Cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, is most often associated with improving heart health or helping people to burn calories so they can lose weight. But it also plays an important role in building up muscle. While you will need to perform strength-training exercises to bulk up, some cardio can actually increase your muscle mass and strength and make your resistance workouts more efficient and effective.
The Perks of Cardio
Performing cardiovascular exercises like running, jogging, swimming and biking get your heart rate up and burn calories -- a combination that encourages weight maintenance or loss and promotes overall good health. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should get at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio a week. You may need up to 300 minutes a week, however, to see a change in your weight. Your mileage may vary. Still, if you're new to working out, the movements from cardio, like the pumping of your arms and legs when running, will encourage muscle growth. If you're more physically fit, cardio promotes quicker recovery, while allowing you to gain more muscle mass following each workout session.
Too Much of a Good Thing
While cardio can aid the development of muscle mass, too much can impede it. In fact, performing too much cardio will cause you to burn too many calories and prevent your body from recovering -- a step that's necessary for muscle growth. Too much cardio will also give you those stringy, lean muscles endurance runners have. If that's the look you're going for, that's fine. However, if you want your muscles to grow outward, you'll need to do enough cardio to maintain your weight without going overboard.
Finding the Right Balance
Making the most out of your workout sessions and encouraging muscle growth means finding the right balance between cardiovascular exercise, strength training and diet. Incorporate interval training into your workouts. Instead of jogging for 20 minutes at the same pace, include bursts of running every five minutes or so. Or, use a stationary bike with resistance to build strength and maintain your weight at the same time. If you're having trouble building up muscle mass, you may need to limit your cardiovascular activity to less-intense exercises, fewer times per week. Also, make an effort to eat enough calories per day to give your body the energy it needs to build muscle. Plenty of protein is essential.
The Role of Rest
Rest is essential for muscle growth. Yes, you need to get cardio exercise several times a week and perform resistance exercises on the days you don't, but you also need to take breaks. It's actually during the times you're not exercising that you build muscle mass. Work out too much and you could actually prevent proper muscle repair and growth.
Brenda Barron is a writer, editor and researcher based in Southern California. She has worked as a writer since 2004, with work appearing in online and print publications such as BabyZone, "Cat Fancy" and "ePregnancy." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from California State University, Long Beach.