Can Certain Types of “Cardio” Actually Build Muscle?


Many people live in constant fear that too much cardio will cause them to lose muscular size and strength. Therefore they just decide to spend their lives fat, out of shape and unhealthy. They’d rather have one foot in the grave at all times than walk around any smaller or weaker.

Growing up a skinny maggot I certainly understand this fear as it dominated many years of my life.

These fears are not unfounded as too much cardio will, indeed, eat away muscle tissue and cause strength losses.

But that’s traditional, steady state, outdated lame-o cardio done on a machine.

If you do enough of that at moderate intensity you will definitely lose muscle and end up smaller and weaker.

And you’ll have lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol to boot. Sounds like fun, right?

There are a few types of cardio, however that will actually do the opposite. Instead of cardio that just burns fat or just improves your cardiovascular system or, worse yet, does neither of those but just causes muscle loss, there is actually such a thing as muscle building cardio.

But technically it’s not called cardio. I hate that word. We call it conditioning.

Unfortunately most  people waste all their time on the stair climber or eliptical machine when they could actually be doing something that will burn fat and build (or at least preserve) muscle at the same time.

My favorite types of  conditioning that will actually build muscle simultaneously are sprints. You can choose from hill sprints, sled or prowler sprints… the bottom line is to sprint one way or another. If you have knee issues kettlebell swings and snatches would be a great option for you. Another often forgotten conditioning method is  rope jumping. This will not have as much of an overall anabolic or muscle sparing effect as sprints but it can lead to calf size increases. It’s also awesome for improving foot speed, not to mention the fact that being really good at it is just pretty damn cool.

Sprints will build up the hamstrings and glutes tremendously. Sprints are also one of the best forms of abdominal training you could do. You ever see the glutes and abs on a sprinter? You want yours to look like that? Then get sprinting.

Kettlebell swings and snatches will build up your lower back (to give it that nice divot look), glutes and shoulders.

And jumping rope will lead to increases in your calf size, like I mentioned.

“Sweetness” getting in shape the old fashion way.

So instead of losing muscle while doing cardio, you actually might gain it using these methods. Leaner and bigger at the same time. What more can you ask for?

The sprint workouts should be be performed in the following manner:

– Warm up thoroughly for ten minutes with a variety of low intensity plyos, dynamic flexibility and mobility drills and calisthenics. This could include jumping jacks, flings, prisoner squats, pogo jumps, high knees, butt kicks, pendulum leg swings, gate swings, wide outs and various skipping drills.

– Sprint for anywhere between ten and sixty seconds straight, as hard and as fast as you can. Working up to sixty seconds will take a very long time if you’re new to sprinting so ease into very slowly. A beginner should start with no more than 6-8 sprints on his first day of about 20-30 yards. Gradually increase over time from there.

– Rest for 1-3 minutes or as long as needed to catch your breath, bring your heart rate down a bit, and prevent yourself from throwing up. Over time work to decrease your rest periods. Remember, the goal here is not pure speed development, for that would require longer rest periods. The goal here is to get ripped and build a little bit of muscle in the process.

– Repeat for 10-30 minutes 2-3 days per week.

This type of training will produce the  incredible types of ripped, athletic physiques you see on NFL wide receivers and defensive backs.

If you are not accustomed to sprinting regularly you are at risk for a hamstring, hip flexor or knee injury. Hill sprints slow you down, especially if the hill is fairly steep and for that reason are much safer. Sprinting with a sled attached to your waist does the same thing and is very effective and very safe. Pushing the Prowler is an incredibly demanding but result producing workout. If you don’t have a sled or prowler I highly recommend getting one immediately (click HERE to do so). Or at least finding a big hill.

Kettlebell workouts are pretty simple. Just get yourself a high quality ketllebell (you can order one HERE) and work the hell out of it for five to ten minutes straight. You can do swings or snatches in any set and rep scheme you want.

My personal favorite challenge to do with a partner is the Secret Service Snatch test where you set a timer for ten  minutes and try to get as many as you can with the 53 pounder. If that’s too heavy for you start with a 26, 35 or 44 and work your way up from there slowly. These workouts can be done right after your strength training workout or on an off day.

