That’s right, we said the “C-word.” Nope, not that one … cardio.
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There’s somehow more than enough time in your schedule for a five-day split, daily shopping for supplements, and arguing with other forum-goers about whether a bodybuilder is natty or not.
But, as luck would have it, cardio always falls into last place on your to-do list (ah, shucks).
You were just about to hop onto the treadmill when you realized you had to complete your taxes by hand ASAP, willingly sit in a traffic jam on the freeway, or tune into an ad about “turkey neck.”
This aesthetic cardio workout will take care of step #2 as painlessly as possible.
Do Aesthetic Bodybuilders Do Cardio?
There’s very little overlap between what aesthetic bodybuilders do versus what they should do.
For one, in 1989, 54% of bodybuilders in Missouri & Kansas admitted to anabolic steroid use.
And, while no-nonsense doping agencies and pre-comp testing are gradually reversing this trend, that number was still too high — 18.8% — when analyzed in 2009 out in Kerman City, California.
So let’s rephrase and remove the question mark.
Unless they’re already sub-10% body fat with the athleticism and training regimen of superstar athletes like Caeleb Dressel or Usain Bolt, aesthetic bodybuilders should do cardio.
Here are two reasons why.
To Keep Body Fat Levels In That Ideal Range
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For the general population, 15% body fat is below-average and falls into the American Council on Exercise’s “fitness” category. But in the amateur bodybuilding world, the gold standard is <10%!
(Or, to be more exact, about 9.3%, according to a 1980 study.)
It’s not an exact science, but … 10% body fat is where a six-pack begins breaking through, vascularity in the arms becomes more visible, and your long hours of pumping iron are no secret.
The bodybuilding community also notoriously struggles with healthy dieting.
In fact, research suggests that 67.5% of members are somewhere on the brink of disordered eating. Another 58.3% showed early signs of muscle dysmorphia (body image issues).
Instead of the nutrient-depriving crash diets common before a competition, adding cardio to your routine can guide you toward your fat loss goals without entering “extreme” territory.
Combined, you can drop 1–2 pounds a week and 1–2% body fat per month.
To Lower the Risk of Heart Problems
Bodybuilders are among the most widely respected and skilled athletes on the planet.
Yet, an impressive feat like bench-pressing 500 pounds — like the Governator could in his prime — doesn’t make anyone immune to the world’s #1 killer: heart disease.
To put things into perspective, 25-year-old bodybuilder Sam Standerwick died unexpectedly in a hotel room from a coronary artery blockage, despite years of healthy diet and exercise.
And, another seemingly healthy 26-year-old bodybuilder suffered a heart attack.
Now, natural bodybuilders are no more or less likely to suffer heart disease than the rest of us. (Though, there is a studied link between steroid abuse and permanent heart damage.)
You can’t change your genetics (at least not yet). But with 75 minutes of vigorous cardio per week, you can substantially lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death.
Of course, the better your heart and lungs can handle hour-long lifting sessions, the greater volume you can pump out per workout — the mass gains will follow suit!
What is the Ultimate Aesthetic Cardio Workout?
The latest bit of research from Strava confirms what we’ve all been thinking for years; running sucks! Of the 25,000 people asked, 50% either “barely tolerate” or downright hate running.
And, who despises running more than aspiring bodybuilders? Absolutely no one!
That’s why the inspiration behind the Ultimate Aesthetic Cardio Workout was a trifecta of sorts:
The biggest misconception about cardio (and likely the most overused excuse for cutting it from routines altogether) is that you need to do a lot of it. Unless it’s 30–60 minutes a day, why bother?
That’s not true!
In fact, research from 2009 suggests that exercise intensity matters more than workout length. Experts place the “fat-burning zone” somewhere between 60.2–80% of your maximum heart rate.
To burn somewhere around 365 calories by the end of these <30-minute workouts, you should be training hard enough where speaking a few words leaves you out of breath.
These workouts will be short yet intense.
A gym membership only “works” when you scan in your key fob at the front desk and touch the gear. The same logic holds true for training programs: they don’t “work” unless you do ‘em.
The #1 way to stick to a routine is to choose one that you actually enjoy doing (which is probably the reason 80% of people ditch their New Years’ resolutions before February even ends).
So twice a week, we’ll lay out the style for you, and you can choose the rest. Rowing, cycling, running, swimming, as long as you finish the workout as described, it doesn’t matter to us!
Will running three miles a day three times a week help your body fat dip below 10%? It sure will.
In fact, even at a 10:00/mile pace, that schedule alone could help you to burn 830–1,560 calories a week. Or about 0.44 pounds of fat torched weekly (not including any dietary calorie deficits).
But unless you’re a retired cross country standout, it likely won’t be fun. With this cardio routine, in addition to your choice of training style, all three workouts will be completely different!
So what do you say? Are you ready to learn more?
Aesthetic Cardio Workout Details
This aesthetic cardio workout is exactly what it sounds like: a pure, nothing-but-cardio routine (the horror!) to boost your metabolism, torch calories, and whittle your way down to <10% body fat.
So … cardio or lifting first? With this routine, the answer is “neither.
