Fasted Cardio Training - The consensus of the elite: the rationale behind this proven-effective bodybuilding trick-of-the-trade
“Look everybody! My arm is as big as my head!” Sergio Oliva (above), 1968: strip off the fat, preserve the muscle
Fasted cardio training is an extremely effective way to melt off stubborn body fat. If you were to venture into any hardcore bodybuilding gym at 6 am you would encounter a small army of competitive bodybuilders laboring away on the various cardio machines like treadmills, exercise bikes and elliptical trainers. Say what you will about bodybuilding and bodybuilders, they are, indisputably, the world’s greatest and most effective dieters. When it comes to melting off body fat while preserving muscle, competitive bodybuilders are the ultimate authority.
Bodybuilding is form without function. Not handicapped by having to improve athletic performance, bodybuilders are free to go to extremes that athletes are not. In 1965 definable bodybuilder dietary protocols, commonalities used for stripping off body fat, began to emerge. An elite consensus emerged: highly specific methodologies to be used to systematically reduce body fat.
The first generation of formalized pre-competition dieting began with a primal ketogenic approach: the infamous “fish and water” diet. Pick a lean protein, eat it. Eat it often. You get to drink water. Nothing else. Maintain for six weeks without a single bobble, miscue, mulligan, bad day, cheat meal, skipped meal or skipped workout. Be perfect. Nothing less will suffice. Be prepared to use an electric cart to sit on when you shop at Walmart. You will be listless, starving, mentally and physically exhausted – and ripped.
From 1965 until 1985 bodybuilders would starve themselves in the lead up to a competition. While starvation will indeed lean you out, an unacceptable amount of hard-earned muscle is lost during the process. When the body senses starvation it seeks to preserve precious body fat, the last line of defense against starvation. In order to save fat, the starving body will break down muscle tissue in order to feed itself.
Muscle cannibalism is the predictable and inevitable side-effect of starvation. Muscle cannibalism occurs when low caloric intake is combined with a high volume of exercise. I deem it “concentration camp fitness,” overwork and then starve yourself. Repeat over and over. Day after day, week after week, month after month, every day, overwork and starve.
Frank Zane captured multiple Olympia titles weighing 180-pounds (standing 5-9) sporting 17-inch arms. Arnold was once asked to describe Zane’s physique. The snarky one replied, “A chicken – with 17-inch arms!” Chris Dickerson won several Mr. Olympia titles with a pair of 16 ½ inch .22 caliber peashooters. Pathetic. These small, highly defined men could exist on tuna fish and water for months on end.
The era of the modern bodybuilder was ushered in in the mid-eighties when bodybuilding gurus like John Parrillo began having competitive bodybuilders up their caloric intake and include cardiovascular exercise into the training template. The inclusion of cardio into the bodybuilding template was met with a lot of resistance.
The “settled science” of the day was that aerobics would “melt muscle” and prove totally counterproductive. Indeed, aerobics will tear down muscle – for an experienced runner logging 35-miles a week training for a marathon – not some bodybuilder with no cardio background riding a stationary bike like a trained bear on a tiny bike in the Moscow Circus.
The matter was settled onstage when Parrillo began churning out massive, muscled-up, healthy-looking bodybuilders, men sporting body fat percentiles every bit as low as their emaciated competitors. Parrillo had his bodybuilders convert to eating ample amounts of “clean calories,” approved bodybuilding foods, i.e. lean protein, fiber carbs, complex starch carbs, powerhouse nutritional supplements, nothing else.
Parrillo added cardio exercise to the training template. He wanted his bodybuilders to perform a certain type and kind of aerobic exercise. Parrillo discovered things empirically: he prepared hundreds of bodybuilders for competition and found out that (to a man) they responded best when cardio was done daily and done with intensity sufficient enough to cause the trainee to sweat, the more sweat the better. Cardio timing also turned out to be important.
