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Cardio for Contest-Condition Cuts Simplified

7209-train1Can I get ripped without doing cardio? How much cardio should I do? How intense should it be? Which machine is best? Should I do it on an empty stomach? I get those questions all the time. My answers aren’t based on research studies but personal experience and also on anecdotal evidence gleaned from many competitors in the physique sports I have known.

Studies are great, but the problem is that many people become “paralyzed” by too much information. Studies often contradict each other, and some people are afraid to embark on any type of training or diet until they are certain that it’s the absolute best one. So instead of following a routine that may be 5 to 10 percent less effective than some other program, they do nothing and get no results of any kind.

Can you get into contest condition without doing cardio? Probably not. There have been a only few individuals who were able to do that, most notably Dexter Jackson. Eventually, even Dexter’s inhumanly fast metabolism slowed somewhat with age, and he had to start hitting cardio like the rest of us. Dieting and weight training alone can get you very lean, but “very lean” is considered “four to five weeks out” in these days of clear glute and hamstring striations.

How much cardio should you do? Do as much as you need to achieve your goals. Wow, what a vague answer! That was intentional because there is no magic formula for you to follow. There are general guidelines. The more fat you have to lose and the slower your metabolism, the more frequent and longer your cardio sessions will have to be. Someone who starts off leaner and has a faster metabolism may only have to do a fraction of the cardio that others do.

What usually works is to start from a simple baseline of 30 minutes, three times a week. After about two weeks, you can add a fourth day, then a fifth day later on and so on. Many people will continue to see fat loss at four or five cardio sessions of 30 to 40 minutes each. As long as you are still getting leaner, don’t add more. There are some people who will need to do as much as 45 to 60 minutes of cardio twice a day to reach their fat-loss goals. In most cases they have allowed themselves to gain too much bodyfat, often in a misguided quest for more muscle mass.

What about the intensity? The main debate in recent years has been about which is better, steady pace and longer duration aerobics or higher intensity and shorter duration, a.k.a. HIIT style. It should go without saying that high-intensity cardio, like high-intensity weight training, should not be overly long in duration, but as to which is more effective, the answer is neither, really. I’ve done both and still do, and I’ve known plenty of people who got into fantastic condition doing it both ways. That tells me that even if one is slightly better than the other, they both work. If you don’t have a lot of time for cardio, HIIT is definitely the way to go. Even so, there does need to be a certain level of intensity involved.

So how intense should your cardio be? You can follow various heart rate formulas if you like, but I prefer the “talk test.” If I can talk to someone without huffing and puffing, I know I’m not working hard enough. If I can talk to someone at all during the sprint portions of HIIT, I’m not really sprinting. I like to go by the calorie counts, even though I am aware they are not very accurate. At least they are consistent. I know that if I burned 500 calories in 35 minutes on an elliptical trainer at my gym today and 520 calories in 35 minutes tomorrow, I worked harder.

When you get down to it, the type of cardio you do is really a matter of preference, and there’s no rule that you have to choose one and stick to it. You can do steady-rate cardio on some days, such as when you do it after weight training, and HIIT cardio on other days, such as when you are not doing weight training that day.

The machine you use—or if you even use a machine—is also up to you. Swimming is out, although the arguments as to why it’s less efficient at burning fat range from the body’s core temperature never rises high enough, to the buoyancy of the water encourages fat storage, to cold water exposure stimulates the appetite. I don’t like stationary bikes because your bodyweight is fully supported, so it’s too easy. I alternate between the StepMill (toughest machine and most effective at fat burning in my view), a regular stepper and running on an elliptical trainer. The bottom line is that if you find a machine you like that gets your breathing and heart rate up and you’re sweating rivers, that’s a great machine for you—whatever  anyone else says.

Finally, what about the empty stomach debate? For many years I believed that cardio is most effective at burning fat when done on an empty stomach. I did it myself, and I recommended it to others. I still feel it’s a very effective approach, but recent research is showing that it might not be as superior to cardio done after eating as we have thought all these years. Another issue I have with doing cardio on an empty stomach is that there’s a serious risk of losing muscle along with the fat. I feel that’s of particular concern for athletes who are not training with the advantage of using steroids to preserve lean muscle tissue. At the least you should have a BCAA drink or a whey protein shake rather than doing cardio on a truly empty stomach. That goes double if you’re doing HIIT. A natural athlete doing HIIT on an empty stomach every morning is a recipe for muscle wasting.

You do need to be flexible and willing to make adjustments as needed to your diet and your cardio because there’s simply no way to predict exactly how your body will respond as the weeks go by on a contest diet.

—Ron Harris


Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years In the Trenches, available at


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