Training

The Best Cardio for Lifters

The best cardio for lifters

I'm going to say something here that may sound a bit strange coming from a dude who looks like a lumberjack – walking is my favorite form of cardio.

You might be thinking that's ridiculous, but hear me out.

Not only is walking the most basic human movement, it's great for fat loss, muscle preservation, and overall wellness.

It doesn't have a learning curve, it doesn't take much effort, and it doesn't even require a gym membership.

Yet it's constantly overshadowed by other forms of cardio, including medium intensity activity (like jogging) and high intensity interval training.

And most guys make the mistake of thinking that HIIT is essential for fat loss.

But if you're already putting plenty of intensity into weightlifting, there's no reason to double down with an equally taxing cardio regimen.

Yes, walking doesn't significantly improve your aerobic capacity and it doesn't burn calories at the same rate as other regimens.

But it's the most effective counterpart I've found to complement an intense lifting schedule.

So if you're already pumping that iron, get ready to start hitting the treadmill and the trails.

Why we do cardio

For most, the main reason to do cardio is to improve your appearance, and that means fat loss and muscle preservation!

Sure, better health and improved athletic ability is a welcome benefit.

But I'd be willing to bet that if the potential to look better naked was off the table, the treadmill farms in most gyms would quickly fade into a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Here's why I think walking is the perfect mate to your fat loss specific routine.

1. Walking doesn't “empty the tank”

Everyone has a limit to their work capacity in the gym.

Perhaps you're thinking, “I can lift like a beast for hours!” and that may very well be true.

But just because you have the ability to do a lot of work doesn't mean your energy is limitless.

And since lifting weights is the king in terms of transforming your physique, it's best to attack that full force.

For every ounce of effort you put into high intensity cardio, the same amount gets taken away from your lifting sessions.

With energy allocation in mind, I haven't actually found the ideal placement for other forms of cardio.

Intense cardio before lifting wears me out for the big event.

And I never seem have quite the drive left over to do HIIT justice following my lifting routine.

But walking actually helps to prepare me for heavy lifting.

After walking for 20 or 30 minutes, my muscles are warm, my joints are mobile, my mind is clear, my energy levels are off the charts, and I'm ready to get to the good stuff!

2. Walking is “safe” fasted cardio

Fasted training has become hugely popular over the past few years, and for good reason.

When your body's been without a meal for the entire night, it has no choice but to use stored energy as fuel for your early morning workouts.

This sounds great on the surface, leading most to think that they can bully their bodies into giving up the jiggly stuff.

But if your a.m. exercise is too intense, your body won't bother with fat metabolism (it's a slow process) and will resort to glycogen and amino acids (muscle tissue!) for energy.

So essentially, by doing intense cardio on an empty stomach, you're depleting your energy source for the upcoming weightlifting session and potentially sacrificing muscle tissue along with the body fat.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to fuel my fat loss workout with muscle mass.

But lower intensity cardio, such as walking at a reasonable pace on a low incline, will primarily use body fat as energy, sparing glycogen and muscle tissue.

Plus, check out my tips below in “Get the Most Out of Walking” to help maximize the benefits of fasted cardio.

3. Walking helps you recover

Thanks to years of manual labor (starting when I was 13 years old), my lower back is a train wreck.

I have a herniated disc, a cracked and floating vertebra, and my lumbar spine is off center, leaning, and twisted – all at the same time.

So when any of the muscles around my hips or lower back get tight, it creates uneven stress, which leads to severe nerve pain.

And that nerve pain leads to light workouts and making zero progress.

So I avoid it at all costs.

But after years of dealing with this, I've found that by getting my muscles warm with a good walk on an incline, they're much more responsive to stretching and foam rolling.

Even if you don't have a bad back, walking gets your heart pumping and your muscles contracting.

This action floods your working muscles with nutrient dense blood and helps whisk away metabolic waste products.

Have you ever noticed how stretching and doing really light reps seems to be the best way to overcome DOMs?

Likewise, walking is the best way I've found to recover from a brutal squat workout.

4. Walking refreshes your mind

Usually, when I walk through the doors at my gym, I'm not operating at 100%.

It's 6am, some body part usually aches, and someone left resistance bands and various straps attached to the squat rack, again!

Sometimes, these little things can chip away at my drive, leading to less productive workouts.

But I've found that by warming up with a good walk, I have time to mentally prepare for my workout.

I can ask myself “why am I here? What do I want out of this particular workout?” and “how will I feel later if I just go through the motions?”

