
Most people jump on endurance training like it must be done every day. However nobody jumps on barbell squats and says, “I’d like to do them to failure every day.” What if your heart and your total systemic recovery are just like recovering from heavy leg day?
They need time between to actually make the adaptations to get stronger and more enduring. More is better in terms of intensity of the workout, but it’s not always better in frequency. Your body needs time to actually build more ability. You don’t necessarily achieve more gains by doing it more often. Recovery is king.
5 – Cardio helps recovery.
Everybody ought to be walking. If you’re having trouble just walking around, you really need to do that until your cardio comes around. That is what I call, “background cardio,” that you should do very often.
When I talk about cardio in the context of this article I’m talking about hard, real cardio done with a muscular slant. All of which forces significant blood flow. Both creating circulation and moving toxins out. All good.
A muscle with better blood flow will get bigger and stronger. If you don’t have good blood flow you’re limiting the growth of your muscles. Also when you’re used to intense endurance moves, heavy strength work actually begins to feel easy.
Your system is actually tuned to the point that you recover faster from set to set as well as workout to workout. Ninety percent of the time, even if you leave a workout feeling smoked, you don’t feel trashed all day or the next day.
Where's the Proof?
So where’s the proof and what are the secrets to getting this done? Well I’ve already listed athletes who are proof, but I’ll list myself as proof, because really that’s all the proof anybody has. If I’m not willing to make it work for myself, why would I bother telling you about it?
I’m going to state my stats not to brag, but to make you understand that what I’m talking about is reality and I actually do the training I’m discussing. This isn’t lab-coat theory, this is real world application.
I’m 40 years old, 5’11”, 285lbs and lifetime drug free. I’m not bodybuilder lean, because frankly I refuse to eat nothing but dry skinless chicken. I like food and I’m a strongman – sue me. At my biggest I was nearly 400lbs. I’ve lost over 100lbs and cut nearly 40 beats a minute off my resting heart rate which is now in the 40’s.
Here are some examples of my strength and cardio training and how it compares after I got in shape. I have 20” arms, can one-arm push press a 200lb kettlebell (roughly equal to what I could do with a dumbbell when I was 400lbs), and a 150lb bell for 20 reps, which is five reps better than I could do when I was bigger.
I can one arm row a 320lb dumbbell for five reps and a 255lb dumbbell for 20. Both these are significantly better than I could when I was 400lbs. I’d say that qualifies as strong.
How about cardio? Well take this test: Take a 50-55lb dumbbell or kettlebell and do one-arm snatches for as many reps as you can for 10 minutes. You can change hands anytime you like and put the bell down and “soft lock it,” (meaning you don’t have to slam your elbows, locked at the top and hurt yourself). See how many reps you get. Six guys on the planet have broken 300 reps. I did 305 with a 50lb dumbbell.
Here’s another cardio test – find a weighted vest, preferably 100lbs. If not wrap chain or weight or stray cats around it till it weighs 100lbs. Take a walk. I walked four miles in one hour, non-stop. There are a million tests, pick anyone that suits you.
Bud Jeffries - One Arm Double Clap Pushups
Training Cardio so it Doesn’t Screw Up your Muscle
1 – It never hurts to do some background cardio.
Walking, walking with a weighted vest, bike riding, swimming, just don’t make a big deal out of long slow distance. Other than walking don’t do any of the other ones more than once a week. (Unless you’re specifically training for a distance event).
2 – Keep lifting heavy but keep the volume in check.
I like to hit squats, deadlifts, rows and presses all once a week, all for one to two max sets after a warm up. Break it up anyway you want. I like to leave an extra day for any other heavy work I might want to engage in like strongman training, stone lifting, steel bending, etc. (You still get to lift heavy every day if you want).
3 – Find something you can do safely that taxes the muscles and cardio at the same time.
Do two sessions, one very hard short session, one hard but continuous long session. Most people are going to call the short session, “intervals,” but I don’t believe in regular intervals. I’ll elaborate on that in another article. Think five to 15 minutes as hard as you can go.
If you have to break in that time, do so, but just work as hard, fast and non-stop as possible. For the second session think the same, but at a pace and weight you can maintain, still going hard, for 40 minutes. When you start, both of those are going to be one-minute, then catch your breath and go again.
Start slowly. You’re not going to go the full duration of these things the first time. For most people it’ll be easy to start with two exercises alternating them instead of one exercise the entire time which you will eventually go to. (Think starting with kettlebell swings mixed with sprawls or burpees for the hard day and sled drags with pushups or sit ups for the long day. Eventually however you’ll be able to do anyone of the exercises for the duration of the workout).
As you progress you’ll be able to do extended work with no problem. By the way, you’ve heard of all the heavy lifters now doing “GPP,” guess what – that’s cardio. Don’t over complicate cardio worrying about which energetic system and all that lab-coat terminology – just do something that gets you breathing super-hard and works your muscles at the same time.
That could be kettlebell or dumbbell swings/snatches or jerks, sledgehammer swings, weighted vest work, push ups, bodyweight squats, sprawls or burpees, heavy bag work, plate, dumbbell or barbell complexes, battling ropes, sleds, prowler, circuits and more. The thing all of these have in common is the real secret to maximizing your strength and cardio at the same time.
They all relatively, explosively force the muscles to act at the same time as the heart. You’re teaching your body to use your muscles and heart at the same time. The body does what it’s taught.
In addition to the benefits listed above, the opportunity for you to get strong using this kind of cardio is amazing. It allows you to work all of the muscles and gaps that you might miss as well as areas of strength you never thought of.
When you recover it all flows together for greater max strength, muscle and endurance. Why not have it all? Why not choose to be healthy at the same time?