I always thought cardio was the enemy of all muscle gains.
My thinking in my beginning stages of training was that, if I did cardio, it was going to eat away at all my glorious muscle gains. In my mind, I associated cardio with running and only running. Guys who ran were skinny! I was very closed-minded, I know. However, that was my thought process when I was a beginner. Knowing what I know now I would have changed many things I did when I started off.
The most prominent change I would have made is to do more cardio. Here’s why.
Cardio work improves cardiovascular health.
Meaning it strengthens your heart and helps it to pump blood throughout your whole body more efficiently. Cardiovascular exercise can also help lower blood pressure and keep your arteries clear by raising “good” cholesterol ( HDL ) and lowering “bad” cholesterol ( LDL ) levels in your blood. Cardio work may also help regulate your body’s blood sugar.
Studies have even shown Cardiovascular work can help people reduce asthma and lessen both the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. Some of the more common benefits of cardio is, of course, its fat-burning abilities and caloric expenditure.
In 2012 the Obesity Society’s research and education did a study and asked 141 overweight and obese individuals to keep their diets the same but to engage in exercise sessions that would burn 400-600 calories 5 times a week for 10 months ( roughly 30-60 minutes per workout ). The results showed that a significant weight loss of between 4.3 and 5.7 percent of the starting weight of the participants was dropped. Keep in mind these are overweight and obese participants who did not change their diets and are in no way shape or form geared toward exercising. That’s an awesome achievement I would say!
We all start out as beginners one way or another.
For me personally, it was cardio. I suck at it. I played a lot of sports when I was younger but for some reason running now felt like such a chore.
One day, during my strongman competition days, I was huffing and puffing when I was walking up the stairs to my apartment. I was out of breath and I looked like the kids across the way had just beat me up. It was bad. I told myself, no more of this. You’re done being a fat boy. I weight 315 lbs at the time. Sure I could bench a bus and squat a house but who cares if I was having a hard time walking upstairs!
The other thing I remember about being that size is that my quality of life was pretty bad. I had a solid double chin and sweet “power” belly ( to put it nicely ) to match. To the average person, I would have looked pretty out of shape and if I’m being honest with myself, downright fat.
But what did they know? I was an athlete! Or so I told myself.
I was fighting tooth and nail to come up with all kinds of reasons for why cardio was bad for me. I stuck to my guns to the very end. Until one morning, Chelsea, my girlfriend, came up to me and asked if we could talk. Immediately I knew something was up. Who asks if they can talk to you?, especially when they live with you? This was a red flag. I already knew it was something bad. She started by telling me that she’s scared that when I go to sleep that I might die! She told me I gurgled like I was choking to get air or trying to catch my breath. Sometimes, she counted 30 seconds or so before I took a breath while I was sleeping. She could no longer sleep with me due to my snoring and the loud noises I made at night.
I had severe sleep apnea.
The next morning I called Kaiser to see if I could make an appointment for my new condition. I was told that I should attend a free class they have on sleep apnea. I rolled my eyes on my end of the phone line as I asked to please enroll me.
Has it really come to this? I was thinking in my head over and over again. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m a strength athlete! ( my ego knows no end sometimes ). It’s a good thing I have another side to me. A humble side that tells me how the world really is. Truth being, I was fat. I was unhealthy. I was eating fast food a lot and had no idea what my blood pressure was. Really if I was being honest with myself I felt like shit a lot of the time. On top of all that, now my girlfriend won’t sleep with me at night. Something needed to be done.
My first day in the sleep apnea class was also my last. I learned a lot by attending the 3-hour class.
The most important thing I learned was that sleep apnea is caused, most of the time, by being overweight.
A good 70-80% of cases had weight-related issues. As I looked around the class I could confirm that statistic. It was actually worse here. Everybody, including myself, in that class, had a weight-related problem.
When I left later that day I made a promise to myself. My cardio, my food intake, my alcohol consumption, all must change. For me, it took almost dying in my sleep and my girlfriend telling me facts about how my health was declining for me to do something about it. I was in a trance for years under the impression that bigger is stronger and that no matter the cost, I will get big. I now know very well that just simply isn’t true.
