Understanding Cardio's Role In Muscle Building For Hardgainers

by Nader Qudimat
Updated October 31, 2023

You're a skinny guy, and you've been hitting the gym with one goal: to bulk up and gain muscle.

But you're also hearing about the importance of cardio for overall health.

Now, you're stuck in a dilemma. Can you incorporate cardio into your bulking routine without sabotaging your muscle gains?

This guide is here to answer that question and provide you with a comprehensive plan to achieve the best of both worlds.

Cardio In A Muscle Building Routine: Quick Rundown

Yes, skinny guys can and should incorporate cardio into their workout routine, even when bulking.

The key is strategically including cardio that complements, rather than hinders, muscle gain.

Why Skinny Guys Struggle To Gain Muscle

Skinny guys often find it challenging to gain muscle for several reasons:

  • Fast Metabolism: Your body burns calories quickly, making it hard to gain weight.
  • Limited Caloric Intake: You may not eat enough to create a caloric surplus.
  • Inefficient Workouts: You might not effectively stimulate muscle growth without the right workout plan.

The Mirror And The Scale: Your Best Tools In Tracking Progress

Let's get one thing straight: if you're a skinny guy aiming to bulk up, your mirror and your bodyweight scale are your best friends.

They're the ultimate tools to gauge your progress.

  • Mirror: Shows you real-time changes in muscle definition and size.
  • Scale: Gives you the numerical data you need to see if you're moving towards your goal weight.

If you notice your weight dropping week to week, it's a red flag.

You're either doing too much activity or not eating enough.

The solution?

Either cut back on the cardio or up your caloric intake.

And when it comes to boosting calories, nothing beats a high-calorie smoothie.

Mix in some whey protein, nuts, oatmeal, and bananas, and you've got yourself a calorie bomb.

The Role Of Cardio In Muscle Gain

Cardiovascular exercise is essential for heart health, stamina, and endurance.

Research shows that combining resistance training with cardiovascular exercise can stimulate muscle hypertrophy.

So, cardio can be beneficial if you're looking to gain muscle.

The Cardio Conundrum For Skinny Guys

Ah, the age-old debate: should skinny guys do cardio?

The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think.

Cardio has its merits, but it also has its drawbacks, especially for skinny guys.

  • Merits: Improves cardiovascular health, aids in recovery.
  • Drawbacks: Burns calories, can interfere with muscle gains.

The intent behind doing cardio while bulking is crucial.

Are you doing it for general health, or are you trying to accelerate fat loss while gaining muscle?

Understanding your intent can help you make an informed decision.

The Science Behind Cardio And Muscle Gain

Contrary to popular belief, cardio doesn't necessarily "kill" muscle gains.

Research shows that moderate cardio can improve muscle recovery and growth to some extent.

The key is not to overdo it and to time it properly.

  • Moderate vs. High-Intensity Cardio: Moderate cardio can aid in recovery and improve heart health. High-intensity cardio, on the other hand, can be taxing and eat into your recovery resources.
  • Timing Matters: Doing cardio right after weight training can interfere with muscle recovery. It's better to separate them by at least a few hours or even do them on different days.

Cardio's Impact On Muscle Protein Synthesis

Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is the process your body uses to build new proteins.

One study shows that cardio can increase MPS rates, which means it could potentially help with muscle growth.

However, excessive cardio can have the opposite effect, leading to muscle loss.

The key is moderation and timing.

Track Your Weekly Weigh-Ins

If you're a skinny guy aiming to gain muscle, the mirror and the bodyweight scale are your best friends.

If your weight is dropping week-to-week, you're either not eating enough or doing too much activity.

The solution?

Caloric-dense smoothies or snacks between meals can help you maintain or even increase your weight.

How Often Should You Do Cardio?

Three times a week might sound like a lot, especially for skinny guys.

However, it depends on the type of cardio.

Light cardio can aid in muscle recovery and can be done more frequently.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can be quite taxing and should be limited to once or twice a week.

Timing Your Cardio

When incorporating cardio into a muscle-building routine, timing is everything.

Doing cardio at the wrong time can interfere with your muscle gains, while doing it at the right time can actually enhance your overall fitness and even aid in muscle recovery.

  • Post-Workout Cardio: One effective strategy is to do light cardio after your weightlifting sessions. This can help with muscle recovery by increasing blood flow and reducing muscle soreness.
  • Morning Cardio: If you're not a fan of doing cardio post-workout, another option is to do it in the morning on an empty stomach. This is known as "fasted cardio" and can be effective for fat loss.
  • Days Off: If you're working out four times a week, consider doing cardio on your off days. Just ensure it's light and doesn't interfere with your muscle recovery.
  • Avoid Pre-Workout Cardio: Doing intense cardio before your weightlifting session can deplete your glycogen stores, which you'll need for lifting. Save the intense cardio sessions for separate days or after your lifting session.
  • Before Leg Day: It's generally a good idea to avoid doing cardio the day before you're planning to do a leg workout. Your legs need to be fresh to get the most out of exercises like squats and deadlifts.

