A lot of bodybuilders still rely on going through bulking and cutting cycles in order to get the incredible muscle physiques that they display on stage.
This makes sense because it is the quickest and most efficient way to add muscle. Adding muscle means being in a calorie surplus. The more calories you consume, the more anabolic your body will be – the more testosterone will be washing around your body and the less likely you will be to burn muscle for fuel. But of course, eating extra calories makes it even harder not to gain any fat – and especially when you’re getting them from sugar ‘weight gainer’ products and the like.
Fortunately, this isn’t a problem for bodybuilders. They simply follow this period up with a period of dieting hard, which causes their body to burn the fat away from the muscle. A tiny bit of muscle is lost but mainly, it’s fat that will disappear. Hence the ‘bulk and cut’.
But you’re not a bodybuilder (probably). You probably don’t want to spend half the year looking overweight. So how can you use cardio to stay lean and add muscle at the same time?
The Problem With Cardio
The reason that most bodybuilders will stay away from intensive cardio when they’re bulking is that it puts the body once again in a catabolic state. When you run using steady state cardio, your body will supply energy by turning to your blood sugar and your fat stores.
Unfortunately, this means your blood sugar drops. And when your blood sugar drops, your body responds by releasing ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Ghrelin release is always followed by cortisol (the stress hormone) and cortisol is followed by myostatin – a molecule that signals the breakdown of muscle. The more myostatin, the more muscle you lose.
Add to the fact that your body will get 15% of its energy from protein and you have a scenario that is not good for building muscle.
There are a few solutions.
One such option is to walk. Walking will allow you to burn energy at a much slower rate and avoid completely depleting your energy stores. This means you never get to the point where you have very low blood sugar and you never start cannibalizing that hard-won muscle.
Another option is to use HIIT. This is High Intensity Interval Training, which means alternating between spurts of sprinting and periods of jogging. The good thing about this is that the sprinting portion doesn’t burn blood sugar or muscle and instead relies on energy stored as glycogen. You’ll spend less time in a catabolic state and lose less muscle as a result – and so many bodybuilders will use HIIT ‘finishers’ following a workout.
Finally, you can also use nutrition to protect yourself and reduce your chances of losing muscle. The best way to do this is by consuming BCAAs – branch chained amino acids. These have been shown to have a very positive effect in reducing muscle breakdown during exercise.