If you are worried about any negative impact on your strength training from the kettlebell work it might be a better option for you to use them as a finisher. If fat loss is your main goal you can do them any time; post workout or an off day.

When it comes to jumping rope the possibilities are endless. I like to mix up jumping styles as much as possible and go for one to three minutes straight followed by a break of 30-60 seconds. Three minutes on to one minute off tends to be the option we use most. Again, these can be done on off days or right after your strength training workout. Jumping rope will develop foot speed, calf size and help prevent ankle injuries.

So now you know that there’s nothing to fear. Ditch the regular cardio and start incorporating these high intensity conditioning methods today. You’ll keep all your strength and size and may even build some more in the process. You’ll also improve your health and athleticism.

The only thing you have to lose is bodyfat. So get off the Nordic Track and give these workouts a try today. You won’t be disappointed.

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22 Responses to Can Certain Types of “Cardio” Actually Build Muscle?

  1. James O' Brien July 27, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    Hi Jason,
    My problem is I love bodybuilding but outside of that I am involved in two other sports Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Rugby.
    I lift weights about 5days a week, BJJ min 3nights a week sometimes 4 and starting tonight I am back pre-season for rugby.
    I lift my weights as 2.30pm for about 90mins 2 body parts i.e. Chest/biceps Day 1
    BJJ I train at around 7.30pm and mins 90mins sometimes even 3hrs…we usually do 10x10min rounds with 1min rest between rounds and nights when only 2 or 3 training we do a 99min round rotate in and out when someone is submited or sometimes past or sweep.
    rugby trainiing is usualy again 2hrs fitness now for 6weeks then full contact on wards. rugby is 2 nights a week with matches on the weekend.
    Even with all the cardio i am doing I am still not buring fat around my waist upper body wise i would say I am in good shape vains out throught arms even relaxed and when training vains out through the traps, shoulders even legs.
    I know fat around the belly is the last place to go. I have been suffering form ostietis pubis for the last year so for the last 4mths after rugby season ended i did no impact cardio except from bjj which i only do on the ground no standing and i have had no problems thank god!
    so my main point is yes i am finding it hard to put on muscle, i weight 99.8kg at 5ft 9 1/2in strenght wise I am pretty strong even for my size…i train with 2 power lifters and i match them or more on everythign excpet one thing flat bench but they are world champs one has benched 212.5kg at 21yrs of age teh other 235kg at 22yrs of age my PB is 180kg myself but as i said i am not a power lifter.
    so bascailly i do think i am over training and i am looking for adivice oh ya…i am 34yrs old and be 35 in a few months. i train with all young guys which i love as it pushes me and i love out working them cardio/fitness has never ever been a question with me.
    thanks this is a great site and i just order your book from amazon

    • Carlos June 18, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

      @ James, you are definitely overtraining. You should be cutting your weight training way back. If you are inseason in any sport, you should only be doing enough weight training to maintain strength and size and not trying to increase. You can do your most intense and frequent weight training in the offseason. I would recommend you do 2 times a week tops for now. Also, I would do total body workouts and not bodypart workouts. Train like an athlete, not a bodybuilder. I don’t even think those type of workouts are the most effective for building muscle anyways, but that’s my opinion.

      • Judd June 3, 2013 at 9:50 am #

        Sorry Carlos, your statement is false. There is no such thing as overtraining a muscle. Most people get overtraining mixed up as a muscle issue, when it is in fact a central nervous system issue. I’ll send you a link to a video of a person who explains it very well, but in short, the more you train a muscle the more rapidly it recovers and grows back. Our bodies are trained to adapt to literally anything. Now not to sound conceited, but for those of us who do know what we are talking about, know that overtraining is a central nervous system issue. Meanining, if you put too much overall strain on your body, or in other words “shocking” your body, it will damage your central nervous system and thus slow down recovery and cause illness. Ever gone on a 5 hour bike ride, or done a full body workout for multiple hours on end, and felt like complete crap the next day? Or you suddenly start getting sick for no apparent reason just out of the blue? That’s because your central nervous system has been worn down and is exhausted and can’t heal itself. Now, as far as muscle building goes, again, it is practically impossible to overtrain one. Have you ever worked out the same muscle 3 times per week, and you notice that it isn’t getting sore anymore? That’s because it’s adapting to the strain and recovering more quick. That’s when muscle confusion comes into play where you mix in isolation with compound and change up your workouts. You could work arms every single day for a whole year, and you would get jacked ass arms. You may be disproportionate, but god dammit you’ll have big arms.

