Cardio does’t necessarily mean you’re going to lose muscle mass. If you look at MMA athletes, hockey players or rugby players, you can see that it is possible to be extremely strong and muscular as well as being extremely fit.
In order to maintain your strength and muscle mass during cardio, there is a few rules to follow:
Use similar exercises that you use for strength training. You just have to change some training parameters such as intensity, rest, sets and reps.
Don’t take a lot of breaks. We will later discuss how to structure your workout, but you should keep you rest periods under 2 minutes at any time.
Keep the workouts short but brutal. Around 30 minutes is my personal preference.
Keep your work time under a minute, this will ensure you train hard enough during that time.
Don’t go too light.
Full body exercises are better.
Don’t quit. This may seem evident, but during high intensity workouts, you're going to want to take breaks during your work intervals. Push through the pain and continue.
You will see that even though these are shorter workouts, they are gruesomely hard. Nausea or dizzyness are frequent. These workouts will put your mental toughness to the test. In order for them to be effective, you will need to put in 100% effort. The trick about these workouts is that they are only as hard as you make them. A lot of them are timed based, meaning that you need to complete as many reps as you can during a certain time period. If you aren’t genuinely trying to best yourself, you won’t see a lot of progress.
How to structure you cardio workouts
There are a few classic ways to do so, especially with AMRAPS, complexes and circuits.
The following recommendations are based on my personal preferences, the only limit to how you structure these types of workouts are your imagination and pain tolerance.
Stands for As Many Rounds As Possible and needs a time limit. Choose 2-5 exercises with a rep range of 4-12. I like to use a time limit of 5-8 minutes which allows me to go pretty hard during the whole time.
An exemple of an AMRAP coud be:
For 6 minutes
8 squats press
8 push up rows
You would do 8 squats and press then push up rows then 8 burpees and the 8 grasshoppers. Then you would try to do that again, as many times as possible in 6 minutes.
Can either be done with a barbell, dumbbell, kettle bell, body weight or a combination. What's important here is that the transition between exercises is quick.
There are quite similar than AMRAP except that instead of time, you choose how many rounds you want to do.
Keep the exercises selection between 3-5 and the reps between 6-12. Remember that what matters here is quick transitions.
Exemple of a barbell complex:
6 shoulder press
10 front squats
10 lunges with bar in front squat position
8 bent over rows
Repeat 4 times
Even though there is no time constraint, your goal is to finish the four rounds as fast as possible.
These offer you more diversity in your exercise selection, and transitions aren’t as important as the other two.
You can select a greater number of exercises that target different body parts. Full body movements are better for the sake of this type of workout but you can throw in some isolation stuff here and there to spice things up.
Once you know which exercises to do, set your time and rest interval. Keep the workout intervals between 30-45 seconds and your rest interval no longer than 15 seconds. I personal love the 45-15 split because it makes it easier to calculate how long the whole circuit is.
The length of the whole circuit can go from 10 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on how you want to go about it.
Exemple of a 5 minutes circuit:
45 seconds of:
ab roll out
Take 15 seconds after each exercise.
A 30 minute circuit could look like
45 seconds of:
burpee tuck jumo
burpee mountain climbers
hand walk outs
alternating pistol squats
repeat 3 times.
rest 15 seconds after each exercise.
These exemples illustrate only a fraction of what you can for cardio. We haven’t even touched on HIIT and interval training which are also a killer way to do cardio and retain strength. Keep the intensity high but stay safe. Start slow and increase the intensity gradually. Whether you are doing AMRAPs, circuits or complexes, start with a total time of 5 minutes, and then increase that time by a minute every other week.
A typical cardio workout could be composed of:
8 minutes complex
rest 2 minutes
8 minutes AMRAP
rest 2 minutes
8 minutes circuit
This structure keeps it fun and varied.