Spoiler alert: whether your goal is competition prep for a bodybuilding show or just fat loss in general, cardio is going to be part of the equation. There’s no realistic way around it. For most of the people I talk to and work with, it’s absolutely viewed as a necessary evil.
Now yes, there are some among us who actually enjoy cardio (we call those people ‘psychos’) and if you’re one of them, clearly this isn’t for you.
For the rest of us, we need some practical tips to step up our cardio game and get the most out of it. So without further ado, let’s hit it!
[bctt tweet=”Cardio is a necessary part of bodybuilding, and the more you dread it the more you’ll continue to hate it – but we can fix and change that mindset! #fivestarrphysique #bodybuilding #cardio” username=””]
#1 – Accept that this is your reality
We know that cardio is part of the equation, but do we really know it? Like, feel and believe that to be true in our heart of hearts? A lot of people fight it. Struggle with it. Hate it. Post on social media about how they hate it.
Reality check: none of that helps, and in fact all of it just makes you dread the next session that much more. So accept that this is something you CHOSE to undertake, KNOWING that cardio was a part of it. Roll with it, adjust your mindset into a more positive space, and spend less energy on negative thoughts about it. It makes a difference!
It’s also super easy to procrastinate like crazy when you need to get that damn session started. So hunker down, focus, peel off that band-aid and grind out your first minute HARD to set the tone for the whole session.
#2 – Remember why you’re doing it
Not just in the big picture “I’m doing this so I can get lean and look like a badass” sense, but in the much more basic “I’m doing this to burn calories” sense. So don’t half-ass it. Whatever you choose to do for cardio, once you start, then do it and do it well and do it hard. Be mindful of intensity guidelines given by your coach, but don’t think that half-assing it is going to get the job done. Not every session should necessarily be a world-beater, but if you wrap it up and think “well that was easy!” then chances are you didn’t do a whole lot.
[bctt tweet=”Your goal isn’t just ‘to survive’ cardio, but to burn calories and make the session worth the time it took to complete it. #fivestarrphysique #bodybuilding #cardio” username=””]
#3 – Occupy yourself, but not to distraction
This can best be summed up with 3 words: listen, don’t watch. Music and podcasts are GREAT to have on for cardio and arguably I’m not sure many people could bust their way through a session without one or the other. But video – YouTube, TV’s, Netflix, etc – these tend to be more distracting and especially if you’re on a self-paced machine (elliptical, bike) you’ll find that your focus fades and your intensity/speed falls off a cliff.
I speak from experience! Been there, done that. During a previous cut I binge-watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during my cardio and the entire prep ending up sucking because I was more investing in following the show that in making my cardio useful. Lesson learned!
#4 – Track some variables!
How this gets done is a matter of preference and equipment. I like to track caloric burn per session, and you can do this using a wearable fitness tracker (great if you switch machines or cardio modes frequently) or using on board calorie counters (if you’re consistently using the same machine).
With the elliptical I have in my garage, I know that at the maximum resistance I burn 12 calories per minute (according to it, anyway) at a “good” level of intensity. Whether or not that number is accurate (hint: it isn’t) doesn’t matter, but it allows me to check my pace easily. If I hit the 10 minute mark and I’m under 120 calories according to the display, I know I need to step things up a bit!
[bctt tweet=”Tracking variables like caloric burn through your session is crucial to monitoring your progress and knowing if your performance or intensity are slipping. #fivestarrphysique #bodybuilding #cardio” username=””]
Know your pace, and track your output! I monitor my calories burned per session in a spreadsheet so I can see at a glance if my cardio intensity is holding steady or on a downward trend. Often times if it’s trending down it’s a sign that I’m either A) just plain slacking off, or B) might need a day off from it to recharge.
#5 – Get off the stepmill!
Ok ladies (and guys – I see plenty of you on there too) – there are other machines you can use and still get a benefit from. Some of the most conditioned competitors I’ve seen don’t get on a stepmill (or stairmaster, whatever you want to call it), and yet some people feel as though the success of their prep/cut depends on the availability of this machine. This is silly.
Now if you enjoy it, GREAT – but don’t feel that you have to be tied to it. There is nothing magical about this machine and it’s supposed ability to “bring in your glute/ham tie-in”. You know what does that? Fat loss. So burn some calories and stop obsessing over any particular method of getting there.
#6 – Go hands-free
I’ll spare y’all the physics lesson here, but if you set that treadmill to a steep incline and then hold on for dear life as you trudge forward in a “leaned back” position (relative to someone watching you from flat ground), you’re doing nothing. If you set that thing at an incline, the idea is that it feels like you’re walking uphill – so LET GO, lean forward, and grind out some harder steps.
Just like with lifting, our body naturally wants to find ways to make things easier – for your time in the gym, you should be looking to do the opposite. Find the hardest variation of whatever it is you’re trying to do, and embrace THAT.
#7 – Be mindful of wear and tear
Prep is hard. It is also long. It’s going to challenge you in a lot of ways. Hopefully, your body will manage to hold up for the duration of it, however long that might be. Don’t make things HARDER or more challenging in that respect! Not all forms of cardio are created equally. If you are older (like me…old men represent!) or have achy joints or are nursing old injuries, factor that into your thinking on what kind of cardio you should be doing.
Avoiding intense, high impact methods routinely will put fewer miles on your body’s odometer and keep everything happier for longer. Running and plyometric-based cardio routines, while both effective, are going to exacerbate any existing problems you have on this front – especially running, if your technique is shaky (and based on my experience watching people, it often is).
[bctt tweet=”I always recommend doing the form of cardio that provides the best compromise between being effective and being pain-free! #fivestarrphysique #bodybuilding #cardio” username=””]
Be nice to your body and stick with things that are more comfortable and low/zero impact like the bike, rowing machine, elliptical, arc trainer, etc. A lot of people complain they just “can’t go as hard” on those machines, which is ridiculous. Of course you can, you just have to try. Crank up the resistance and go faster. Problem solved!
Bring it on home
Yes, cardio is an essential part of prep – anyone who tells you otherwise is just telling you what you might want to hear, likely to get them to sign up with you as a client – don’t buy it. Unless they have some kind of magic bean, in which case I want some as well.
Since it’s a requirement, it’s important not to get into a mental fight with it on a daily basis and say “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED” – shift your mindset, be more efficient and smarter in how you tackle it, and enjoy a better prep overall from start to finish.