Cardio Conundrum: Programming Cardio Training

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Cardio Programming
The contest prep aspect of bodybuilding is renowned for gurus posing as know it all’s. Some will say that you need 2 hours of low intensity cardio per day and some will say that only high intensity intervals work for getting lean. Although there is no “100% correct” approach to training, this article will be discussing our approach to programming cardio training.

Zones and Percentages

During the Golden Era of Soviet Union Weightlifting, the Russians devised a system of zones and percentages to place proper emphasis on speed development and strength development in the snatch, and the clean and jerk. What we have noticed here at TSG is that there is an enormous carry over between the percentages the Russians were using on their weight lifters, and how these percentages can be implemented into cardio programs.4

IMPORTANT: These percentages reflect upon the methods that the Russians utilized in program design, but we have applied them to the realm of conditioning.

  • Zone 1 (50-60% HR max or 1RM)
  • Zone 2 (60-70% HR max or 1RM)
  • Zone 3 (70-80% HR max or 1RM)
  • Zone 4 (80-90% HR max or 1RM)
  • Zone 5 (90-100% HR max or 1RM)
  • Zone 6 (100+% 1RM)

Just like with weight lifting, our training philosophy dictates that we like to do the largest amount of work in between zones 2 and zones 4. This is because these intensity ranges allow us to get more volume without taxing the central nervous system as heavily as if we were to go about 85% of 1RM more frequently. Same thing with cardio training, too much high intensity work is going to tax the central nervous system heavily, thus leading to acute fatigue, overreaching and eventually full blown overtraining syndrome unless rest periods are periodized into the training program. 2
HIIT Sprints

Just like any system of training, there are pro’s and cons, so weigh them out and decide how you are going to fit cardio into the program you are on.

Creatine Phosphate System

1:12 – 1:20 (91 – 100% of Max Heart Rate)


  • Improved Type IIB muscle fiber recruitment, more anaerobic enzymes, improved VO2 max.
  • Adaptations boost metabolism for time period after exercise.
  • Quick cardio session (interval training required)


  • Heavily taxes Central Nervous System.

Fast Glycolysis

1:3 – 1:5 (81 – 90% of Max Heart Rate)


  • Improved Type IIA muscle fiber recruitment, increased anaerobic threshold, improved lactate clearance, improved lactate tolerance, improved anaerobic glycolysis.
  • Adaptations boost metabolism for time period after exercise.
  • Quick cardio session (interval training required)


  • Heavily taxes Central Nervous System

Slow Glycolysis

1:3 – 1:4 (71 – 80% of Max Heart Rate)


  • Increased Type I muscle fiber recruitment, improved oxygen transport, increased aerobic enzymes, improved anaerobic glycolysis.
  • Can be trained at a higher frequency than CP system and Fast Glycolysis.
  • Does not tax CNS heavily.
  • Good percentage range to work in to increase stroke volume and Capillarization.


  • Adaptations are central, not ideal for body composition.


1:1 – 1:3 (60 – 70% of Max Heart Rate)


  • Increased Fatty Acid Oxidation, increased red blood cell count, increased stroke volume.
  • Can be trained daily without taxing CNS heavily.


  • Adaptations are central, not ideal for body composition.
  • Long workouts.

Cardio Programming

So what should you stick with?

What is the training goal during contest prep? The goal is to get as lean as possible while maintaining as much size as possible. To maintain as much size as possible, our belief is that we must keep our training load in a maintenance to stimulating range, therefore the central nervous system should not be subject to undue amounts of fatigue. So this crosses out the “only doing interval training” approach. Interval training at greater than 85% of max will begin to tax the CNS and negatively impact strength over the course of a long contest prep. But this does not mean that daily low intensity cardio sessions is the best way either. Low intensity cardio sessions do not stimulate EPOC as much as high intensity cardio sessions, therefore they do not raise metabolic rate significantly for the time period to follow after training. Therefore we are essentially only burning an elevated amount of calories during the time period in which the low intensity cardio is being performed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just something that we have to keep in mind when formulating our cardio training plan.

Like many things in training, what we recommend is a mixture of both low intensity and high intensity work.

Generally we will not go over 2 high intensity interval sessions per week because, from an anecdotal standpoint, 3 sessions per week really begins to increase irritability and RPE in our athletes

So what do we will in the other 5 days of the week with, rest? What about putting in 3-4 low intensity cardio training days? It may be boring, but those extra calories burned from performing LSD conditioning may be the difference between 1st place and not placing come contest day. Like anything else, periodization is the key to creating successful training programs, and cardio training is no different.
HIIT Treadmill


  1. Fleck, S., & Kraemer, W. Designing Resistance Training Program. Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics.
  2. Haskvitz, E., Seip, L., Weltman, Y., Rogol, D., & Weltman, A. (1992). The Effect of Training Intensity on Ratings of Perceived Exertion. International Journal of Sports Medicine .
  3. McArdle, D., Katch, F., & Katch, V. Exercise Physiology. Baltimore, MD, USA: Wolters Kluwer Health.
  4. Medvedev, A. A Program of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting. Moscow: Medvedev.