Cardio When Cutting for a Bodybuilding Competition

Close-up of the legs of an athletic young woman exercising on a running machine
You need cardio to get into contest shape. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

Taking part in a bodybuilding competition requires you to have very low levels of body fat, typically around 3 to 6 percent. To get to this standard, your weight training and the food you eat are of paramount importance. Cardiovascular exercise also plays an important role in helping you get to stage-ready condition.

Why Do Cardio?

While you can get into excellent condition with weight training and diet alone, to really get into top condition, you need to do cardio, notes bodybuilding diet coach Shelby Starnes. The most important factor in losing fat for a competition is your calorie balance -- you need to burn more calories than you consume. You can do this by simply eating less; however, you will probably find that you start to feel very hungry and lethargic. Adding in cardio allows you to increase your food consumption slightly, so that you feel fuller, and also boosts your metabolism.

Some Interval, Some Steady State

There are two main types of cardio -- steady state and interval training. Steady state involves working at a low to moderate intensity -- around 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, for a sustained period of time. This type of cardio doesn't burn a huge number of calories, but it does burn a high percentage of fat tissue for fuel, and it isn't too draining. Interval training, on the other hand, is much more hard work. You pick two intensities, usually one at 85 percent of your maximum heart rate and the other at 60, and alternate between them. This burns more calories than steady state, but it is very demanding and can impact recovery. Your best choice is to do some of each.

When to Do Cardio

You can do cardio at any time, although there may be more benefit to doing your steady-state work in the morning and your interval training after your weights session. Doing cardio in the morning before eating burns more calories, boosts your metabolism and mobilizes more fat tissue, notes strength coach and bodybuilder Tom Venuto. Performing intervals after your weights means that you only have to go to the gym once per day, and your recovery time between sessions isn't interrupted. To begin with, do three half-hour sessions of steady-state cardio per week and two interval sessions after your weight training.

Progressions

Just as with weight training, to keep getting results, you need to constantly progress your cardio. There are several ways you can do this. Sports nutritionist John Berardi recommends either increasing the frequency or duration of your sessions, or making them tougher. If you usually walk or jog for your steady state cardio, then try doing your sessions wearing a weighted vest or going up hills, and if you do interval training on cardio machines, increase the level of resistance. While you want to progress, you need to make sure that you're not impacting your recovery -- if you start to get weaker or feel tired all the time, reduce your cardio frequency and intensity.

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