Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.
1 The best form of cardio is weight training
I think the best form of HIIT cardio is additional weight-training. This is a new theory for me, but I got to a point where I thought ‘why I am trying to be a sprinter when I want to be a better bodybuilder? Besides, everyone hates cardio anyway!’ This was a conclusion I came to after getting involved with Olympic weightlifting. Have you ever seen Dmitry Klokov, or any of those guys doing barbell complexes? What’s not to like?
In fact, in the recent review article I wrote with my colleagues Peter Fitschen, Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld we suggested full body modalities of cardio such as cleans or kettlebell work to reduce interference. These days I only encourage my athletes to get on the ‘hamster wheel’ if they actually enjoy it, if not they get to lift weights! Now this doesn’t mean just go hog wild and add volume, it needs to be something that won’t interfere with your actual training.
Here is a common protocol I recommend that can be done for even those not proficient in Olympic movements. For males, get a 20kg bar with 2.5-5kg per side, for females get just the bar. Then do five RDLs, five bent-over rows, five hang cleans, five presses, and finish with five front squats. By the end your heart rate will be through the roof. Drop the bar, catch your breath, then go again; repeating until you’ve burned your target number of calories or completed the length of time you want. The beauty of it, is you will actually enjoy it, because it’s lifting weights, not traditional cardio.
You’ll be using movement patterns you are likely already accustomed to, so delayed onset muscle soreness, muscle damage, and injury risk will be minimal. You won’t risk messing yourself up ahead of a heavier session the next day. In fact, it might even have flushed a lot of blood through the muscle groups you usually work, so it could potentially act as active recovery. How cool is that? That’s the type of cardio I get on board with.
2 Poor quality training sucks
What do you think is more disastrous to your lean body mass? Poor-quality workouts or not eating enough protein? The answer is the quality of your training session. So I would rather have someone eat slightly too little protein and do a fantastic resistance training programme than I would have them doing the opposite. Meaning, that if you increase your protein so much to the point that your carbohydrate or fat intake has suffered, and subsequently you can’t train effectively, that is not an effective strategy for lean body mass retention.
The initial stimulus for having all of this lean body mass is tension from resistance training. Lifting weights is your biggest tool. Protein is awesome but remember, we’re talking about priorities. The simple fact is that a high-protein intake cannot make up for a poor resistance training programme and a crash dieting approach.
3 Protein is an energy source
Firstly, although a lot less of it is used for energy than fat or carbs, protein is still a fuel source. If you’re eating a very high protein diet then up to 40% of the protein you eat can be converted into ketones and also glucose. Even on a moderate protein intake some of it’s getting used as energy. It’s just not an efficient energy source. So if you have a very fast metabolic rate, even if you’re only using 5-10% of your protein intake for energy, that will elevate your protein requirements a little bit. That’s why not everyone needs the exact same amount of protein at the same bodyweight.
It’s also useful to be aware that we use more protein for energy when we’re leaner. This makes sense because there’s less body fat to oxidise for fuel. And it’s the same with glycogen (stored carbohydrate) depletion. It makes sense that if we have less fat and carbohydrate in our body to use then we’re going to use more protein. So when you diet and you lose body fat and you’re glycogen-depleted you’re more likely to use some protein for fuel and that can result in muscle loss. Also, if you’re doing more cardio and adapting to it you have to create more mitochondria in the cells and that requires protein as well.
4 Testosterone may matter less than you think
This may seem controversial but should we even be focusing on testosterone levels as an important variable during drug-free contest preparation? The underlying assumption of why we even care about testosterone is because it supposedly has some effect on lean mass retention during a diet. However, there was a study of drug-free bodybuilders dieting for competition and despite their testosterone levels decreasing, testosterone didn’t appear to have a relationship with lean body mass loss.
In fact, the hormones that did appear to have a relationship with lean body mass loss were insulin and IGF1, which are actually more affected by carbohydrate intake than fat intake. Indeed, the researchers suggested that a potential avenue to prevent lean losses would be to try to maintain a higher carbohydrate intake; fat intake wasn’t on their radar.
