Can Cardio Exercises Build Muscle?

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For years, the debate between weight lifting and cardio exercising has been going on with full power, as both sides have proponents.

As you may or may not know, cardio has been dubbed as the number one health improvement tool, while weight lifting is claimed to be more oriented towards visual and functional development.

And though both have actual benefits for the body and all of its processes, one question remains – Can cardio actually help you build muscle?

To answer this, let’s dive a bit deeper.

What Is Cardio?

Generally, cardio is any low-intensity activity that is done for a prolonged period of time, such as:

  1. Jogging
  2. Skipping
  3. Swimming
  4. Rowing
  5. Cycling

These are aerobic activities that primarily engage the heart and the lungs, leading to more efficient energy transportation.

This, in turn, leads to increased endurance levels, where the individual can eventually sustain the activity for hours on end.

HOWEVER, prolonged, low-intensity activities only engage the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which don’t have a big potential for hypertrophy (growth).

Nevertheless, there are ways to use cardio exercises AND build muscle.

The Answer Is… Sprints!

As we just mentioned, prolonged cardio activities only engage the slow-twitch muscle fibres because you don’t need to exert much.

However, the stimulus changes if you change how you do your cardio exercise (i.e. running).

Sprints are without a doubt one of the most powerful tools to put in your training arsenal, ESPECIALLY for the goal of lower body development.

By definition, sprints have all the characteristics of a muscle-building exercise because they involve short, power bursts that engage the fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Sprints are applicable for any cardio exercise, whether it’s swimming, cycling, running or skipping.

 Just make sure not to do them right before or after leg day, as sprints are demanding on the lower body and would require recovery time afterwards.

Sample Sprint Run Workout

Just like your regular gym workout, before you get into sprinting full-on, you have to go through a proper warm-up routine, where you’ll prepare and prime the legs for high exertion.

The warm-up goal is to – Activate the muscles and fill them with blood, raise the heart rate a bit, raise the body temperature a bit.

A good sprint run warm-up can include:

  1. Light jogging
  2. Dynamic stretching
  3. Squat jumps
  4. Power breathing

When you feel like your body is loose enough, follow the steps in the table below.

 

Run #

Distance

Rest times

#1 – Warm up run, 60-70% exertion

30m

1 minute

#2 – Warm up run, 70-80% exertion

40m

90 seconds

#3 – Full-on sprint, 90-100% exertion

50m

3 minutes

#4 – Full-on sprint, 90-100% exertion

50m

3 minutes

#5 – Full-on sprint, 90-100% exertion

50m

3 minutes

 

Much like any other workout, you also have to apply the principle of progressive overload on sprints.

This would imply increasing the distance run, the number of sets or, changing the rest times.

Sprint workouts can even replace your weight training leg workout in the gym, so if you have a day where you don’t feel like squatting, get up for some sprints!

Take Home Message

Prolonged, low-intensity cardio exercises are great tools to boost your heart and lungs. Nevertheless, you can take the same cardio exercise and switch the way you do them to create a powerful muscle-growth stimulus.

Sprints should be in the training arsenal of every self-respecting trainee looking to maximise the aesthetic development and strength of their lower body.

Do your sprints, or add intervals to other cardio exercises, don’t miss out!

Stay Strong

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