Remember, the goal is to incorporate cardio in a way that complements your muscle-building goals, not hinders them.

By being strategic about when you do your cardio, you can reap the benefits of both cardio and weightlifting without sacrificing muscle growth.

A Practical Plan for Including Cardio

If you're keen on working out four times a week, here's how you can balance cardio and lifting:

  • Day 1: Upper body lifting
  • Day 2: Lower body lifting
  • Day 3: Rest or light cardio
  • Day 4: HIIT or another upper body lifting session

Notice that cardio is limited to once or twice a week and is scheduled on days that don't precede lower body lifting.

This is to ensure that your legs are fresh for squatting and deadlifting, which are crucial for overall muscle gain.

Note: Avoid doing cardio the day before you have leg day (squats, deadlifts, etc.).

The Flexibility of HIIT: A Two-In-One Approach For Skinny Guys

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a versatile form of exercise that can serve multiple purposes.

Not only does it improve cardiovascular health, but it also has the potential to count as a weight training session due to its high intensity.

This is particularly useful for those who want to work out more frequently but are concerned about overdoing cardio.

The Importance Of Recovery And Timing

Why You Should Skip Cardio Before Squats

Squats are a compound exercise that requires a lot of energy and strength.

Doing cardio the day before your squat session can lead to muscle fatigue, reducing your performance and potentially affecting your muscle gains.

Cardio's Impact On Muscle Protein Synthesis

So, you're wondering if cardio is the gains goblin lurking in your workout routine.

Let's clear the air and get down to the nitty-gritty science.

The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think.

  • Mixed Bag of Results: Some research points to cardio affecting muscle growth negatively, while other studies say it's not a significant issue.
  • The Cellular Dance: Meet the mTOR and AMPK pathways. One kicks in during weightlifting, and the other during cardio. When you mix both, they can clash.
  • Energy Drain: Combining cardio and weightlifting can leave you exhausted, affecting your lifting performance and, consequently, your gains.

So, what's the bottom line?

Cardio can impact your muscle-building efforts but is not a complete deal-breaker.

The key is finding the right balance.

The Cellular Pathway Tango

Let's dig a bit deeper into these cellular pathways.

The mTOR pathway is your muscle-building buddy, activated when you're lifting weights.

On the other hand, the AMPK pathway comes alive during cardio and can inhibit the mTOR pathway.

This clash can slow down muscle protein synthesis, which helps you build muscle.

Energy: Use It or Lose It

Another angle to consider is energy depletion.

You will be drained if you run a 5K before hitting the weights.

Your lifting performance will suffer, and so will your gains.

Finding Your Balance

So, how do you find that sweet spot?

Here are some quick tips:

  • Divide and Conquer: Separate your cardio and weightlifting sessions. Give yourself at least six hours, or even a full day, in between.
  • Prioritize: If gaining muscle is your main goal, focus on weightlifting first and save cardio for later.
  • Time It Right: Keep cardio sessions under 90 minutes to avoid excessive protein breakdown.

By understanding the science and planning your workouts wisely, you can make cardio an ally, not an enemy.

It's all about balance.

Best Cardio For Skinny Guys

Not all cardio is created equal, especially when you're a skinny guy aiming for muscle gains.

The type of cardio you choose can significantly impact your muscle-building journey.

Here are some cardio types that are generally more favorable for skinny guys:

  • Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS): This includes activities like walking or cycling at a steady pace. LISS is less likely to interfere with muscle growth and can aid in recovery.
  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Short bursts of intense activity followed by rest periods. HIIT can count as a weight training session due to its high intensity. It's excellent for fat loss and can even help build muscle if done correctly.
  • Moderate-Intensity Cardio: Think jogging or swimming. These activities can be done for a longer duration and offer a good balance between calorie burning and muscle preservation.
  • Sports: Playing sports like basketball or soccer can be a fun way to get your cardio in without it feeling like a chore. Just be mindful of the duration and intensity to ensure it aligns with your muscle-building goals.
  • Dance: Believe it or not, dancing can be an effective form of cardio that also helps with coordination and rhythm.

The key takeaway here is to choose a form of cardio that you enjoy and can sustain in the long term.

The best cardio for you is the one you'll do consistently, which complements your weightlifting routine.

