Sprinting for Muscle
Cardio – it’s the bane of many bodybuilders’ existence, a necessary evil at best and a muscle-destroying evil at worst. But that doesn’t have to be the case! While weight training is always going to be your main tool for stimulating muscle growth and even fat loss, certain types of cardio can be extremely effective and efficient at achieving those goals. I’m not talking about hours spent slowly slaving away on the treadmill, either. I’m talking about sprints!
You may have left sprinting behind with a former athletic career, or maybe you’ve never even bothered to do any cardio other than light walking or jogging. The fact of the matter is, though, that sprinting workouts can actually have a myriad of muscle-building benefits! Applied properly to your overall program, high-intensity cardio can make your body a more efficient muscle-building, fat-burning machine, and a little extra effort on the track can make you leaner, more muscular and better conditioned for long, grueling lifting sessions. Here’s how…
Why it Works
You’re probably wondering how running can possibly produce muscular gains, right? For the most part, it doesn’t work the same as weight training. With weights, you’re using resistance to break down muscle fibers and stimulate new tissue growth through recovery and super-compensation. Eat enough, sleep enough, and lift enough, and you’ll eventually see new growth.
With sprinting, you’re producing more of a systemic, whole-body effect. Like lifting, sprinting is an anaerobic exercise that requires a boatload of ATP and glycogen. And, while you’re mainly using your legs, it still saps these resources from all over your body! The result is a release of fat-burning, muscle-building hormones that help to turn on your body’s “switch” for muscle growth, much like the whole-body effect you get from squats, deadlifts and other heavy, full-body exercises.
Sound crazy? Just look at the physique of any great sprinter! Unlike distance runners, good sprinters are heavily muscled, and not just through their legs. They may not look like super-heavyweight bodybuilders, but all of that sprinting produces a lean, complete physique. Just think of the gains you can realize by combining both sprinting and weight training!
Keeping up with Leg Training
One of the downsides to sprinting – particularly if done frequently – is that it can interfere with squatting and other leg training. If you’re like most guys, you can hardly avoid to skip or wimp out on leg day, so you’ll need to find some way to incorporate sprints without compromising your heaviest lifting sessions.
The best and simplest method is to simply position your sprint sessions as far away from your leg training as possible. If you train legs on Monday, for instance, you’d probably want to put your sprints on Wednesday or Thursday, giving your legs three or four days to recover before you squat again. The same logic applies if you train two lower-body sessions per week, or if you want to sprint more than once per week.
However, multiple leg workouts and sprint sessions might require a different approach. Let’s say you’re doing two of each per week – a great strategy for someone who wants to keep building muscle while trimming a bit of fat and getting in better shape. Even if you space those four workouts as far apart as possible, you’ll be getting a day of recovery at most, and some of those sessions are going to be back-to-back. In this case, a better approach would be to do your sprints after your leg training! It’s going to be tough to run after a truly effective leg workout, but you’ll soon develop the work capacity to get through these long sessions. By combining leg training and sprints, you still get those three or four days of recovery in between.
On the Track
So, exactly what should you do in your sprint workouts? The simplest method is to just head over to your nearest park or track and run intervals on flat ground. When you’re first starting out, try alternating 15 – 20 seconds of all-out sprinting with one to two minutes of rest for six to eight total rounds. As you build up your legs and cardiovascular capacity, you’ll be able to increase your sprint periods, decrease your rest periods and increase the total number of rounds you do. Just like with weight training, you should always aim for progression!
At the Hill
The track works well or just about anyone, but once you’re in decent shape, I recommend sprinting on hills – my favorite method! Hill sprints will challenge your legs and lungs like nothing else, and their difficulty will actually allow you to get in a great workout in less time compared to track work.
Instead of timing your run and rest periods, just set a goal for yourself each day on how many times you’re going to run your given hill. Hopefully you can find a steep, long hill that will make even a few rounds feel challenging at first! Take your time and walk slowly back down the hill between sprints, and gradually reduce the amount of time you rest between them.
Conditioning Year Round?
Remember, sprinting can be just as beneficial for building muscle as losing fat, so you shouldn’t slouch during the winter, your “off season” or any other time when conditioning takes a back seat to mass building. Instead, simply adjust the intensity, duration and frequency of your sprint workouts based on your goals. If fat loss is your main concern, train with weights enough to retain or even build a little muscle and strength, and use lots of sprint work to accelerate fat loss. If you’re gaining size, keep one or two moderately tough sessions in per week, but don’t allow them to interfere with your strength training. By keeping up with conditioning year ’round, you’ll stay leaner and healthier and achieve all of your goals more quickly!