How to Build a Better Cardio Base (Without Losing Muscle)

Cardio. Love it or hate it, conditioning is a valuable piece for any athlete. Done right, it can not only complement your strength, but facilitate recovery and improve your overall work capacity. 

But cardio is hardly a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on your sport, body type and nutritional goals, you’re going to be doing vastly different things. Here’s how to get the most out of your training and avoid meaningless cardio. (Because no one benefits from watching Oprah on the elliptical machine.) 

What are your nutritional goals? 

If your goal is to lose body fat, conditioning can be very beneficial to help you get that energy expenditure up. Although if you’re in the middle of an intense cutting phase, you may want to rethink the cardio–dieting is very stressful on your body and adding cardio (a la more stress) to the mix is often not the best idea.

If you’re trying to add muscle and you’re eating to a surplus, you may need to scale back on the brutal metcons and endurance training. Doing a lot of high-volume, high-intensity conditioning is only going to burn up those calories you are trying to add to your frame!  You don’t have to limit conditioning entirely, but it shouldn’t be a major part of your training. (Think maybe 20-30 minutes of lower-intensity stuff like biking, walking, rowing or medium to low-intensity circuits.)

You aren’t going to run off your muscle.

CrossFit: Assess what kind of athlete you are

It can be tough to get in all the work required for a non-specialty sport like CrossFit. That’s why athlete assessment is critical in determining how you spend the bulk of your conditioning time.

Aerobic capacity founder Chris Hinshaw looks at two things when assessing an athlete: an anaerobic event such as the 400 m run versus a timed mile (which is more aerobic). Do these on separate days and make sure you get your splits on the mile every 400 m. What kind of fatigue did you get within the mile compared to your all-out 400? Hinshaw estimates a normal fatigue zone factor for CrossFit athletes is 20-21 percent.

So, if there’s a drastic drop-off with your splits (which is most common in CrossFit, particularly for athletes with no previous endurance background), you need to spend more time doing longer, slow distance work.

If speed work is an issue, add two shorter, interval-style workouts that focus on that.

And, no matter where you score, make sure you’re doing strength work that’s not just in the 1-5 rep range. Particularly as a CrossFit athlete, you have to condition your body to be ready for anything.

Don’t know you 10-rep max back squat?  It’s not as cool as a max lift, but higher strength sets are just as important. Start building a better base.

For powerlifters/weightlifters: Specificity is the name of the game 

Conditioning for lifters is vastly different as you’re training solely with the intent of lifting at or near a maximal load on meet day.

Tempo work and EMOMs (every minute on the minute) can help with conditioning, as can setting up a prescribed amount of rest between sets. (For example, 5×5 deadlifts with 45 seconds in between.)

Circuit work is fine as long as the duration is comparable to the demands of your sport. Choose exercises that track movements and muscle groups needed to develop that strength and endurance in. Box jumps, jumping rope, prowler/sled pushes and drags, farmers walks, dips, hip extensions, push-ups and pull-ups are all great ideas.

You can stagger the movements circuit style or pick a few to do short bursts, 30-45 seconds, with recovery time in between.

The bottom line is you want your conditioning to be quality, to serve a purpose and not be some random mash-up at the end of your training. Conditioning has a purpose, but it shouldn’t be done at a level that’s going to prevent you from lifting the prescribed loads and reps in your program.

Cardio as Recovery: Way better than binge-watching Netflix 

Everyone can benefit from doing a longer 45-plus minute of easy cardiovascular work on a rest day. It can be as simple as walking your dog or popping in a movie while you row.

The key is to keep it light to ensure you’re just getting fresh blood flow and aiding recovering for the next day’s training.

If you struggle with going too hard, try carrying a conversation with someone or singing while you’re doing it. That will help ensure you’re at a relaxation, Zone 1 pace.