The skinny on cardio and muscle gains in men

Originally Published: July 15, 2005
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Hi Alice,

My husband and I both go to the gym together. He goes to build muscle, I go to trim my weight and tone up. We normally only lift weights, as he does not like to do cardio because he thinks it will make him lose weight, and he needs to gain rather than lose (he is very skinny). Is it true that if he does 20 - 30 minutes of cardio per day, along with 45 minutes - 1 hour of weight training 4-days-a-week, he will lose weight? THANKS!

Dear Reader,

Your husband is correct in thinking that too much cardio can put a damper on his goals to gain muscle mass. However, if done in moderation, your husband can reap the cardiovascular benefits without losing muscle. According to exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein, Ph.D., weight training combined with three 30-minute cardio sessions per week will give cardiovascular benefits without muscle loss.

Cardiovascular
In order to sustain muscle gains, Dr. Rubenstein suggests using the rowing machine or doing interval training for the aerobic portion of your exercise regimen. An example of interval training is using the stationary bicycle for 30 minutes, with one-minute high intensity "sprints" every 5 minutes. These exercises integrate resistance with cardiovascular endurance, ultimately protecting lean muscle mass. Running is not recommended as a cardiovascular exercise because it can decrease muscle size due to the large energy demands. In addition, it is not suggested that cardio be done on the same day as weight training. Studies demonstrate that more muscle growth happens on weight training-only days in comparison to cardio and weight training on the same day. If cardio and strength training have to be done on the same day, lift first, when physical strength, mental focus, and energy supply are at their peak.

Weight training
To maximize muscle growth, a 3-day lifting cycle is favored, with 2 - 3 sets of 10 - 15 repetitions with a heavy weight. Splitting workouts to cover certain body parts on different days may also aid muscle growth. An example of this would be: chest, shoulders, and triceps on one day; lower body for another day; and, back, trapezius (upper shoulders/upper back area), and biceps on yet another day. Resting is crucial to muscle repair and growth so there need not be more than three consecutive days of overall exercise (strength training or cardio) followed by a rest day.

An ideal exercise schedule would look like the following:

Day 1: chest, shoulders, and triceps weight training

Day 2: back, trapezius, and biceps weight training

Day 3: 30 minutes of rowing

Day 4: REST

Day 5: 30-minute bicycle interval with sprints

Day 6: lower body weight training

Day 7: REST

Nutrition
If the goal is overall muscle gain, eating a high calorie diet builds and maintains muscle mass. At a minimum, your husband needs to eat three moderate to large-size meals of approximately 500 - 700 calories each a day, with three snacks throughout the day consisting of 200 - 400 calories each. Meals and snacks need to contain protein, carbohydrate, and fat and be spaced 3 - 4 hours apart. Choose protein from animal sources at meals often, especially for the meal after any workout. A snack needs to be consumed approximately 1 - 2 hours before a workout. Calories are not to be curtailed on rest days.

Here's a sample eating plan for both workout and non-workout days:

Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 1 slice of cheese, 2 slices of whole grain toast, 1 cup of juice

Morning Snack: ¾ cup of trail mix (mixture of nuts/seeds and dried fruit)

Lunch: 3 ounces of roast beef, 1 tablespoon of mayo on a roll with lettuce and tomato, 1 cup of fruit yogurt

Afternoon Snack: 1 protein bar (approximately 200 - 300 calories total)

Dinner: 6 ounces of chicken (i.e., 2 breasts), 1 cup of rice, 2 cups of tossed salad with 2 tablespoons of salad dressing

Evening Snack: 1 cup of 4 percent cottage cheese, 1 slice of toast, 1 banana

Overall, some cardiovascular exercise is good for the heart, but too much will inhibit your husband's efforts to gain muscle mass.

Alice