Should You Do Cardio When Bulking?


Your goal is to build muscle and gain weight, but you don’t want to get fat in the process. So adding cardio makes a lot of sense as it should keep fat gain in check.

But you’re confused…

On one end you hear the recommendation that trainees should perform one hour of low intensity cardio multiple times per week during their lean-bulks in order to stay lean.

While on the other end you hear the recommendation that you should avoid all activity outside of lifting weights, especially cardio, as it will harm your gains in muscle mass (and strength).

So, who’s right?

Well, no one really, the human body is a very complex organism, and there’s no black or white answer to anything when it comes to changing it. But there are a lot of nuances that we can make decent recommendations from.

In this article (and video) you’ll discover why it’s smart to do at least a bit of cardio when bulking and the benefits that comes with doing cardio. You’ll also learn what kind of cardio that’s best to invest in.

Should You Do Cardio When Bulking?

Let’s get right to it, should you do cardio when bulking?

Yes, there are enough evidence to support that doing some cardio is better than doing no cardio at all.

And when scouring all over the internet, including research papers, it seems that cardio helps you in 5 ways when you’re bulking:

The 5 Benefits Of Doing Cardio When Bulking

1. It Helps Prevent Fat Gain When Bulking

Here’s the thing:

Cardio doesn’t burn fat in and of itself, in order to burn fat you must be in a caloric deficit. And when you’re bulking, you’re likely in a surplus of calories. So the way cardio helps prevent fat gain is by burning some more calories.

A lot of people, myself included, get way too relaxed with the diet when bulking. It’s very easy to go a couple hundred calories above what you planned for the day and not even realize it.

This is so normal, typically when I’m setting up my caloric surplus for bulking, I say to myself; god this will be so easy to stick to. But, one night out with my friends, or during a all you can eat buffé with my girlfriend and I’ve indulged in 200-300 calories more than I meant to.

Sure, I might not realize this immediately that night, but I see it on my average scale weight that month. My goal was to gain 1 lb of weight per month, but I gained 1.5 lbs, and that’s my receipt that I overindulged during a few days.

And this is where cardio comes in. By doing a few cardio sessions per week you can increase your energy expenditure and negate those extra calories you ate.

Furthermore, a potential benefit of cardio is improved calorie partitioning. Calorie partitioning has to do with where calories “go” in the body when you overeat.

It’s been shown that the most potent calorie partitioning tool we have is training. Where regular low intensity cardio activity increases nutrient uptake in our muscles, instead of the nutrients getting stored in our fat cells.

This is still in debate, and research isn’t completely sure about the effects of nutrient partitioning and overfeeding. However, it certainly won’t hurt to do some low-to moderate intensity cardio in reasonable amounts, as this may help you build more muscle and put on less fat during a long lean-bulk phase.

2. Improves Recovery Slightly

There are two types of recovery: active recovery and passive recovery.

The right kind of cardio can work as a sort of active recovery.

If you are sore from your lifting, doing some light cardio may help reduce your DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) which is usually an indicator of improved recovery.

The way cardio helps with recovery is by increasing blood flow to the trained muscles. When you increase blood flow, you improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to the trained muscles from the air you breathe and the food you eat.

Now, this effect might not be the biggest, research isn’t completely certain on this topic. What we do know is that you certainly don’t need to do cardio to get recovered from your workouts, but it can help.

3. It Maintains Some Work Capacity & Conditioning

It’s not uncommon that people who only lift weights lose a lot of their metabolic conditioning. Lower repetition and long rest interval type training seems to have the greatest impact on reducing conditioning and work capacity.

Okay, so I lose some work capacity and conditioning, but is that really important if all I want is to be lean, muscular and strong?

Well, actually it is. Keeping at least a baseline of work capacity and conditioning is important as it will help your overall recovery both during a workout and in-between workouts.

The good thing is that it takes very little cardio training to maintain some conditioning, a lot less that what it does to develop it in the first place. So keeping at least some cardio in your training program goes a long way when it comes to keeping baseline work capacity.

3. Supports Future Fat Loss

One huge benefit of doing cardio when bulking is that it will make it easier for you to lose fat in the future.

Here’s the thing:

If your goal is to build a lean and muscular physique quickly and effectively, then adding some fat during your bulking phases just comes with the territory, as this will maximize your muscle growth.

And adding fat to your frame means that, eventually you’ll have to diet of the fat, ideally at around 15 % body fat for males. This is also the reason why I recommend utilizing bulking and cutting cycles.Anyways, doing cardio when bulking helps a lot with the transition from bulking to cutting. And here’s Lyle McDonald’s explanation of why:

Lyle McDonald“During the overfeeding that is needed to generate maximum gains in muscle mass, the body often loses some of its ability to use fat as a fuel and this can take a couple of weeks to get fully ramped back up when calories are restricted (I suspect this explains some of the odd delay that seems to occur in true fat loss when people start dieting again).

And this seems to be even more pronounced if folks have been doing zero cardio while they are gaining muscle mass.  By keeping in some amount of cardio during the mass gaining phase, at least some ability to use fat effectively for fuel is maintained.  When the dieting phase eventually starts, the body will be in a better place to use fat for fuel.”

4. Good Cardiovascular Health Is Very Important


Cardio when bulking is important for the same reason that it always is, health!

Doing cardio trains your heart, lungs and blood vessels better than what only strength training do.

It improves the flow of oxygen throughout your body, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and some kinds of cancer.