Mixing Cardio And Weightlifting

Blending cardio and weightlifting in a single workout routine can be like mixing oil and water; they don't always go together naturally.

However, with the right approach, you can make them complement each other to maximize both muscle gains and cardiovascular health.

  • Cardio After Weights: One popular approach is to do a short cardio session right after your weightlifting workout. This can be as simple as 10-15 minutes of light jogging or cycling.
  • Split Sessions: If you're more advanced, you can split your cardio and weightlifting into separate sessions. For example, you could do weightlifting in the morning and cardio in the evening.
  • Cardio on Rest Days: Another option is to do your cardio on rest days. Just make sure it's light to moderate in intensity so as not to interfere with muscle recovery.
  • The 2:1 Rule: A good rule of thumb is to do two weightlifting sessions for every one cardio session. This ensures that you're still prioritizing muscle growth while reaping the benefits of cardiovascular exercise.
  • Listen to Your Body: Always pay attention to how your body responds. If you find that you're not making the muscle gains you desire, you may need to cut back on cardio or increase your caloric intake.

By thoughtfully integrating cardio into your weightlifting routine, you can enjoy the best of both worlds without compromising your muscle gains.

It's all about balance and listening to your body.


What's the Best Type of Cardio for Skinny Guys?

The best type of cardio for skinny guys is generally low-intensity steady-state (LISS) or moderate-intensity cardio. These forms are less likely to interfere with muscle gains. For more on this, check out this hardgainer workout plan guide.

How Often Should Skinny Guys Do Cardio?

Skinny guys should aim for 1-2 cardio sessions per week, especially if the main goal is muscle gain. For more tips on rapid muscle gain, visit how to gain 10lbs of muscle quickly.

Can Cardio and Weightlifting Be Done on the Same Day?

Yes, cardio and weightlifting can be done on the same day, but it's generally better to do cardio after weightlifting. For a full program that incorporates both, see this 4-week full body program.

Does Cardio Burn Muscle?

Excessive cardio can interfere with muscle gains, but moderate cardio can actually aid in muscle recovery and overall health. For the best exercises for mass building, check out these best mass-building hardgainer exercises.

Should I Do Cardio on Rest Days?

Doing light to moderate cardio on rest days can be beneficial for overall health without affecting muscle gains. For more on what to eat before and after workouts, see this hardgainer nutrition guide.

How Can I Increase My Caloric Intake for Muscle Gain?

High-calorie smoothies and calorie-dense snacks can help you achieve a caloric surplus necessary for muscle gain.

Is HIIT Good for Skinny Guys?

HIIT can be effective for fat loss and can even help build muscle if done correctly. However, it's more intense and can burn more calories, so it should be done cautiously.

How Do I Balance Cardio with Caloric Intake?

Monitor your weight and adjust your caloric intake or cardio frequency accordingly. If you're losing weight, you may need to reduce cardio or increase calories.

What Are the Signs That I'm Doing Too Much Cardio?

If you're losing weight or feeling excessively tired, you may be doing too much cardio and should adjust your routine.

Can I Skip Cardio Altogether?

While you can focus solely on weightlifting, incorporating some form of cardio can provide comprehensive health benefits and can aid in muscle recovery.

Bottom Line

Incorporating cardio into a skinny guy's workout routine doesn't have to be a daunting task.

With the right approach, you can enjoy the benefits of both cardio and weightlifting without compromising your muscle gains.

The key is to find a balance that works for you, both in terms of the type of cardio and the timing of your weightlifting sessions.

  • Be Flexible: Your workout routine isn't set in stone. Be willing to make adjustments based on your progress and how your body responds.
  • Quality Over Quantity: It's not about how much cardio you do, but rather the quality of your cardio sessions. Make them count.
  • Consult a Professional: While this guide provides a comprehensive overview, individual needs can vary. Don't hesitate to consult a fitness professional for personalized advice.
  • Enjoy the Journey: Building muscle and improving your cardiovascular health are long-term commitments. Enjoy the process and celebrate the small wins along the way.

By being strategic and mindful about how you incorporate cardio into your muscle-building routine, you can achieve a well-rounded level of fitness that serves you in the long run.

It's all about balance, timing, and, most importantly, listening to your body.

by Nader Qudimat

Forged by iron and cold steel, I'm Nader, a mid-30s natural bodybuilder. Once a 100lb skinny guy, I've transformed into a 200lb muscular athlete with over 15 years of lifting experience. Today, I leverage my transformation and extensive experience to guide countless individuals on their fitness journeys.

Click here to check out my 12 year transformation: Natural 12 Year Transformation

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