Recently I discussed the remarkable transformation of Ryan Hall, who retired from being an elite marathoner and took up bodybuilding, putting on a lot of muscle mass in the process. But I mentioned: “This is not an example that lots of cardio causes muscle wasting, though. For that you’d have to start with someone lean and muscular, like Ryan on the left, as the before picture, and end up with someone lean and slender, like Ryan on the right”.
Since then I’ve come across some examples of people who have undergone the opposite transformation. The first is Nick Bare, former army officer and graduate of ranger training school. His story is detailed in his book 25 Hours a Day: Going One More to Get What You Want. After leaving army service he put a large amount of his energy into developing his company, Bare Performance Nutrition, into a success. But he also trained, very hard, and bulked up a great deal. After the passing of his mother, he decided to do an ironman in tribute to her, which is documented in detail on his youtube channel, and also in the documentary From Bodybuilder To Ironman In 6 Months. He did lose some weight during this period- as he discusses on his youtube channel, it is a matter of training priorities: For an ironman he did a ton of cardio, while still doing strength training but not emphasizing it as much. He feels that any muscle he lost was in his legs, especially the quads, as he stopped doing heavy squats during this period because it leaves his legs too so sore to do a good job of ironman training. But should we conclude this is cardio causing “muscle wasting”? Check out this picture:
He definitely is less bulked up in the after picture. But I think that while the before picture is how you might want to look for a bodybuilding contest, the after is more like the body type many males would aspire to. He definitely, with many hours of cardio training, did not end up looking like Ryan Hall in his marathoning days:
Nick Bare’s story reminded me of an interesting book I had read: Man of Iron: A World-Class Bodybuilder’s Journey to Become an Ironman by Kris Gethlin.
Again, from the book cover it is clear that the large amount of cardio required for ironman training did not cause Kris to “waste away”. In the cases of both Nick and Kris, they kept up their strength training while getting ready for the ironman, even if they de-emphasized it somewhat. Perhaps it would be different for someone who did nothing but lots of cardio, neglecting strength entirely. That is certainly not a good idea. Enough strength training to keep us from losing muscle mass as we age is definitely recommended. Cardio and strength- both good for you in my opinion.
There is a term for athletes who compete in serious endurance events while also being good at strength training: “hybrid athletes”, and Nick and Kris both belong in this category. Crossfitters are also obvious examples of athletes whose training encompasses both a lot of cardio and strength. And looking at any of the top athletes at the Crossfit games, their muscles have by no means wasted away.
I conclude that those who claim that cardio causes muscle wasting are exaggerating. I am emphasizing this point because you encounter this claim fairly often, especially among some of those who write about bodybuilding or strength training.
There is another contention- that cardio is unnecessary (except maybe for some sprint training or high-intensity intervals). The argument in favor of that is typically related to fat loss. But it leaves out a crucial aspect: the importance of cardio for overall health, especially cardiovascular health (which is, after all, where the slang term “cardio” comes from). I’ll discuss that in another post soon.