To avoid scheduling conflicts, you’ll follow an alternating pattern, like this:
- Sunday: OFF
- Monday: Weightlifting
- Tuesday: Cardio I
- Wednesday: Weightlifting
- Thursday: Cardio II
- Friday: Weightlifting
- Saturday: Cardio III
Are you already sweating just thinking about it? WAIT! Before you turn back now and convince yourself that you can do without the cardio, take a closer look at the full routine:
Day 1 – Cardio I
In the fitness world, it’s impossible to know what’s simply a fad and what’s actually backed by science. But, hey, way back when, Tae Bo was a “hot” trend, and Thighmasters were all the rage.
High-intensity interval training or HIIT is a fad no more!
In fact, a meta-analysis published in 2019 discovered that HIIT is more effective than moderate continuous training, yielding 28.5% greater losses for absolute fat mass.
Another study from 2015 found that a 40/20 HIIT cycle for 30 minutes could burn about 12.62 calories per minute. Running on a treadmill at 70% intensity shredded only 9.48/minute.
In a half-hour, HIIT could torch 378.6 calories!
On day one, you’ll do about half of that — 15 minutes of HIIT.
Try to follow this training pattern:
The only thing worse than 30-minute runs is all-out sprinting for 20 seconds (repeatedly). As long as you alternate between high and low intensities on a 40/20 cycle, you can do these instead:
- Cycling (indoor or on a stationary bike)
- Calisthenics (burpees, jogging in place, mountain climbers, or a mix of all three)
- Stair climbing (or the StairMaster at your gym)
- Sled pushes
- Kettlebell swings
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Parachute running
- Jumping rope
- Battle ropes
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Plan your HIIT workout around your regular training schedule. For example, if HIIT day falls right before leg day, an upper-body workout like battle ropes would be better than stair climbing.
Tip: With the warm-up and cool-down combined, you can finish the entire workout in 25 minutes. Feel free to add intervals every week until your total workout hits the 30-minute-mark.
Day 2 – Cardio II
When you think of power walking, you likely picture stay-at-home soccer moms strutting by in pairs, gossiping about the neighbors, hips wiggling, arms pumping (the “Vince McMahon trot”).
But it’s not only an elite Olympic sport with an impressive 5:31 mile time being the current record.
It’s actually legendary bodybuilder and six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates’s cardio style of choice, though he kicks off four mornings a week with it.
On day two, you’re on the hook for 30 minutes of power walking!
That’s it? That’s it.
A bit of research from 2001 reveals that, at a 5-mile-per-hour pace, or a 12-minute-mile, you can burn just as many calories walking as you would jogging. (That’s 2.5 miles in a half-hour!)
Tip: To keep that pace consistent, your best options are hopping on a treadmill set to 5mph or using a GPS-enabled walking app like Map My Walk that shows your pace in real-time.
Day 3 – Cardio III
After two challenging days of cardio (and 2–3 weightlifting sessions), you’re probably ready to kick your feet up and call it a week! But we’re not quite there yet; we need one last 20-minute session.
Your final choice of the program before hurdling into next week:
- Yanking out that pool skimmer for a — far tamer — Michael Phelps-style workout
- Dusting off that bicycle in the garage and taking her for a spin (a la Lance Armstrong)
Now, those skeptical juices are likely already a-flowin’.
Why these two exercises?
A study from 2019 analyzed the effects of swimming on the physique. Participants lost an average 0.2 pounds of fat while gaining it back in muscle. In moderation, gains aren’t at risk.
Swimming is also a lower-impact activity for the legs. In fact, one study found that a “recovery swim” could lessen muscle inflammation and improve next-day athletic performance.
Biking is a similar story! A meta-analysis released in 2012 found that, unlike running, cycling was dramatically less likely to decrease lower-body strength and hypertrophy.
On day three, you’ll crush through a casual 20 minutes in the pool or on the bike.
If the weather isn’t cooperating or your area isn’t known for its bikes and pools, an elliptical workout can be just as effective (while still keeping lower-body impact low).
Tip: There’s no need to set PRs or end the session breathless; exercising at 60% of your maximum heart rate is just fine.
Will Doing Cardio “Burn” Muscle Mass?
When they’re not intentionally flouting Planet Fitness’s Lunk Alarm triggers, aspiring bodybuilders will spew the same ‘ol line: “I don’t do cardio. It burns muscle!”
But is that true? Or is it just another excuse to avoid your mortal enemy, the treadmill?
Cardio can stand in the way of (or even reverse) gains if — and only if:
- You’re doing far too much cardio. For example, a now-outdated 1980 study noticed strength declines after 9–10 weeks of cardio and strength training. However, these results aren’t surprising, as the group performed six 30–40 cardio sessions a week!
- Your cardio and weightlifting sessions are too close together. If you’re jumping from the treadmill into an aesthetic back workout, either your growth or your endurance will suffer. Research suggests that six hours in between the two is the “sweet spot” for gains to avoid the natural strength decline post-cardio.
- Your cardio of choice is too high-impact. Running and jumping rope, in particular, are notorious for causing microscopic damage in the lower legs due to their high-impact nature (similar to weightlifting). However, when paired with additional cardio sessions and heavy leg workouts, your muscles may not recover in time to deliver 100% on the squat or deadlift. It might not necessarily reverse gains, but they could slow considerably.
Despite the long-held belief, cardio on its own won’t ruin your progress.