It's also an opportunity to practice mindfulness – simply focusing on my gait, my foot placement, my breathing.

By using this time to check in with myself, misplaced equipment and the daily grind has no effect on me.

Even if you don't warm up with walking, I'm sure you've experienced the same thing.

Have you ever felt bummed out and decide to go for a walk?

My guess is that you actually felt better by the end.

I don't know exactly why it works so well.

But the rhythmic motion and physical effort seems to help us find perspective and clear life's little inconveniences from our minds.

Get the most out of walking

If you're eager to try walking as the cardio companion to your lifting routine, here are a few tips to maximize your results.

Take some BCAAs

If you're doing your cardio early in the morning and/or have a difficult time building and maintaining muscle, BCAAs are almost an essential.

By taking 5 grams of BCAAs (a typical serving), you greatly improve your chances of holding onto the majority of your muscle so that in the process of losing weight, you actually looked ripped rather than just skinny.

My current favorite is Amino Recovery which has 8 grams of BCAAs per serving and one scoop easily (and deliciously) flavors a brimming shaker of water.

Caffeine helps!

Taking caffeine helps mobilize fatty acids, which simply means that it persuades fat away from it's storage site and into the bloodstream where it can be used as fuel.

And the most obvious benefit is the increases mental alertness (see below for what to do with your clear mind).

For your caffeine fix, it doesn't really matter the source.

You can choose coffee, a pre-workout, a homemade pre-workout, or a fat burner. Your call.

Use walking as a warmup

Rather than doing cardio and lifting on separate days, try rolling your low intensity cardio into your warmup routine.

About 20-30 minutes should do the trick, but up to an hour will provide better results.

To maximize the effects, take your BCAAs and caffeine before cardio to preserve muscle mass and maximize fat burning.

Then have liquid carbs (I use Gatorade powder) before lifting to fuel your workout.

This way, you reap the benefits of both fasted and non-fasted training.

Use walking as a cool down

If you don't want to do cardio first for whatever reason, you can go ahead and tack it on the end.

You'll get near the effects of fasted cardio since your glycogen will be depleted from lifting.

But in this case, I would keep it to half an hour or less so that you can get some food in your belly sooner rather than later.

Remember, preserving muscle is the main goal and that means getting the recovery process underway quickly.

Programming

For the average lifter hitting the weights 3-5 times per week, here are my general time recommendations.

  • 30 minutes pre or post workout
  • 60 minutes on “off” days or as a separate workout on lifting days
  • Weekly total of 2-6 hours depending on schedule and need

If you're doing this fasted, I would keep the speed to around 3 mph and the incline under 5%.

If you're walking after a meal or two, feel free to kick up the speed and incline to your liking.

Shrink your waist, expand your brain

Despite all of these benefits, choosing to walk as your major form of cardio has one downside…

It's time consuming!

But there's even an upside to that.

When I'm walking on the treadmill, my mind is free to either unwind or to soak up new information.

I often take advantage of this time by reading magazines or listening to podcasts and audio books.

In fact, I've gotten a few article ideas while thumbing through men's magazines and thinking, “that's great information, but I can do it better.”

And a new Iron & Tweed article is born!

So rather than thinking of your cardio as a bore or a “dead spot” in your schedule, put it to good use and come out a better man.

Take away

As with all things, building a great physique is about allocating your resources in the most effective way possible.

The ideal form of cardio doesn't siphon training energy, tap into precious muscle mass, beat your body down, or weigh on your mind.

From my experience, walking fits the bill nicely and for those reasons, I like to think of it as “free” activity.

Meaning it doesn't take much of anything from you, but it can give a lot back.

Namely a leaner physique, a more healthy body, and a clearer mind.

All the best,

Nate

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Mark
    March 28, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    To be fair high intensity cardio will burn much more fat per unit of time, even if the % energy utilization of fat is lower during high intensity exercise the net calories from fat is higher so if you have time constraints HIIT would be superior, but you’re other points are very true.

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 28, 2016 at 2:37 pm

      I absolutely agree with you and used to argue the same thing with my professors in school. I even had to draw them a bar graph, haha! Advising people (obese general population) to workout in the “fat burning zone” can be very misleading. However, I think low intensity cardio is the perfect complement for guys who are already doing plenty of weight training.

  • Reply
    Ryan
    March 29, 2016 at 3:15 am

    Nate,
    This article speaks so much truth it’s ridiculous! I’ve always felt fully drained heading into a gym session after HIIT, or even on an off day my gym session the following day would be handicapped.

