In my mind the sole reason that anyone would go to a gym is to get stronger. While these days gyms are filled with a host of expensive cardio equipment the reality for many is that they could just as easily run, walk, or ride a bike outside as at the gym. However for many there is no way you could reasonably purchase and store a huge amount of strength equipment at home.

Obviously strength training is a good thing and many people need it. Well planned resistance training can help prevent all kinds of things from falls to bone wasting to not looking good in a tight T-shirt (perhaps the worst ailment to suffer from).

So you go to the gym. You get stronger. Muscles gain size. Then next thing you know you are struggling for breath after walking up a flight of stairs. All that muscle you’ve gained is quite costly and needs to be fed with oxygen to keep it going.

At this point most of the hardcore lifter types will turn their back on any form of cardio training for fear of losing their hard won gains. But no matter how much muscle you have, and no matter how important it is to you to be big and lean, sooner or later you’re going to realize that you need to look after your heart too.

Most big guys make the decision to “condition” using some type of loaded movement such as farmer walks or sled pulls and pushes. Maybe they even fit in a WOD or two.

But there’s a problem with this. Loaded work doesn’t get the same heart response as unloaded work does. Just like your pecs or biceps your heart has concentric and eccentric adaptations. Normal cardiovascular exercise, such as running or rowing, stretches the main chamber of the heart eccentrically and allows it to hold more blood. Essentially it turns your pump into a bigger pump. That’s a good thing. On the flip side of this the strength trained heart gains thickness, just like your other muscles do. That makes sense, right? Your heart responds to training in the same way your other muscles do by becoming thicker and stronger.

While a thicker, stronger heart may sound appealing this isn’t necessarily the case. A thicker heart wall can impact the internal diameter of heart. That’s right – your big thick heart can actually end up with a smaller internal diameter meaning that it can actually hold less blood. That’s bad. That means that despite looking like a Mack truck on the outside you’re being powered by a Prius engine on the inside. Because what happens when the heart thickens is that unlike your other muscles which swell outwards, the heart can swell inwards too.

And when you end up with that Prius engine your aerobic system is going to be underpowered. I know what you’re about to say. “But bro, I’m a strength and power athlete. I don’t want to be a skinny armed aeroba geek”. Well, the aerobic system under pins all of your training, even the strength and power work that is only performed for seconds at a time. The side effects of being deficient aerobically are as follows:

Fatigue – The most common symptom is the need for sugar to maintain function. Even just sitting still. Ever wondered why you feel the need to reach for chocolate mid-afternoon? You’ve stopped burning fat effectively and need to get into sugar burning mode because you’ve spent so much time practising burning sugar for fuel with all your anaerobic work.

  • Increased body fat – Commonly caused by increasing carbohydrates in the diet to cope with all the anaerobic work being done.
  • Chronic inflammation – Can trigger injuries and ill health.
  • Physical injuries – The structures that support our movement, the slow twitch stabilizing muscles, the ligaments and tendons are all fed by our aerobic system.
  • Hormonal imbalances – Most commonly seen as high levels of cortisol and low levels of DHEA. The signals for these are cravings for sugary foods, insomnia, and high levels of body fat.
  • Reduced performance – Seen as fatigue, loss of speed, and general overtraining.

Add on to this that for many the lengths they go to in order to gain weight are likely to place their system under more stress too. Like it or not those ideal height and weight charts are based off decades of research into mortality rates and you are not so special that you are likely to fall far from the center of the curve. Even if you’re built like Lee Priest in contest shape I will wager you had to make a choice about your supplementation routine that is very unlikely to increase your health at all. Steroids such as dianobol and trenbolone have documented negative effects on the heart and that’s before you add a ton of weight and spike the blood pressure.

