Define Yourself

By Michael Mejia, CSCS
Photography by Richard Corman
Styling: Amit Gajwani, Grooming: Patryca Korzeniak/Stockland Martel

You love lifting. You love the plain challenge and the simple rewards—beating your previous best and feeling a great pump afterward. And maybe you hate cardio. Devoting gym time to cardiovascular exercise feels as if you're burning away hard-earned muscle. But you're not—you're revealing it. If gaining mass is all you focus on, soon no one will be able to distinguish your traps from your del­toids. For a lean and chiseled physique, you need cardio work. Relax—no distance running involved. Besides, you know you need aerobic exercise for a healthy heart. And a healthy heart is more efficient at transporting blood and oxygen to working muscles. The stronger your heart, the stronger each of its contractions. That means more oxygenated blood is pumped out with each beat. What follows is a set of rules to help lifters build healthy hearts. You don't need much cardio work, and most of what you do need should be at high intensity, as befits a man with a lifter's mindset. It'll help you see more muscle definition without wasting time in the gym spinning your wheels.


You don't lift the same way all year, so why should the frequency, intensity, and duration of your cardiovascular workouts stay the same? They shouldn't. When you're trying to add muscle, keep your aerobic work to a minimum—say, once or twice a week for about 15-20 minutes. This will limit your energy expenditure and allow your body to concentrate on building muscle.

When you're trying to get lean, increase your cardio training to 2-4 times a week, to help strip away excess body fat.

At all times, alternate your cardio methods so your workout's not so boring—treadmill running one day, rowing or elliptical training the next, cycling the day after that.


Serious lifters worry that cardiovascular training will impede their ability to recover from intense strength training. That all depends on when and how you do your cardio. Keep your cardio days and strength days as removed from each other as possible. That way your cardio won't hinder gains in strength and size. For instance, doing a tough cycling workout after you hammer your legs with squats and lunges isn't a good idea if your goal is to build bigger legs. Save your cardio for the next day, or even two days later, to rest your legs.

If you must do cardio and weights on the same day, choose a form of aerobic work that emphasizes body parts your weight lifting didn't focus on that day. So, if your cardio choice is rowing, which works your upper body as much as it does your legs, row on a day when your weight session doesn't concentrate on your upper body.

Whichever route you choose, just be sure to hit the weights first. You don't want to wipe yourself out before your weight routine—you won't get the most out of your session, and lifting when you're tired can be dangerous.


Your body has enough to contend with in repairing the damage that lifting inflicts on it. The last thing you need to do is break it down further with high-impact cardio training. Concentrate on cardio workouts that minimize microtrauma—the small tears to muscle fibers that are part of the process of building new muscle. Running on hard surfaces like asphalt or concrete can be traumatic to muscles and joints. Jumping rope can cause similar problems. Your best bets for low-impact exercise are swimming, cycling, and using an elliptical machine.


It's a myth that you have to work out continuously for 20 minutes before you begin burning fat. The thinking once was that you needed to exercise in a range between 60 percent and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. Any lower was too easy, and any higher made it too difficult to efficiently use fat for fuel.

Ignore that theory. Your body uses more energy overall when training at high intensities—just look at the physique of a sprinter. Going all out also makes better use of your time. You can finish your cardio in an intense 10-to 15-minute workout.

Stick to interval workouts that feature short bursts of high-intensity movement followed by active recovery periods. This approach is best for your heart and for fat loss.


Changing the gears on a bike and altering the gradient on a treadmill, for instance, are great ways to increase intensity. Just be careful to find a level of resistance that won't reduce the amount of work you're able to do when you return to the weight room.

Now that you know the rules, follow these guidelines, depending on your goals.

Bulk Cycle (12 weeks)
Do this when you're trying to add muscle.
Frequency: Twice a week
Duration: 10-15 minutes (not including warmup and cooldown)
Protocol: Intervals
Intensity: High
EXAMPLE: Stationary cycling
Warmup: 5 minutes of light pedaling
Work interval: 20 seconds of pedaling as fast as you can
Recovery interval: 40 seconds of light pedaling
Total reps: 10-15
Cooldown: 3-5 minutes of light pedaling

Lean Cycle (8 weeks)
Do this when you're trying to gain definition.
Frequency: 2-4 times a week
Duration: 15-20 minutes (not including warmup and cooldown)
Protocol: Intervals
Intensity: High
Warmup: 3-5 minutes of light rowing
Work interval: 45 seconds of hard rowing
Recovery interval: 90 seconds easy
Total reps: 7-9
Cooldown: 3-5 minutes of light rowing


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