The take home is that normal physiological ranges of testosterone don’t make huge impacts on muscle mass. Sure, if you have clinically very low levels of testosterone, or if you are taking anabolic steroids, that will have a very visible impact on muscle mass. However, falling from high normal or normal to low normal is an expected occurrence during an extended diet to reduce body-fat levels and is not indicative of how much muscle mass is lost or retained.
5 HIIT can be a miss
There was a study conducted in the late 1980s comparing trained marathon runners to trained sprinters. It wasn’t just about HIIT, but specifically about sprinting and long distance running. They found that there’s twice the injury rate in sprinters, specifically hamstring strains, than in marathon runners.
But it’s even worse than it looks because think about how far and for how long marathon runners run. If we talk about the rate of injury per unit of time running or unit of distance covered, then that’s when you really appreciate how crazy that rate of injury is in comparison. It’s actually nuts. Sprinters get a lot of hamstring injuries compared to distance runners. And that’s a study of properly-trained sprinters, not bodybuilders pretending they know how to sprint! You can imagine what happens when big bodybuilders start sprinting as their primary form of cardio. I don’t need to imagine: I’ve strained my hamstrings doing sprints and I’ve watched others do so the same. In summary the higher the intensity, the higher the risk of injury, at least when it comes to running.
6 Don’t overthink your rest periods
I don’t think rest periods are as important as a lot of people think. Remember, we adapt in a functional manner to the training we do. Short rest periods make you better at recovering faster so you can do more work. But hypertrophy has more to do with the total volume of work you do, not how long you rest between sets. But don’t take my word for it, a lot of studies have been performed on rest periods, comparing rest periods anywhere from one minute to five minutes with each group doing the same workout and none have found differences in hypertrophy[6-8].
It’s good to have a great work capacity and I like to train efficiently so I can get more volume done in a session, but rest periods for hypertrophy aren’t set in stone. You just need to rest long enough so you can do the next set as well as possible. Fatigue isn’t the primary training goal, quality training and getting all your prescribed volume in is. If you only rest 30 seconds between each set then you subsequently won’t be able to move much weight so total volume and tension on the muscle will be less.
7 Be wary of training to failure
Take two lifters. One trains very hard. The other trains very hard and smart. Ten-rep max is 100kg for both of them. Both lifters have to do four sets. The hard worker takes every set to failure, and gets 10, then seven, then five, then four. The hard and smart worker does four sets of eight, and only the last set hits failure. Who’s done more volume? The first guy might feel as though he has worked harder, because he took every set to failure, but his total volume is way down on the guy who only went all-out on his final set: 26 reps at 100kg versus 32 reps at 100kg. Do the math, who will grow more?
I’m not saying don’t ever train to failure, but I am saying that if you are going to do some work to failure, do it in a way that won’t negatively compromise your total volume. Don’t put the cart before the horse, focus on the big picture goals. Remember, what you want to achieve is getting as much efficient and effective work done as you can, that’s appropriate for your training age, so that you grow at the maximum rate possible.
1. Bilsborough, S. and N. Mann, A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2006. 16(2): p. 129.
2. Elia, M., R.J. Stubbs, and C.J. Henry, Differences in fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism between lean and obese subjects undergoing total starvation. Obes Res, 1999. 7(6): p. 597-604.
3. Pikosky, M.A., et al., Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Skeletal Muscle Protein Turnover in Healthy Adults at Rest. The Journal of Nutrition, 2006. 136(2): p. 379-383.
4. Maestu, J., et al., Anabolic and catabolic hormones and energy balance of the male bodybuilders during the preparation for the competition. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(4): p. 1074-81.
5. Lysholm, J. and J. Wiklander, Injuries in runners. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 1987. 15(2): p. 168-171.
6. Ahtiainen, J.P., et al., Short vs.long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: Influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005. 19(3): p. 572-582.
7. Buresh, R., K. Berg, and J. French, The effect of resistive exercise rest interval on hormonal response, strength, and hypertrophy with training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009. 23(1): p. 62-71
8. de Souza, T.P.J., et al., Comparison Between constant and decreasing rest intervals: influence on maximal strength and hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010. 24(7): p. 1843-1850