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Cardio Is The Unlikely Key To Building Muscle; This Insane British Strongman Proves Why

Hit a muscle mass plateau? Cardio could be the answer.

Ultra marathon runners. Long distance swimmers. Pentathletes. Picture any one of these sportspeople and cheekbones, ribs, elbows and not a whole lot else comes to mind. After all: the expression “fit as a whippet” didn’t come about by accident. However, Ross Edgley, adventurer, author of The World’s Fittest Book, strength and conditioning coach and performance nutritionist has proven—stroke by stroke—that strength and stamina are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, he’s gone well beyond that: in completing various endurance events (from running 30 marathons in 30 days, to swimming around the entirety of Great Britain in 157 days) whilst maintaining a physique that would make the toughest gym-warriors cry, he has proven that combining cardio with weight training, contrary to popular belief, can actually increase your capacity to build muscle.

He has also climbed a rope the length of Everest, swum 100km tied to a small tree, and run a marathon while pulling a mini. Suffice to say: he’s bloody fit. And in pushing the limits of human achievement, he has—as well as raising money for charity—offered, “A different perspective on the common belief that strength and stamina are distinctly separate, and can’t be improved simultaneously,” (The Telegraph).

This is still a common misconception, where many people having been (correctly) told that cardio won’t bulk you up on its own, have assumed that—as their goal is to build muscle mass—the treadmill must be avoided at all costs. This idea stems from Robert Hickson, a powerlifter of the 70’s and 80’s, who followed a ‘traditional’ strength training regime for most of his career, before going to study with the “father of endurance exercise research,” Professor John Holloszy.

As the story goes, every lunchtime Professor John Holloszy would leave the Campus and go for a run in the nearby Forest Park. As reported by the Telegraph, “Keen to make a good impression, Hickson decided to break from his usual training protocol and accompany Holloszy. But weeks into his new routine he discovered the strength and size of his muscles were decreasing.”

“This was despite the fact he was still doing his strength training at the same frequency and intensity. When Hickson approached Holloszy with his strength and conditioning dilemma, Holloszy suggested this should be his first study.”

At the University of Illinois in Chicago, that’s exactly what Hickson did, publishing a study in 1980 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology that concluded concurrent training reduces your ability to improve a specific component of fitness (ie strength or stamina). This has been the mantra of guys looking to “bulk up” ever since.

Why is Ross Edgely interested in this? The story is on his homepage, after all… Well because he has devoted his life to studying (in the most “hands on” way possible) the intricacies of both strength and stamina, Ross is in a position to refute it (or at least provide the debate with a great deal more nuance). As he revealed on the Joe Rogan Podcast, he believes that science has a habit of studying things in isolation, and that if you consider the body in its entirety, cardio is a complementary tool that can help you break through your muscle building plateaus.

And this isn’t all just hot air (and freezing swims). Unless Edgely has different genetics to the rest of the human population, scientists reckon his theory could apply to you too. The Department of Health Sciences at Mid Sweden University in Östersund, for example, found that cardio combined with strength training could actually “elicit greater muscle hypertrophy than resistance exercise alone.” So contradictory to Hickson’s research, combining cardio with weight training could actually increase muscle size.

As Ross recounts in an article of his own, “To test this theory T. R. Lundberg, R. Fernandez-Gonzalo, T. Gustafsson and P.A. Tesch (the Swedish scientists) took ten healthy men between the ages of 25 and 30 and subjected them to five weeks of unilateral knee extensor exercises. One leg was trained in a manner similar to most conventional strength training routines. Completing 4 sets of 7 repetitions at 75%-80% of their 1 rep. max. The other leg was subjected to exactly the same strength routine but was coupled with 45-minute cycle during each session.”

“Following five weeks,” he continues, “Researchers used an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) and muscle biopsies to determine any changes in the cross sectional area and volume of the leg muscles. Specifically the vastus laterallis (muscle that’s located from the side of the leg) and the quadcricep femoris (muscle found at the front of the leg) were analyzed.”

“What they discovered was the leg that had been subjected to both cardio and strength training was noticeably bigger than the leg that performed strength training alone. Objectively results revealed the vastus lateralis had increased by 17% in size in the cardio-strength trained leg compared to 9% in the strength-trained leg. Furthermore, the volume of the quadriceps femoris had increased by 14% in the cardio-strength trained leg compared to 8% in the strength-trained leg.”

Not bad. And what do they attribute this to? Capillary density. Still confused? Allow Ross to explain: “Performing any form of cardiovascular training dramatically improves your capillary density. Capillaries are the small blood vessels that network through the muscles and by increasing their density you also increase your own ability to supply the working muscles with blood, oxygen and nutrients during training.”

“This is one of the most overlooked aspects of strength training as power based athletes arguably place too much emphasis on shifting iron than looking after their capillaries. However using the sport of Strongman as an example (a sport that contains some of the world’s largest and strongest athletes) it could be argued that most past champions were well aware of this fact.”

“Five-time World’s Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski was famously a boxer before taking up the sport of strongman and notably incorporated intense skipping sessions into this training before most weights sessions. Also despite weighing 150kg Strongman legend Geoff Capes was rumored to have a pretty impressive 200m-sprint time clocking 23.7 seconds.”

This means that as long as you account for it in your nutrition plan, adding cardio to your weight training schedule should not result in losing gains. To the contrary: it will help you bulk more. As for pulling a car around for 42km: you’re on your own for that one…

RELATED: Basic Workout Skills Our “Smartwatch Generation” Lacks, According To A Personal Trainer

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