Not only will adding some cardio in your strength training routine promote greater health, it’s also been shown that low intensity cardio reduces stress and thus promotes a healthier environment in the body.

This environment also promotes better recovery, which can potentially lead to more muscle growth as discussed earlier.

5. It Will Make You Feel More Energized

This is something I think is connected to the health aspect of doing cardio.

In the beginning of my fitness journey I didn’t do any cardio. All I did was watching my diet and strength trained. Even though this approach worked, as you can see in my transformation video, one thing I learned recently was that I lacked a lot of daily energy back then.

Here’s how I learned that:

When I began PT school a few months ago, I started doing cardio twice per week with my class. And this had me feel so much more energized.

I feel more productive and alert during the days, and best of all my sleep quality went up immensely. This is a very positive benefit, since sleep is one of the most important factors when it comes to maximizing muscle growth.

What Types Of Cardio To Do

When it comes to cardio there are generally three different types people refer to:

  1. Low intensity steady state (LISS)
  2. Moderate intensity steady state (MISS)
  3. High intensity interval training (HIIT)

I’m sure you’ve heard that doing moderate intensity steady state (MISS) is negative when it comes to muscle growth and strength development, and that Low intensity steady state (LISS) and High intensity interval training (HIIT) is fine.

Well, this isn’t entirely true. The reason why people believe this is because it’s so easy to do too much training when you do MISS. It’s not a problem with the training modality, it’s a problem with doing too much training volume, so recovery becomes an issue, which can lead to plateaus.

This means that it’s completely fine to pick any of the modalities as long as you’re not training too much. Let’s look at what too much is:

How To Program Your Cardio

Low Intensity Steady State Cardio

This type of cardio is the easiest kind, but it requires time to give noticeable effects on calorie burn.

Low intensity cardio is only suppose to raise your heart rate a bit, for most people low intensity would happen somewhere between a brisk walk or a slow jog. You should be able to keep a conversation going without much effort.

How Much LISS to do:

  • 7000-10000 steps walking or jogging slowly, or the equivalent on another modality, per day is good.
  • LISS is so low impact that it won’t interfere with strength training even if you do a lot of it.

What Type of Modality to Choose When Doing LISS?

  • Any modality such as walking, jogging, cycling, rowing and swimming etc. is okay.
  • I think that “lifestyle cardio” is the best cardio that you can do. This would be for example, taking brisk walks/light joggs or the bike to your work, gym or the store. Doing this gives you a lot of additional daily movement without thinking about it too much.

Medium Intensity Steady State Cardio

This is the type of cardio that you should be careful with, since it’s very easy to go overboard on the amount of training you do in a week.

MISS is when you do some sort of cardio activity repeatedly at a moderate intensity. As opposed to LISS, this is when it’s hard to keep a conversation, you’re sweating, and your heart rate is elevated to moderate or high levels.

How Much MISS to do:

  • Keep sessions short and don’t do more than 2-3 hours of this cardio per week.
  • MISS will interfere with strength training if you do too much of it.
  • Do MISS for the purpose of burning calories, not for improving performance, as trying to improve performance will interfere with your strength training.

What Type of Modality to Choose When Doing MISS?

  • Any modality except jogging and running.
  • Jogging and running is much more disruptive of the muscular system with a movement that is also very nonspecific to strength training. During running there’s a large eccentric portion which are known to cause a lot of muscle damage. When running the stress on the legs would simply be too large, making recovery harder, which would ultimately result in decreased strength training performance and muscle mass.
  • If your goal is to mainly build your upper body, then running is okay.

High Intensity Interval Training

This type of cardio is great.

It’s awesome for conditioning, burns more calories per minute compared to low intensity cardio and it’s also been shown to support strength gains because it’s very similar to weightlifting in terms of high effort and rest periods.

However, you shouldn’t do too much of this cardio, since it’s very taxing on recovery, which could potentially steal recovery from your strength training.

And if you’re consider doing HIIT, then either do it on rest days or at least after your strength training session. I discuss why in this post.

How Much HIIT to do:

  • 15 minutes 2-3 times per week.
  • HIIT can help promote strength and muscle growth if done moderately. But it can interfere with strength training if you do too much of it.

What Type of Modality to Choose When Doing HIIT?

  • Any modality except jogging and running.
  • Jogging and running is much more disruptive of the muscular system with a movement that is also very nonspecific to strength training. During running there’s a large eccentric portion which are known to cause a lot of muscle damage. When running the stress on the legs would simply be too large, making recovery harder, which would ultimately result in decreased strength training performance and muscle mass.
  • If your goal is to mainly build your upper body, then running is okay.

Here’s a Good HIIT Routine:

  • 3-5 minute warm-up
  • 30 seconds all out
  • Rest 30 seconds (complete rest or moving slowly)
  • 30 seconds all out
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • Repeat this for 15 minutes

Instead of doing HIIT routines like the one above, you could play sports 1-2 times per week on rest days for 20-30 minutes. Sports usually involve short periods of high intensity efforts with periods of walking or resting, so it’s very similar to HIIT.

A great benefit of playing sports is that they’re typically more enjoyable than normal “cardio” because you do something that’s not as repetitive, and you can have fun playing with your friends or a team in the meanwhile.

That’s my take on cardio when bulking. What’s your opinion? Do you have any questions or ideas? Let me know down in the comments below!

Niklas Lampi

My name is Niklas Lampi and I work as a fitness writer, nutritional consultant and personal trainer. My favourite exercise is the bench press and my favourite food is pizza!

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