For a while there, I thought I had it all figured out.
I'd been lifting heavy barbells three days per week and resting four while completely neglecting cardio and bodyweight exercises.
Who needs that other stuff when you're getting big and strong, right?
That was, until I hopped up to a chin-up bar and struggled to drag my heavy ass up there for a measly 5 reps. WTF?!?!
I Really Fucked Myself This Time
When I was 180 lbs, I was able to crank out a set of 16 chin-ups on the fly when challenged by a cocky noob in the gym.
I was pretty proud of that because these were honest chins – each rep starting with a dead hang, scapula elevated, and finishing with my scapula depressed and chin over the bar.
But after gaining roughly 40 lbs over 8 months and not training chin-ups along the way, I was shocked by how much my performance had declined.
Even though I've gotten much stronger, it literally felt like I was wearing a weighted vest and this new bodyweight didn't seem to be helping me at all.
The same thing happened to my cardio. I used to be able to run 3 miles pretty easily, but after a long absence of exposing my body to any sort of impact, it got soft on me.
I recently I decided to go for my first run in over 8 months and I was limping after a quarter mile!
My left shin and right hip felt painfully pumped and my joints were battered.
I sat there and thought to myself
What good is being big and strong if it hurts to move fast and I can barely lift my own heavy ass?
Gaining Weight And Staying Athletic
Cardio and bodyweight exercises can be like a lie detector test for bodybuilders.
If you're wondering if you're bulk is resulting in too much fat gain, all you have to do is find a chin up bar or lace up your runners and find out for sure.
If your performance is decreasing at a noticeable rate, chances are your fat gain is outpacing your muscle gain.
In my case, I know I've gained some fat but my major problem was the “use it or lose it” kind.
Most weight gain endeavors I've embarked on in the past have included at least some cardio and bodyweight exercises as a regular part of my routine, keeping me conditioned to the stimulus.
But this year I decided to go all in. I trained almost exclusively on low rep barbell moves and took my rest days seriously.
I didn't do any cardio or bodyweight exercise and despite the extra work I've created for myself, I'm glad I did because it taught me a valuable lesson.
It's much easier to maintain athletic ability and relative strength than it is to gain it all over again.
With that in mind, here are my recommendations for non-competitive lifters on how to manage all aspects of strength and conditioning when gaining weight.
How to Incorporate Cardio and Bodyweight Exercises
Example weekly workout schedule
When gaining muscular bodyweight is your main goal, everything else must be set to maintenance.
As important as cardio and bodyweight exercises are, diet and barbell training is still 90% of the physique transformation equation, so it's important to view them from that perspective.
Unless you're a complete beginner, you're better off not trying to improve your squat and 5k time all at once.
The same goes for bodyweight exercises. You aren't going to gain 30 lbs of bodyweight, double your all-time best chin-up record, and add 100 lbs to your bench press in the same season.
But you do have a very good chance of maintaining your current conditioning and relative strength if you dedicate a portion of your energy toward that goal.
The Cardio Plan
When gaining muscular bodyweight, rest days are just as important as lifting. The best way to look at is: stress, recover, adapt, stress, recover, adapt…
I like to go to the gym, hit a PR, then spend the next day recovering and mentally preparing myself before going in and doing it again.
But like most lifters, I get a little antsy on off days. So I like to do something constructive with the conveniently spaced rest days my lifting schedule provides me with.
I think a good use of those off days is to do your cardio. Why?
- It'll help you keep your routine of daily training
- Increased blood flow helps you recover from the previous lifting session
- It warms you up for mobility work (especially the hips and lower back)
- Keeps daily training stress at a manageable level
What Type of Cardio?
To give a short answer to the type of cardio you should do while gaining weight – anything that's reasonably intense and requires you to be on your feet.
This could be something simple like jogging around the neighborhood, playing basketball with your buddies, or hiking a tough trail.
Interval type of conditioning exercises also work very well. I really like:
- Farmers walks (ideally in excess of your bodyweight)
- Sled pushes/pulls
Any one of the above exercises will help your joints and connective tissue adapt on pace with your muscles.
And remember, the goal isn't to set state records in any of these activities. It's just to get a set amount of time in for maintenance and health benefits.
For steady state cardio, I like to go for about 30-60 minutes, depending on how hard I'm working.
For intervals, I keep it to 15 minutes or less. If you can stomach more than that you need to ask yourself if you're really going all out or if you're pacing yourself.
Keep the number of cardio sessions per week to whatever you can sustain, with 2-4 being ideal.
The important thing is that you're getting some consistent, moderate impact to your skeletal system so that it doesn't feel like you're wearing a weight vest later on.
The Bodyweight Exercise Plan
The best way to think of bodyweight exercises is as a complement to your barbell lifts. They help you develop and maintain strength relative to your bodyweight and add some training volume to certain muscles.
In my experience, the ideal time to do bodyweight exercises is after you finish with your freeweight session to keep the heavy training stress confined to your three times weekly workouts.
You could, of course, do bodyweight exercises on your off days, but that would just interfere with recovery by adding a similar training stimulus every day of the week which screws up the “stress, recover, adapt, stress, recover, adapt” model.
Sure you'll be tired and won't get as many reps, but that's fine since barbell PRs are most important and everything else is set to cruise.
What Type of Bodyweight Exercises?
Just about anything will work here, but since I like to keep things simple and effective, here are my favorite bodyweight exercises:
- Fat man rows (a.k.a., inverted rows)
- Hanging leg raises
- Back extensions
Bodyweight Exercise Prescription
If you're lifting 3-4 days per week, then you can do bodyweight exercises at the end of every one of those sessions.
I like training with higher frequency (meaning same muscle groups multiple times per week), so I'll train bodyweight exercises that are the opposite of whatever lift I trained heavy that day.
For example, if I benched heavy, I'll train chins or inverted rows for higher reps and save the dips and pushups to follow a heavy pulling session.
I very rarely go to failure on bodyweight exercises since I'm already beat from (hopefully) setting a PR on a major barbell lift.
I tend to favor volume here, so 3-5 sets of as many reps as I can get with good form (stopping 1-2 reps short of failure) has been the best for me in terms of progressing in the long run.
Keep Your Body Strong With Cardio and Bodyweight Exercises
The good news is that these methods are in fact effective!
In under a month, I'm back to jogging 3 miles relatively pain free and can crank out 5 sets of 8 on the chin-up bar and still weigh just shy of 220 lbs.
To keep yourself from outgrowing your own conditioning level, or to regain your lost athletic ability, include at least some cardio and bodyweight exercises in your weekly routine.
It's as simple as adding 1-2 bodyweight exercises for 3-5 sets following lifting sessions and 2-4 cardio sessions per week. Any combination of steady state or conditioning will work just fine.
All the best,