6 Benefits of Adding Cardio in Your Strength Training Routine

You have probably heard the phrase "Cardio kills gains" in the gym and fitness forums. For decades, many fitness enthusiasts believed that performing cardio exercises could slow down their progress by decreasing muscle growth and strength.

The belief that cardiovascular workout interferes with muscle and strength adaptations has become so common in the fitness community that many people avoid it entirely and focus solely on lifting weights. But what if this long-held belief is nothing more than a myth?

Recent scientific research challenges the notion that cardio and strength training are incompatible. In fact, evidence suggests that combining the two may not only be safe but also beneficial for overall health and fitness.

This article will discuss the benefits of cardio exercises in fitness and how they can help enhance strength training.

The idea of the “interference effect,” in which cardio interferes with muscle growth and strength gains, has persisted since the 1980s.

However, recent scientific research challenges this long-held belief. Multiple high-level studies conducted in 2022 found that combining moderate amounts of cardio with resistance training does not hinder muscle growth or strength gains, even in trained individuals.

Studies have shown that even if you perform 2 to 4 45 minutes of cardio sessions per week, alongside resistance training, it has little to no impact on muscle hypertrophy and strength gains.

Athletes specializing in explosive movements are more likely to experience interference when combined with cardio training. However, moderate amounts of cardio are unlikely to negatively impact the progress of most fitness enthusiasts and trained individuals.

Cardio doesn’t kill muscle gains

1. Lowers the risk of premature death

Studies have shown that both forms of exercise, when performed regularly, can independently reduce the risk of early death.

The rise of hybrid workouts, which combine cardio and resistance training, has become increasingly popular due to their effectiveness in improving overall health and fitness. According to research, individuals who engaged in both cardio and resistance training had a remarkable 40% decrease in risk of all-cause mortality compared to those who don’t have any form of exercise at all.

Adding cardio to your routine can improve cardiovascular fitness. Whether you prefer high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or steady-state cardio, engaging in activities that elevate your heart rate can strengthen your heart and lungs, boost your endurance, and enhance your overall health.

This improved cardiovascular fitness can translate to better performance during your strength training sessions, allowing you to push harder and recover faster between sets. This effectively translates to higher exercise volume, which enhances muscle growth over time.

If you want to develop more lean muscles, adding cardio to your routine can provide an extra boost in promoting fat loss. By regularly performing cardio workouts while sticking to your strength training routine, you can create a greater calorie deficit, leading to more effective weight management and improved body composition.

Low-intensity cardio, such as walking or light cycling, can be a form of active recovery between strength training sessions. This type of low-impact exercise promotes blood flow, reduces muscle soreness, and aids in the removal of metabolic waste products, ultimately facilitating faster recovery.

When you engage in regular cardiovascular exercise, you improve your heart health and endurance and promote better overall conditioning, flexibility, and mobility.

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Cardio exercises like running, cycling, or swimming can help keep your joints lubricated, your muscles pliable, and your connective tissues strong. This is particularly important for strength training, where poor flexibility and mobility can lead to improper form and an increased risk of injury.

Without proper flexibility, you may struggle to maintain good form, putting undue stress on your lower back and increasing your risk of a strain or sprain.

A 2019 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found that just 20-40 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per day was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing depression, regardless of age or gender.

When you engage in cardiovascular exercise, your body releases endorphins – natural mood-boosting chemicals that can help reduce stress and promote feelings of well-being. These endorphins interact with receptors in your brain, triggering positive feelings and reducing your pain perception.

Cardio can also serve as a form of moving meditation, allowing you to clear your mind and focus on the present moment. As you run, cycle, or swim, you may find that your worries and anxieties fade into the background, replaced by a sense of clarity and stillness.

1. Consider your training volume

To avoid the interference effect and overfatigue, a moderate volume of cardio exercises 2 to 4 times per week lasting 20-45 minutes per session, together with resistance training 2-4 times per week, is a sweet spot for maximizing cardio benefits.

If you are new to cardio exercises, start with 1-2 cardio sessions per week and then gradually increase exercise frequency and duration as your body adapts.

Whether it is running, cycling, or HIIT routine, focus on proper exercise form, posture, and technique. It is not about adding more volume of exercises into your routine, it is about allowing your body to adapt to the new training and movement patterns.

For more advanced lifters, the interference effect may be more pronounced, particularly if you're engaging in high-intensity or explosive training. In this case, be mindful of your cardio intensity and volume, and consider reducing it during periods of heavy lifting or leading up to competitions.

Determining your own exercise schedule is crucial when combining two exercise types. The timing of your cardio and strength training sessions can also impact your results. For some, performing cardio and strength training in separate sessions may be more beneficial for strength gains compared to doing them in the same session.

If your schedule allows, separate your cardio and strength training sessions, either by doing them on different days or leaving at least 6 hours between sessions. This can help minimize fatigue and allow for optimal performance in each workout.

Alternatively, you can perform cardio and strength training in the same session. Generally, it is recommended to start with cardio exercises before moving on to resistance training to reach your exercise target heart rate and warm up soft tissues and tendons to decrease the risk of injury.

Here’s a plan for women that will focus on strength training and cardio:

And for men:

At the end of the day, you get to choose what type of exercise best suits you. When it comes to selecting the type of cardio to pair with your strength training, both running and cycling have been shown to be effective. However, if you're new to running or have concerns about the impact on your joints, cycling may be a more forgiving option.

Forms of cardio exercises:

If you find cardio exercise less engaging, consider group exercise classes. Most group exercise classes have some form of cardio exercise routine, allowing you to target your cardiovascular health while benefiting from potential social interaction and community building.

If you experience leg pain or discomfort when running, you're not alone, especially if you're new to endurance exercises or come from a primarily strength-training background.

While running initially causes more muscle damage than cycling, your body produces adaptations over time that make you more resilient to this damage through a process called the repeated bout effect. As you continue to run regularly, your muscles become more efficient at using oxygen and storing glycogen, and your tendons and ligaments strengthen. Your bones also become denser and more resilient to the impact forces of each stride.

Start with short runs on flat surfaces or treadmill sessions with zero elevation. Focus on maintaining good form and listening to your body. As your legs adapt and become more comfortable with running, you can gradually increase your distance and intensity.

Adding cardio to your strength training routine has minimal to no negative impact on your gains. You can enjoy the benefits of cardio without worrying about sacrificing your hard-earned muscle and strength.

Incorporating cardio into your strength training routine doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming. By dedicating just a few sessions per week to cardiovascular exercise, you can support your overall health and fitness goals. So, don't be afraid to mix things up and add some cardio to your routine.

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Bert Bauzon is a licensed physiotherapist specializing in spinal care and sports rehabilitation. He writes articles and books about exercise science and health care.
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