Cardio, or cardiovascular exercise, comes from the Greek work kardia, which means heart. In other words, if we want to best benefit the heart by doing cardio then we need to use a method that best benefits the heart. What usually ends up happening is people say “cardio” when what they mean is “strength endurance”. Strength endurance is a very important part of the overall picture that conditioning represents but is driven by two parts – maximal strength and aerobic endurance.

When it comes to adding load to our cardio by working on strength endurance as opposed to aerobic endurance one very important thing happens that actually prevents it from helping us gain fitness. When muscles tense up beyond 50% of their capacity blood flow is restricted. While occlusion training can be beneficial for hypertrophy work it doesn’t do much for your oxygen uptake to the working muscles. And without that oxygen uptake the heart isn’t forced to get larger and pump more of that precious gas to the muscles. And this is exactly why if you want to improve your fitness and gain a healthier heart the usual big guy options of the sled and loaded walks are out. The same goes for kettlebell swings too.

The only activities that allow the muscles to uptake more oxygen are the normal low load cyclic activities that people have used for gaining fitness for centuries. You know, walking, running, cycling, rowing, or riding a bike.

Running is the top of the tree when it comes to cardio. But running comes at a cost for those who want to be as big as possible too. Not only that but one of those increased risks that comes from an increased bodyweight is to the joints. At 2-3 times bodyweight per step running, and at 1500 steps per kilometer a big guy weighing 120kg is going to destroy knees, hips, and back pretty quickly as they’ll need to deal with 360kg of stress on every step. Over a short 3km (2mi) run that equates to 1.6mil kg of force to cope with.

So where does that leave big guys for cardio?

If you want to preserve your mass and have a heart that will serve you well for the rest of your life you need to look beyond what the normal endurance folks do. The more weight you have to carry in an activity the more likely it is to shed weight and damage you. Your best friends in the gym for cardio are going to be rowing, hill walking, bike, and the ski ergometer.

These big man cardio options are just as taxing on the heart if used correctly as running, with the added benefit of not placing any strain on your joints. But, and it’s going to be a painful but, you can’t do intervals. HIIT isn’t your friend. By adding all that muscle you’ve already spent a massive proportion of your time on anaerobic work. You need to do some aerobic work.

Luckily for you, with your Mack truck chassis and Prius heart, aerobic work won’t be very difficult to begin with. A basic formula for aerobic work, devised by the guy who basically invented heart rate training, is to subtract your age from 180. Here’s how it works:

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting from among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times per week) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180 – age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

To begin with, if you’re not used to this type of training, you’re going to find that upper threshold pretty quickly. I’m going to add one small adjustment to this formula – because this formula is devised for running if you use a rower or a bike subtract another 5bpm.

To make this work is simple. You have a Prius engine and it needs to get bored out and turned into the big V8. No more looking like Tarzan but playing like Jane. To make that happen you want the heart to be stressed enough that it is forced to enlarge that main chamber of the heart, while not being too high as that will actually counter act everything we’re trying to achieve.

Yeah, you read that right. Cardio, actual benefit your heart cardio, isn’t all about go hard or go home. When you go too hard the blood is ejected from the heart before the main chamber can even completely fill up. That means that there is no need for your Prius engine to ever adapt to that stress and you’ll still find yourself with an undersized engine a year down the track despite having hammered yourself into the ground with the world’s hardest “cardio” sessions.

Instead of trying to make your heart explode through your chest we’re going to apply that 180 rule to our sessions. Now comes the bit people don’t like to hear. To encourage that chamber of the heart to expand you’re going to need to get it working for 30+ minutes. In fact, the general recommendation for this type of work – called Cardiac Output Training – is 30-90 minutes at 120-150bpm (which the 180 rule falls well within for most). You do not need to train any harder than that to get this benefit. In fact, as explained above, if you train much harder you risk never getting that adaptations you need to make your heart a bigger, better pump.

