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Do I really need cardio to build muscle?

31 March 2023 | By Glynis Horning

Many people think cardio is a waste of time – here’s why you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.


Strength training (resistance training or weightlifting) is key to building muscles and maintaining them. And the health benefits get more important as you age, with much of the decrease in energy and increase in frailty linked to age being from loss of muscle, often through inactivity. Resistance training not only builds muscle, but can reduce the symptoms of many conditions, from arthritis and backpain to obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. 

“There’s much debate and controversy on the subject of doing cardio while building muscle,” says Clicks Wellness Expert and GP Dr Aadil Khan. “However, cardiovascular exercise is one of the key components that should never be left out of any fitness plan, including weight training.”

Regular aerobic exercise (cardio), is just as important, says Dr Khan, because:

It improves cardio-respiratory fitness, increasing your chances of living longer.

It activates your immune system, making you less susceptible to viral illnesses such as colds and flu. 

It improves blood sugar control.

It decreases the chances of erectile dysfunction.

It increases circulation, leading to clearer, healthier skin.”

What’s more, cardio can help your resistance training and muscle-building. “When you work your muscles, it increases oxygen supply, allowing the muscles to work harder,” Dr Khan says. “Over time, regular cardio exercise allows your muscles to adapt to an increased workload making the activity much easier.”

If you are looking to get bigger and stronger, cardio can be of great benefit, he adds. “It not only improves the cardiovascular system and thus improves the quality of your weight training workouts, but it also allows you to eat more calories for muscle-building while still staying lean.”

Cardio cautions

Dr Khan concedes, however, that doing cardio too frequently, too intensely or for too long can prevent you gaining muscle from strength training workouts.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t do any cardio during a muscle building phase. It just means you need to perform cardio that minimally impacts the resources necessary to build muscle. Everyone should be doing some type of cardiovascular activity. By varying the activities and intensities, it will not inhibit size or strength gains, but may actually enhance them.”

Some smart cardio moves for muscle-building

- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Short bursts of intense work followed by brief rests, targeting different muscle groups, increase metabolism, anaerobic capacity and growth hormone production, and burn more fat after exercise than steady state cardio. You could do burpees, jumping jacks or squat jumps. 

- Walking lunges: These blend strength training and cardio, again increasing metabolism and burning fat better than steady-state cardio, while building lower-body strength and knee strength to help protect against injuries during weightlifting and other muscle-building exercise.

- Loaded carries: Carrying a kettlebell, dumbbell or sandbag at your sides, overhead or in front of you builds muscle and strength, and moving while you do it – walking or lunging – includes a cardio component. 

- Sprinting: You can build fast-twitch muscle fibres as you burn fat, and build strong glutes, hamstrings, abs and obliques, by alternatively sprinting 50 meters, then resting or jogging 50 metres, or sprinting uphill then walking slowly down. Slowly increase the number of rounds you do.

If you worry about cardio draining energy needed for weightlifting or other strength training, do 10 to 15 minutes or cardio before training, or do it afterwards to help stretch out muscles. 
Doing both cardio and resistance training is important, and not just for your physical well-being. “Cardiovascular exercise, especially, boosts your mood, especially after a stressful day, it assists sleep, combats depression, reduces the tension associated with anxiety, and promotes relaxation. It helps with the release of endorphins, giving you more lasting energy throughout your day, and improves self-esteem,” says Dr Kahn.

IMAGE: 123rf.com

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