Parrillo riddled that if daily aerobic exercise was done upon arising, before eating breakfast or consuming any calories, the fat-burning benefits associated with the session would be amplified and accelerated. Parrillo correctly surmised that coming off 5-8 hours of sleep, glycogen stores were at their lowest. The body fasts while sleeping. Before breaking the fast, Parrillo wanted his bodybuilders to perform a sweaty, high-intensity aerobic session. Fasted cardio training was born.
The body preferentially uses glycogen to fuel activity. When the body depletes its glycogen, it commences using the second favored fuel source: stored body fat. Results are predicated on the assumption that the bodybuilder is already adhering tightly to a highly disciplined bodybuilding diet: no refined carbohydrates, no sweets, no alcohol, no fruit juices, no foods out of cans or frozen. As Jack LaLanne once said, “If man made it, don’t eat it.”
There can be no fat-burning if insulin is present in the bloodstream. Protein, fat and fibrous carbohydrates do not cause insulin secretions. Everything else does. There is a spike in insulin associated with eating complex carbohydrates, the only carbs allowed in a strict bodybuilding diet (rice, oatmeal, potatoes.) The spike is dramatically reduced if the starch carbs are eaten in combination with protein, fat and/or fiber. Starch carbs should never be eaten alone.
Parrillo also discovered that by purposefully inducing an insulin spike immediately after a hardcore weight training session resulted in factually improving workout results. A burst of insulin after a body-battering workout creates a natural anabolic effect. If done right (not too many carbs, not too few carbs, the right kind of carbs) recovery, healing and growth are undeniably accelerated.
Competitive bodybuilders all adhere to a multiple meal eating schedule. Small, mini meals are eaten at equidistant intervals spread throughout the day. It is far better, for a whole host of valid digestive and metabolic reasons, to eat six 500-calorie meals rather than three, 1,000 calorie meals.
Bodybuilders augment with supplements. Protein powder supplements are universally used. A single protein shake provides 30-50 grams of protein. Drinking one shake would enable the bodybuilder to avoid having to obtain, cook and consume two more boring chicken breasts or having to choke down another large can of plain tuna. Two protein shakes a day will provide 60-100 grams of high BV protein and provide a taste break from the bland foods they live on.
The modern bodybuilding consensus is a powerful strategy. Its effectiveness is rooted in 50 years of empiricism. The broad outlines are codified and universally practiced…
- clean up the diet
- increase clean calorie consumption
- establish a multiple meal eating schedule
- augment with powerful supplements
- modulate insulin to your benefit
- start off every day with a sweat-drenched fasted cardio session
- purposefully spiking insulin after a hardcore weight training session
- stay true to the eating and training – no breaks, cheat days or time-outs
Headed into the final four weeks before a bodybuilding show, a second cardio session is added, this one late in the day, after the last meal of the day is consumed. The second daily cardio session gets a head start on glycogen-burning. The goal to burn calories in real time and burn off glycogen before bed. The procedure deepens the sleep-fast. The more glycogen-free the body is going to bed the quicker the fat-burning commences the next morning.
The bodybuilder can deepen the already deepened fasted cardio session by not consuming any natural starch carbs past 4 pm on the previous day. All these twists and turns, all the interlocking parts presents a confusing mosaic. The take-away is simple: if you have the time, situation, mode and inclination, fasted cardio is incredibly effective.
There are indisputable physiological and psychological benefits associated with properly performed and consistent fasted cardio. Mental focus and clarity increase as the workout unfolds, endurance improves, heart, lungs and arterial highways are flushed and cleansed, calories are burned by the bucketful, the metabolism accelerates remains accelerated long after the session is over. Once the body is glycogen free, all calories oxidized are body-fat calories. If a bodybuilder burns off 500 calories worth of body fat every day, every seven days they oxidize 3,500 calories, the caloric equivalent of a pound of body fat.
Wake up, drink some coffee, pick a cardio mode, put on some music, have at it, get into it. Are you sweating? If so, you are doing fasted cardio as it was intended to be done. String a bunch of daily sessions together in a long and continual link. Be consistent. And intense. Try not to undo the hard work in the gym with what you eat and drink before and after training. Fasted cardio works every single time it is implemented properly and in totality.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.