So I devised a plan of action for cardio.
Everyone has favorite things to do outside. Swim, ride bikes, hike, kayak, and even run.
Personally, I love the outdoors and most of all I love the water. I went down to the local community pool and checked things out. It turns out they had a Lap card for $40 that I purchased. I even stayed after I got the card to get my first lap day in. I told myself that I was going to stay for 1 hour and swim constantly for the entire time.
Of course, I was setting the bar low, just get in there and move. Everything went great! The water was so relaxing. The sun was shining overhead. The pool was playing some BeeGee’s on the loudspeakers and I just enjoyed it all. One hour passed by quickly and before I knew it the hour was up. I used breaststroke a lot and I did a few laps of freestyle. I also did a few laps on the kickboard to get my abs burning. All in all, I just wanted to try and enjoy myself while I was doing an hour of cardio.
The truth is, if you hate every second of what you’re doing, you’re just going to get burned out and really hate the process.
That is just not the way to inspire yourself to stick to your exercise routine. It doesn’t make sense to be dreading your workouts day in and day out.
The secret to enjoyment is to set the bar low.
We are all so caught up in what we should be doing and what social media influencers do that we forget what we actually can do. We set the bar so high most of the time that the goal is unachievable. Set small goals. Instead of setting a goal for cardio like 5 miles a day, or 50 laps in the pool. Set a goal so that it is achievable that day. Maybe, for example, set a goal of a 1 mile run without stopping, or swimming slow and steady for one hour.
This method builds your confidence. Each time you do cardio you will be conquering a goal that you set out to do that day. Each time you complete it you’ll have done something you set out to do. This paves the way for success in the rest of your fitness journey. The same is true for strength. Set the bar low. Set small achievable goals so that each time you are getting at least 1% better, just 1%. Setting the bar low is key to sustainable success. This is true In cardio and in life.
HOW DO I PICK MY CARDIO
There are so many awesome ways to enjoy cardio. Life itself is a big game of cardio. Better cardio efficiency means more energy which means you can get more enjoyment out of life.
Have you ever struggled in sports? I know I have. Have you been too slow or too big? Have you tapped out on the mat due to “gassing out” ? Me too.
So how do you get better at it?
Again, the key is enjoyment.
Do you like to run? Do you like to swim? Maybe you like hiking or mountain bike riding. All of these are great forms of cardio. There really is no wrong answer!
For me personally, the gym cardio equipment ( treadmill, elliptical, stair master ) is deathly boring. I have bad ADD, so I can’t sit in that same spot doing cardio for any long period of time. If you can, the more power to you. There is nothing wrong with the gym cardio equipment.
However, if you’re like me and want to find more engagement, enjoyment, and better workouts than being on a giant hamster wheel getting your cardio outdoors is the way to go.
I love nature, the trees, the noise the trees make when a breeze flows over them; I love the beautiful ocean or lakes when the water glistens with the ripples of the waves and I enjoy a sunrise in the mountains when the sun cracks the sky. The colors are exquisite. The peace of being in nature and the serenity of being outdoors is like nothing else. When I can enjoy all the wonderful things the world has to offer and do cardio, it’s a win- win for me.
One of the other wonderful things about being outdoors doing your cardio is the aspect of mental health.
I don’t know about you, but life can get very stressful. There are commitments, meetings, kids, work, or school. The list goes on. When you can put all that aside for a moment and disconnect fully from the stress, your well-being, your mood, your views on life, and even the way you treat people will get exponentially better. You bring back a piece of the peace with you. Nature follows you for a few hours afterward. Maybe it even follows you in the days after your outdoor workout. It’s a very euphoric feeling. It reminds us that life is not all about the rat race and that work, life, and even cardio does not need to be hard all of the time.
There is a way to get everything you desire and have fun doing it. That’s what life is about! Enjoy every second you get to be out there. I’m going to leave you with a quote one of my mentors told me long ago. It had stuck with me ever since.
“There is someone, somewhere who would give anything to be in your shoes. Right now”. – anonymous.
