As my cardio increases to 2.5 hours low intensity steady state cycling a day, I have decided to tackle this topic – and what a controversial one it is! A lot of people reading this may be alarmed at the amount of cardio I will be doing during the last 10 weeks of prep but I think it is important to understand that different people have different goals and respond differently to cardio so should consider the following before judging somebodies methods throughout contest prep:
a) figure out what works for you as an individual
b) work for your personal goals (which class are you competing in? How lean do you need to be? How much muscle can you afford to lose?)
c) consider your calorie intake in conjunction with cardio (keeping calories excessively low and cardio very high for prolonged periods of time could do more harm than good)
d) take note of how you are feeling day to day – (are you physically drained? Is it a real struggle to train or do you feel fairly energetic?)
When the objective is to lose fat whilst retaining that precious muscle, there are two main types of cardio which have proven to be effective. On one hand, you have low intensity steady state cardio – or LISS which is probably more correctly labelled as ‘fuel-burning’ as opposed to cardio as actually, it provides no challenge to the cardiovascular system but rather, you are supposed to keep heart rate at a steady 100-120 bpm for a longer period of time (45-60 minutes). This style of cardio is not very taxing at all – for me it’s a very gentle cycle with no added resistance. This tends to be a more ‘old school’ bodybuilding approach as it tends to spare muscle tissue by targeting fat as the source of fuel. When I think of LISS, I always think of big bodybuilders plodding steadily away on stair mills or treadmills.
On the other hand, you have HIIT which appears to be getting more popular within the fitness industry. This is a more physically demanding form of cardio which, when performed correctly, involves very short periods reaching close to maximum heart rate (or “sprints”) broken up by periods of low intensity work or total rest. You should only be able to ‘sprint’ for 10-15 seconds if pushing to your max and the whole session can be effective after only 15 minutes. This is often rejected by bodybuilders for putting too much stress on the body, requiring too much energy for pre-show contest prep, and breaking down muscle tissue because it is harder to track heart rate. Like anything, there are pros and cons for each method – noticeably that LISS takes up a great deal more time but like I said, has been the favoured style of ‘cardio’ for some time because of its ability to spare muscle tissue and keep the body looking dense and full come show day without increasing cortisol levels and stress levels in the meantime. However, HIIT is sometimes preferred because it challenges the cardiovascular system, increases fitness levels and creates that wonderful ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’ or EPOC. Essentially, this is when the metabolism remains heightened and your body continues to burn calories after the exercise is completed to ensure the muscles are receiving adequate oxygen and nutrients to recover. This is also known as the ‘after burn’ and is a good way to keep the metabolism racing.
However, do I think it is important to understand individual differences, genetics and goals before deciding which one is the most effective? Of course! For example, somebody who is an ectomorph (naturally very lean build who finds it challenging to build muscle) might choose to do HIIT and keep it very short, whereas those endomorphs who find it more difficult to lose fat (me) might find that prolonged work is more effective. You might even choose to do a combination of both.
I am an advocate of LISS personally. I’m not saying this is the right or most effective way for everybody but has proven to work well for me. It’s just not practical for me (and probably many physique competitors) to be doing HIIT into competition – the few weeks leading up to the show are difficult enough without the added pressure of high intensity cardio. So I opt for LISS consistently throughout my prep so it’s easier to monitor gains and/or losses. Plus, having my own gym enables me time and access to be able to get it all done. Although I am looking to come in leaner than previous shows, my cardio may even decrease as the competition gets closer- who knows – it all depends on how I look. Additionally, Eddie would rather increase my cardio and keep my calories up and I do agree, but again, this is just an individual choice based on how my body responds. Nobody knows your body better than you and your coach so stick to what is right for you.
In summary, I don’t think it’s right for any outsider to judge on one’s choice of cardio throughout prep because they have a different body and possibly different goals to you. It is also easy to see a ‘snapshot’ of someone’s prep and judge their whole prep based on that. Cardio should be viewed as a single piece of the puzzle and, come show time, ensure it slots perfectly with the other pieces to produce the perfect picture.