    You have shed much light on the subject for me, a fresh perspective are cardio cannot be overstated of its importance

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 29, 2016 at 5:40 am

      Exactly. For me, the debate isn’t HIIT vs walking it’s walking vs nothing. Just keep in mind, you have to make up for the lack of intensity with more time. To get the same calorie burning effects as HIIT, you’re looking at a minimum of double the time.

  • Reply
    Shobhit Choudhary
    March 29, 2016 at 6:35 am

    Hey Nate,
    I have never been a fan of walking, it’s quite boring don’t you think so?
    But I can’t deny the numerous benefits that you have mentioned. I’d also add one more to your list from my experience while I was backpacking across South America. I was on a low calorie diet and I used to walk a lot, my average was 10kms. I did a lot of trekking.
    Results – Total weight loss was 7 kgs in 6 weeks and it took me 1 month to regain the muscle mass I lost during the trip.
    But man, it added significant size to my calf muscles. When you walk with straight legs, you work both the gastroc and soleus and also I think the calf muscles primary consist of slow twitch fibers.

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 29, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      I actually welcome the time to clear my head or learn something. That’s a huge weight loss in 6 weeks. I would say great job but I know your goals are actually the opposite.

      • Reply
        Shobhit Choudhary
        March 29, 2016 at 10:48 pm

        Other than the 15kgs backpack on my shoulders there were two more factors that contributed to the weight loss.
        1. South America is hell for a vegetarian. Somehow I used to convey to the wait staff in my broken Spanish and Portuguese that I’m a “vegetariano”. After hearing which they laughed and then offered me fish so you could guess.
        2. I had food poisoning in Peru.

        I think the easiest approach to loose weight is to backpack in a non-english speaking country. Ha-ha

        As for my goals. Your physique is the ideal sir. I was skinny fat so I didn’t mind loosing that kind of weight. Muscles or fat I didn’t cared much.

        • Reply
          Nate
          March 30, 2016 at 5:19 am

          I can see where that would cause some problems, haha. You’re well on your way to the physique you’re after, I’ve seen your before and after photos.

          • Shobhit Choudhary
            March 31, 2016 at 2:06 am

            It has only been 1.5 years of lifting but I have been consistent and that has made all the difference. I’m not sure if you saw the pictures on my website or Instagram? I have a little belly fat, with which I’m still struggling, any quick tip for that?
            I got the push from VictorPride, his words echoed in my ears all day long when I started training. And then I got enough training hacks from your website. You quoted yourself as “walking muscle encyclopedia”. I concur, Salud!
            Thanks again man!

          • Nate
            March 31, 2016 at 5:20 am

            I was referring to the one on your website but I just checked out your Instagram and see what you mean. What’s your current fat loss plan?

          • Shobhit Choudhary
            March 31, 2016 at 6:00 am

            I’m sending you an email with all the details. It would be easy for you to find any missing link. Thanks man

  • Reply
    I.D.
    March 29, 2016 at 8:23 am

    One option is nordic walking: a more complete workout as it involves both upper and lower body, but still very low impact. Great for trails and hiking. Also very good if you have back problems.

    Speaking of which, could you blog about lifting with back problems? I have a herniated disk and I’ve been shying out of back squats and dead lifts since. I substitute them with leg press, lunge walks and SLDLs, but I feel I’m missing out without those big lifts.

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 29, 2016 at 1:32 pm

      Nordic walking looks interesting. Makes me wish there were more trails in my area. I’ve spent quite a lot of time working around back issues in the gym so I’ll write something about my experience one of these days.

    • Reply
      Dan
      April 6, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      +1 to an article about lifting with back issues!

  • Reply
    Eric
    March 30, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Hey Nate just wondering whether you’ve thought about some posts that don’t specifically relate to lifting weights. There is more than one way to live a healthy and fit lifestyle after all. Maybe a guest post or two.

  • Reply
    Slob to Stud
    May 2, 2016 at 7:57 pm

    Nate, great post. I agree that walking is one of the best ways to clear your mind and think while still being productive. It’s almost “faux meditating”.

    I have been doing a running challenge where I am running a mile a day for 30 days straight. I will consider incorporating walking into my routine / next challenge because of your post. Thanks for the great thoughts!

    • Reply
      Nate
      May 3, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Yep. Whenever I advocate walking every one immediately compares it to HIIT. But for me, it’s more about relaxing while walking vs relaxing on the couch. Glad to help!

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