If the idea of 30+ minutes on a single piece of equipment bores you to tears try breaking it up in five-minute chunks. A very easy way to get through these sessions mentally is to do five minutes of rowing, jump on the Airdyne for another five minutes, and then back onto the rower for another five minutes. Alternate back and forth in five-minute chunks until you’ve been at it for more than thirty minutes. Don’t rest between each piece of equipment, as you need to keep the heart rate elevated to elicit that response. Do this workout three times per week.

The benefits to all of this aerobic training will be:

  • Better recovery between hard work sets of strength training.
  • Better recovery between workouts.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Better body composition.
  • Increased use of fatty acids as fuel.
  • Healthier heart.

For those interested in reading more Run Strong is available here.

21 thoughts on “The big man cardio primer

  1. I could not agree more with your post. I am ex Army and we were always taught about always pushing your self as hard as possible. After struggling for years with working in high heart rate zones i worked with my coach to adapt my hear to be able to now have a resting HR of 34. when i did my first VO2Max test they said like you I had a 1.5 lt engine and I was pushing it life a V8 today it is the opposite i never fatigue aerobically huge engine hence why i now focus big time on power and strength in legs. hence one reason I am coming to your workshop latter this year. great post

  2. Big guys dont like cardio of any form..problem is they mostly turn into “ships”..if all those gains are not functional than its useless for life (ok maybe good for flexing in tight shirt but thats it)

  3. Would it be acceptable to alternate things like martial arts last, shadow boxing, bag work, and agility-type stuff like bounding, backward running, shuffling, with the rower? I noticed you did exclude kb swings, so was wondering about other things which might be included. Jumping rope, perhaps? Thank you for any assistance you could provide!

    1. There’s a ranking, tiers, if you will, for how effective different activities are. Running, rowing, cycling, swimming, and xc skiing are tier one. Boxing and skipping are tier two. I would suppose that would put most martial sparring in tier two as well. Circuit training and swings are tier three. It’s not that they don’t work. It’s that they work at about 60% as well as running for the same time would. So given you’re going to work hard at both, and that you only have a specific amount of training time available, it just makes more sense to use an option that gives you 100% of the effect you’re training for instead of only 60%.

    1. It should be. I love swimming. But the reality for most people is that because swimming is so heavily skill based, and because they suck so badly at it, they don’t really get anything for fitness other than drown proofing.

      1. What “Tier” would you place swimming for a trained and decently fit swimmer? I also run and cycle, but am generally a bigger guy (6′ and 210 lbs)

  4. “I’m going to add one small adjustment to this formula – because this formula is devised for running if you use a rower or a bike add 5bpm.”

    This is backward. Heart rate responses for rowing and cycling are less than those from running.

  5. Great article, Andrew. I think you just helped me decide to go with my own training and my members. It has been a thought in my head for a while and your article made sense. Thanks for the knowledge!

  6. Superb article.

    This has worked tremendously well for me over the past 10 months. Your work, book and articles together with the writing about KJ Cardio Code made me realise a number of things, which have had a tremendous effect on the make-up of my training.

    I do something similar to your suggestion about 5 mins on each bit of kit.. I use 3, AD, Rower and Skipping [We have an elliptical, but I choose to skip, what can I say, I enjoy it]. I actually ladder down, 5,4,3,2,1 on each of the 3 bits of kit and find this a fabulous way to get in 45 mins of aerobic work without becoming bored.

    Have a great one, Andy and thanks again

    Steve

  7. This may be a silly question. How do you fuel the “cardiac training as you stated it helps transition the body to rely on fat as fuel? Also how would you do so to retain as much muscle as possible?

    Thank you!
    Jay

    1. For that intensity you don’t need any special fuel beyond (some) water to replenish what you sweat out. This is why many who do cardio end up fat – over fueling.

    1. Cardio Code by my friend Kenneth jay would be a good start. Filled with reviews of many scientific studies and their implications in fitness training.

  8. Andrew, which tier would an elliptical be on? (For 120-130kg blokes with poor mobility and prosthetic hips) cheers

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