How much cardio is enough cardio—and how much is too much—are tough questions every trainer fields on a daily basis. Why are these questions so hard to answer? Because there are no simple answers: How much cardio you should do depends entirely on your specific fitness goals. To help clear up some of the uncertainty, let's break down the goals, and then look at the appropriate cardio program to get you where you want to be.
In general, most men work out to accomplish one (or more) of the following goals:
- Reduce body fat and build lean muscle mass
- Maintain body fat and add muscle mass
- Achieve functional health and fitness
- Meet sports-specific training goals
Reduce Body Fat and Build Lean Muscle Mass
Trying to build lean muscle mass while simultaneously reducing body fat is inefficient—you need to be in a caloric deficit to reduce body fat, but you need to be in a caloric surplus to add muscle mass. If you want to reduce your body fat and add muscle mass, I recommend progressing in two phases—each accompanied by its own cardio program.
First, you'll want to reduce your body fat to your goal level. During this reduction period, you should perform 20 to 30 minutes of moderate cardio at least four times per week to burn more calories and help you achieve a calorie deficit. Do this cardio separately from your strength training workouts. For example, perform 20 to 30 minutes of moderate cardio each morning before work, and then do your strength training each night after work, or even on a separate day. Perform a variety of formats (such as stair climbing, running, rowing machine, and swimming) to stimulate your nervous and muscular system and keep your body working. Do not skip your strength training during this fat-loss period—you don't want to lose the muscle mass you already have.
Once you have achieved your optimal body fat level, see the next category for how to maintain your low body fat and add muscle mass. Note: In order to know exactly how much you need to eat for deficit and surplus to meet these goals, I recommend working with a registered dietician or using an interactive online weight-management program like Nutrition for You. These professionals can take the guesswork out of eating programs and help you make the most of each minute you spend on the treadmill.
Maintain Body Fat and Add Muscle Mass
If you have achieved your desired body fat and simply want to build more muscle, you should focus your energy primarily on strength training four to six days per week, and do 15 to 20 minutes of cardio, two times per week, again in separate workout periods and again mixing it up with different types of cardio exercise. Why do your cardio separate from your strength training? Because doing your cardio workout directly after your strength training workout undoes many of the hormonal benefits your body gets from a strength training workout. This will mean less muscle built.
Achieve Functional Health and Fitness
If you care more about your overall cardiovascular health than about maintaining high levels of muscle mass, then perform 20 to 60 minutes of cardio three to five days per week. You will have a harder time building bulky muscle mass at this level, but you will achieve serious cardiovascular health. Again, be creative with your cardio programs and try some of the following ideas to get the most out of your cardio-focused program:
- Integrate circuit training by performing your strength training workouts with little rest between exercises, so that your heart rate stays up during muscle building.
- Alternate the type of aerobic activities you do each workout, so that you stimulate different muscle groups each time.
- Swap out weeks of endurance cardio work with weeks of sprint intervals, no matter what type of cardio you are doing.
- Try new sports for your cardio. You are never too old to try new sports—and actually, you will surprise yourself with how much more quickly you learn new movements as an adult.
For sport-specific training, the cardio question is totally dependent on the following: the sport for which you are training; whether you are in-season or out of season; and the periodization training program you are following. Remember that the most efficient training regimens have people training their strength and their aerobic capacity at different periods within the program. Athletes always train their aerobic endurance directly before the season begins. Take a look at the calendar for your sport, and map out a periodized training program—then you can slot appropriate cardio for strength and aerobic capacity into those periods.
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a new series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.