        • Carlos June 3, 2013 at 11:32 am #

          First of all, I actually didn’t say anything about overtraining the muscle. I do know about the nervous system. I was trying to tell James that if he wants to build muscle, he will have to back off on the rugby or jujitsu or both. If he is . inseason, then he needs to back off on the weight training.

          I also don’t complete agree with the notion that you can’t overtrain a muscle when I have experience the extreme muscle soreness from doing too many sets and reps in a workout or injuring a muscle from weight lifting. I have done workouts where I couldn’t extend my arm. That was not a nervous system issue, but a muscle issue.

          I think if you work a muscle so hard you injure it, you have overtrained the muscle. Has nothing to do with nervous system.

  2. Donna June 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE! Thank you for writing it. Not only does it describe exactly how I enjoy doing “conditioning” but it gives me more support for my family and friends who insist that long slow cardio is needed to lose fat.

  3. Liam Mullis June 17, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    Hahaha can’t believe you used a pic of Ade Akinbiyi!!! He’s an English football (soccer) player & I remember when he did that pose, he was playing for Leicester City at the time & he couldn’t score to save his life for a while & then finally scored against Sunderland & ripped his shirt off & everyone was talking about how ripped he is, he cost Leicester 5.5 million GBP which in 2001/2002 was a hell of alot of money & he wasn’t doing the business so when he scored it must have been a big relief hence the shirt coming off, great body but pretty useless player for pretty much all of his career lol.

  4. Liam Mullis June 17, 2011 at 10:00 pm #

    & as for sprinting I’ve been sprinting for a couple of months in fact I just got done with sprints about an hour ago (I did them at 4am cause I’m just cool like that) & haven’t done a single squat in that time & my hamstrings & calves are bigger than they’ve ever been, & I’m getting pretty good at them as well & even find myself getting a second wind now when I’m really going for it, like I’ll fly off the mark & go real quick for 30/40 yards then I’ll start slowing down but as I get to the last 20 yards I seem to speed up again & really hammer them last yards & it gives me such a buzz & I feel awesome after each one, I was a competitive sprinter as a teenager & was always in my schools relay teams etc but since I left school I’ve been pretty much as described & a bit scared of cardio for fear of losing size, but I can 100% say that I’m bigger, leaner, stronger & faster than I’ve ever been thanks to sprint & others have mentioned the increase in leg size & me having more visible abs which is awesome! =)

  5. Brian June 18, 2011 at 5:20 am #

    And what’s the difference between this and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)? Sounds about the same.

  6. Liam September 27, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Some well cool ideas indeed! I hardly do any cardio sorry i mean conditioning,as im very lean and naturally have very little body fat. Though now iv’e heard that hill sprinting and jumping rope can help build muscle i may give it a go. Do you think it could effect my muscle gains? I do
    cycling 5days a week getting to work but is only 10 mins away. Also would jumping rope with a weighted vest be good as well? I really lack size in my calves and really want to bring them up.

  7. Aaron November 16, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Jason – What about circuit training with bodyweight exercises and weights? Exercises performed consecutive with no rest between sets and minimal rest between circuits. Do you recommend this for “conditioning” or believe it’s effective?

  8. dadofduck February 6, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    Ha ha love the picture of Ade Akinbiyi at the top. His physique was the only thing he ever had going for him, terrible footballer!