There is so much deep wisdom in that quote. It hit me like a brick the day I heard it. I was no longer upset that I had to do cardio. I was no longer mad that I had to wake up early to go to work. From that point on I was so thankful. I was thankful that I had the ability to walk through those gym doors; that I could walk outside at any time and enjoy a run through the trees. I was thankful that I had the ability to see how ungrateful I had been in the past when I had so much to be thankful for which I had taken for granted.
Life is all about perspective. Enjoy it. Love it. Live life to its fullest. Squeeze the juice out of life, every little bit. We are only on this planet once.
HOW LONG SHOULD CARDIO SESSIONS BE
More important than how long your cardio sessions are, is how consistent you are with your cardio. If you are doing long cardio sessions once a week don’t expect to get big changes quickly. The magic happens when you are consistent with the training system you are using.
I can remember that after my sleep apnea days it was a big priority of mine to lose some weight. The most important thing for me was to lose weight and keep all my hard-earned muscle. I kept wrestling with myself back and forth on what was more important to me, losing pounds or keeping muscle.
In the end, with my health conditions in mind, I decided it was more important to lose weight. At that time I was under the impression that doing cardio made you lose muscle, it doesn’t!
I started with one hike a week. I thought that this was a good goal. It was moderate and doable. In Poway, where I live, there are hills everywhere. Me being me, with my awesome ADD, I could not get myself to use the gym cardio equipment. I told myself if I do one decent hike a week I would lose some weight.
I started on Mt. Woodson which is a 4-mile round trip. I made it but I got my ass kicked. It was a tough hike for me at the time. I went back home to weigh myself and I realized I ended up losing 2 pounds! I was pumped so I kept on it, one hike a week for a month. At the end of the month, I had only dropped 3 pounds and I still looked pretty fat!
What was wrong? The answer is, that I was not consistent. I was only doing 2 hours of cardio ( that’s how long the hike took ) every 7 days. It just wasn’t enough.
Modifications had to be made on my daily programming. I implemented a cardio schedule of every other day. It turns out that this was the perfect balance of strength and conditioning that I needed to start ripping up my body.
The strength training kept me strong and maintained my muscle, while the cardio I was doing was shedding my unwanted fat and strengthening the heck out of my cardiovascular system.
It was literally the perfect combination. Both my strength training and cardio were consistent enough to make great headway in attaining my goals. My cardio turned into 1 hike a week and 2 days swimming at the Poway community pool for one hour. The results couldn’t have come faster.
Swimming ( 2 times a week ), hiking ( 1 time a week ), and strength training ( 3 times a week ) combined with the proper fuel and nutrition was a recipe for killer gains in both categories. I have used that same template for years now.
Balance is the key. Too much weight lifting and no cardio, you’ll get fat and have poor endurance and conditioning. If you do too much cardio, you’ll be skinny, weak, and fragile.
The template of X9 is designed to have you do cardio every other day, for a perfect balance in physique and function. You have strength days and you have cardio days. It is set up like this due to the body’s ability to produce what’s called, adaptive energy.
The catch is, you only have so much adaptive energy each day. Meaning if you go full RMPs, crush the strength training then go right into a full cardio workout, it will be too much. Your body cannot excel at both in the same day. It’s just not how the body works. Understanding this is critical in the success of using X9. Every day you will be geared toward something different than you did the day before. You will always be alternating between cardio and lifting days. At the end of the week, you would have completed 3 days of cardio, 3 days of strength training, and Sunday will be your rest day. This workout schedule is part of the magic of this program, so make sure you stick to those days.
Back to the main question, how long should cardio be?
As a beginner doing cardio for 30 minutes to 1 hour is sufficient. Start off with something easy like I did. Set the bar low and achieve your goals. Be sure you are making your cardio a little harder each time. Make it just 1% harder. Instead of doing 30 minutes walking, do 35. Instead of a 5-mile bike ride, make it 6. Your cardio will always be improving, day by day, little by little. Before you know it, you’ll be out on the trails crushing the miles! It all starts with the first step.
