The Top 5 Cardio Mistakes

We have to talk about it. As much as you’d rather discuss bench pressing, biceps or just about anything else, most bodybuilders spend more time on a treadmill or StepMill than a leg press or preacher bench. And when dieting down, most iron men and women invest more hours burning calories than pumping muscles. Still, the majority of trainers haven’t learned how to maximize their stationary strides. This month, we shed the fat and explain how to get your cardio back on track. Class is in session.

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Cardio has

traditionally been thought of as a warm-up activity, thus many bodybuilders do it before weight training. This both robs energy from their iron workout and limits their fat burning. Others prefer to do it in a separate workout. This is also not ideal.

A 2007 study demonstrated that when trainers did cardio immediately after a weight workout, they burned approximately twice as much fat as when they did cardio in a separate workout. This was due to the subjects’ elevated growth hormone levels after hitting the iron. Research has also shown that when subjects do cardio before weights, their growth hormone levels are significantly lower during the weight workout than when they started right off with the weights. Lower GH levels when you are lifting means limited muscle growth and strength gains.


  • Do the bulk of your cardio immediately after weight training. Research has shown that the fat burning is at its greatest during the first 15 minutes, although we recommend at least 20.
  • If you need to crank up the cardio and hit it twice daily, as in the final weeks before a contest, do one of those sessions in the morning before eating any carbs, but have 10-20 grams of fast-digesting whey protein first to prevent muscle loss and actually burn more fat (see mistake #5).
  • Toney Freeman is among the bodybuilders who include some cardio action as a warm-up, especially on leg day, to loosen up and prime the pump. Like T-Free, keep your preworkout time on a stationary bike or StepMill to 10 minutes or less.



Bodybuilders tend to be of two minds on cardio: slow and steady, so as to not exhaust their energy reserves, or fast and furious, adopting the same take-no-prisoners approach they apply to barbells and dumbbells. In fact, both approaches will burn fat, but neither is ideal. Studies have demonstrated that the best approach combines both low and high intensity. It’s called high-intensity interval training, and it will not only stoke your fat-zapping metabolism, but it will also reduce the amount of time you spend striding in place.


  • Begin with a three-minute warm-up at a slow pace. Then alternate one minute at a quick pace (fast jog on treadmill) with 30 seconds at a slow pace (walking on treadmill). End with a three-minute cooldown at a slow pace.
  • Depending on your endurance, when first doing HIIT, you may need to lengthen the slow-pace intervals, but build up to where you’re alternating quick and slow intervals at a ratio of 2:1 for 20-30 minutes.
  • HIIT can be done on a running track, alternating one minute runs with 30 second walks.

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Flex doing cardio

The tedium of standing in the same spot, moving without moving for a half-hour or more, is the number one reason bodybuilders shortchange cardio. Even with all the modern electronic diversions — phones, iPods, computers, TVs — plodding along on a treadmill or StepMill is nobody’s idea of fun.


  • Most modern gyms have more than just treadmills, StepMills and stationary bikes. Take advantage of your gym’s variety. Ellipticals, rock-climbing machines, tread climbers and rowing machines are just some of the other devices, and higher-tech versions of old machines are released regularly.To stay inspired, use a different type of machine each workout.
  • Split your cardio in two. Work a muscle group, do 20 minutes of cardio, work another muscle group, and then finish with 20 minutes of cardio. Recent research comparing a 60-minute cycling session with two 30-minute sessions divided by 20 minutes of rest demonstrates that shorter sessions are more effective for fat loss than one longer session. This strategy also staves off boredom.
  • Go outside. Jog, hike, swim, ride a bicycle, jump rope, play basketball. Nobody said you had to do your cardio in a gym. Doing at least some of it outdoors via sports and other aerobic activities will instantly solve your treadmill blahs.
  • Pick up the weight. Performing full-body exercises — such as cleans and snatches with a light-weight barbell or with dumbbells — is a great way to do cardio, especially HIIT.



The fear of some bodybuilders that cardio will waste away their hard-earned muscle may be exaggerated, but it is not entirely unfounded. After all, treadmills, StepMills and the like will involve lower-body muscle action, just as rope climbers and rowing machines hit the upper body. So if you’re plodding along for too long and/or too often, the extra work may indeed stifle recovery and growth. In fact, studies show that endurance athletes have suppressed testosterone levels due to the excessive miles they rack up. This is another reason to keep your cardio sessions shorter with the help of HIIT.


  • Just as HIT workouts use a minimum amount of iron time, HIIT can reduce your cardio to as little as 20 minutes, three times weekly, thus limiting the muscular workload.
  • Regularly alternate machines, weight exercises and outdoor exercises to stimulate different muscles.
  • Don’t do leg-intensive cardio on leg day, and you may also want to avoid it the day after an especially intense leg workout.

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Many bodybuilders think they must wake up first thing in the morning and jump to cardio while their body is in a fat-burning mode with no food in their system. There is some truth to this, but running completely on empty first thing in the morning could be compromising your muscle mass.


  • If you do cardio first thing in the morning, avoid all forms of carbs, including slow-digesting fruit, whole grains and fast-digesting sugars.
  • Don’t compromise on protein. Having 10-20 grams of a fast-digesting whey protein shake before your morning cardio will save your muscle mass and will not compromise fat burning. Research from Japan suggests that the amino acids found in whey protein may actually enhance fat burning during cardio.
  • Boost morning cardio intensity without compromising fat burning by sipping on a sports drink, such as Gatorade, and spitting it out (don’t swallow it). One study from the University of Birmingham (Edgbaston, United Kingdom) found that when trained cyclists covered a certain amount of mileage as fast as possible while rinsing their mouth with a carb drink and spitting it out every seven to eight minutes, they were able to cover the mileage three minutes faster than when they rinsed with water. Increasing cardio intensity will boost the amount of calories burned during and after cardio. If you try this technique, rinse your mouth about every 10 minutes with a sports drink, and then spit it out. Of course, if you do your cardio indoors, bring a spit cup. FLEX