  9. Grsxboy April 22, 2012 at 5:02 am #

    Another brilliant article, I cannot thank you enough for this article. I knew treadmill work was a waste, but I didn’t have the proof, now I do. I have already began hill sprints on a 20foot hill near my home and it is a killer workout. I take my dog with me and she does the hill sprints as well, she has boundless energy but after 10 min of hills, she is spent. I will be sending this article to everyone I know who thinks doing an hour of Zumba is the only way to go.

  10. Dan August 22, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Another excellent article Jason. Love reading this site. Hill sprints and sled drags/pushes/overhead carries are my go-to ”cardio” workouts. Heads up to anyone looking to make a cheap push/pull sled. Made this to push along the drive 1-3 times per week: http://i34.servimg.com/u/f34/17/74/51/48/imag0510.jpg. Also, great pic of Akinbiyi.

  11. jags October 25, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    is it harmful to my muscle recovery if i do hill sprints today after i did strength ans size legs training in gym yesterday and have doms today?

  12. Alex Zinchenko February 23, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    Great article, Jay, as always. I was wondering about harder jump roping, some tricks with it like double-unders, one-leg jump roping etc. Is it useful in terms of conditioning? Or is it just boasting and showing off? Of course, in both cases it’s awesome. But anyway.

    Thanks,
    - Alex

  13. John June 2, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for input Jason.
    Would heavy bag work inbetween sets of weights cover it as well?
    I have limited time so must do an all inclusive workout.
    Depending on priorities, I train 2-3 days weekly for about an hour each.
    I do full body exetcises 8-10 reps for weighted, 20-50 for bodyweight circuit style.
    Immediately after a set I punch and or kick the bag for 2 minutes then .go back to the weights.
    Non stop.
    After completing 2 sets of 1 exercise per body part I start with the bodyweight stuff
    inbetween rounds of the bag work.
    Off/rest days I strecth for recovery 20 minutes.
    What do you think?

  14. Russell E. Willis August 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    In order to build lean muscle you need to work out three to four times per week. You should do workouts that use all the muscles in your body, as this will help you to lose weight quickly and strengthen your muscles at the same time. Working out every day can cause your body to become injured and would be counterproductive.

  15. Chris August 17, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    Great article. anyone know who that soccer player is in the first photo??

  16. Shawn August 29, 2013 at 6:37 am #

    What about sprint running on a treadmill. I throw in hill sprints into my routine once a week but I also like to run fast on a treadmill. I understand that running outside is a lot more challenging and more exciting but I try to go after speed on a treadmill. My question is does running fast on a treadmill have any of the same effects as hill sprinting? Should I just be running at a normal pace? Is there any benefit to running fast for a 5-10km run?

  17. Shawn August 29, 2013 at 6:37 am #

    What about sprint running on a treadmill. I throw in hill sprints into my routine once a week but I also like to run fast on a treadmill. I understand that running outside is a lot more challenging and more exciting but I try to go after speed on a treadmill. My question is does running fast on a treadmill have any of the same effects as hill sprinting? Should I just be running at a normal pace? Is there any benefit to running fast for a 5-10km run?

    BTW Go Cowboys! NFL soon ;)

  18. FaithNoMore August 29, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    what if you have really bad knees and triceps tendonitis?

    i’ve lost some decent amount of fat but these are 2 things holding me back from getting really lean.

    i can only really use an eliptical trainer for HIT and then power walking on a treadmill, also can do some sprint cycling but that interferes with my leg training because if i do it often my legs get overused.

    i did try sprinting on thick grass but i’m not sure if thats any safer on my knee joints???
    and also messes me up because my leg training is split up on different days for quads and hamstrings. my quads and hams start to feel overused and some nasty pains.

    any suggestions?

    thanks

  19. T Ratcliffe October 31, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Great Pic of Ade Akinbiyi playing soccer for Leicester City FC in England. He was a physical specimen, so much so that he had to reduce how much he lifted to prevent him getting too big to be an effective footballer!

    His genetics were obviously something special, but i think this explanation is a bit of a cop out. The Stop/Start nature of his role as a striker and the need for bursts of energy must have had something to do with it. Its things like this that really make me question the conventional bodybuilding approach!