Swimming is one of my all-time favorite ways to do cardio for a few reasons. The first, and most important reason is because I’m a big guy and I get hot, really hot. Running and hiking out here in Southern California during the summer months can be brutal! Temperatures reach over 100 on some summer days.
So what does a water-loving sumo strongman do? Hit the pool! It’s one of the most refreshing ways to tackle cardio on a hot day.
Here are some of the immediate benefits of swimming.
1. It Works Your Whole Body.
Swimming works every muscle in your entire body from head to toe. It increases your heart rate without stressing your body. It tones muscle, builds strength, and builds great muscle endurance. There are various strokes you can use to add variety and muscle activation to your swim sessions. The breaststroke, backstroke, sidestroke, butterfly and freestyle. Each stroke focuses on different muscle groups and the water provides the resistance. No matter what stroke you swim, you’re using most muscle complexes in your body.
2. It works your insides while your muscles are getting an epic workout.
Your cardiovascular system is also getting a great workout. Swimming will make your heart and lungs strong. Research from healthline.com shows active swimmers have almost half the risk of death and cardiac disease compared to studies done on sedentary people. Other studies have shown that swimming lowers blood pressure and helps to control blood sugar.
3. It is great for injuries.
Swimming, aside from its cardiovascular benefits, is also great for people with existing injuries, disabilities, and arthritis. It is also beneficial for any other issues that might make high impact exercises difficult. Swimming may even help reduce some of your pain and improve your recovery from injury due to increased blood circulation.
4. It torches calories.
My favorite part! A study done by the Mayo Clinic in 2021, shows that on average a 160-pound person can burn approximately 423 calories swimming and up to 715 calories when swimming vigorously. An average 200-pound person can burn anywhere from 528-892 calories depending on the intensity per hour of swimming. A 240-pound person can burn anywhere from 632-1,068 calories an hour swimming based on intensity.
Now, let’s look and compare these numbers with other popular low-impact cardio. That same 160-pound person would only burn around 314 calories walking for an hour. An hour of yoga would burn 183 calories an hour. The elliptical trainer might burn just 365 calories in that hour. All in all, I found swimming to be superior in every way. My fat got torched and my cardiovascular system became strong. I was able to work around existing impact injuries from strongman and stay cool the whole time while doing it. I absolutely enjoy myself in the water each time. That’s why I implore you to give it a shot!
As I said earlier, one of my biggest hurdles in doing cardio is enjoyment. I come from a strength training and bodybuilding background with minimal cardio. It’s definitely not one of my strong points.
However, when I get some enjoyment out of doing cardio it makes it that much more sustainable. The chances of my burning out or missing cardio altogether drops quite a bit.
Do you really want to hate life every time you have to do cardio?
Cardio will always be an important piece of your workout schedule. You might as well enjoy it as much as you can!
One of the biggest problems and the hardest to overcome in swimming is that fact that you need a pool. There are options! Most communities have a community pool or a YMCA to join. Even now, these days, most big corporate gyms have a pool to use. Personally, I love being outdoors so I joined my local community pool in Poway. I love it there because they have plenty of space for lanes as well as other activities.
My advice to you is that if you can’t find a place to swim, go out and have a look at your local pool and community center to see if that might be a suitable option for you. Who knows, you just might find your new favorite cardio!
Here is a sample of a cardio workout to do in the pool – 60 minutes:
- Breaststroke, 5 – 10 minutes
- Kick board, legs only, 2 laps
- Freestyle, 4 laps
- Butterfly, 1 lap sprint
- Breaststroke, 5-10 minutes
- Kick board, legs only, 2 laps
- Freestyle, 4 laps
- Butterfly, 1 lap sprint
- Kick board, legs only, 2 laps
- Breaststroke, 5-10 minutes
- Freestyle, 10 minute burnout
This workout takes me around an hour to complete. Of course, I rest between strokes and sometimes I rest between laps when I’m getting my ass kicked. You’ll notice some strokes are hard like the butterfly. Those strokes are usually followed by a breaststroke or kickboard cycle to allow for recovery. Feel free to modify this workout as you see fit!