How to Build Lean Muscle With Cardio

Muscular man using rowing machine

Hands down, resistance training is the best way to build muscle — but adding a few high-intensity aerobic sessions per week can help you maintain lean muscle mass and give your heart a great workout. In fact, a 2014 study published in Exercise Sports Science Review, found that aerobic exercise training can produce skeletal muscle hypertrophy.

The benefits don’t end there. In addition to maintaining and building lean muscle, cardiovascular exercise also keeps your heart happy and healthy. The National Institute of Health says people of all ages can reap the benefits of cardiovascular exercise such as reducing your risk of developing coronary heart disease, lowering your blood pressure, and raising HDL cholesterol levels (the “good” kind).

Ideal Amount of Cardio

While there is no “perfect” prescription for building or maintaining lean muscle with cardiovascular exercise, there are some general recommendations that you can start with. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (working hard enough to break a sweat, but still able to carry on a conversation) five days per week or 20 minutes of more vigorous activity three days per week.

If your focus is on maintaining or gaining lean muscle mass, then opt for the lower end: three days per week for 20 minutes each session. You can also alternate high-intensity interval training with moderate-intensity exercise — for example, one day of HIIT training and two days of moderate intensity.

There are several forms of cardio available to you, especially if you exercise in a gym. The rowing machine, treadmill and upright bike are just a few of the better pieces of equipment to use when your focus is on building lean muscle mass.

Rowing Machine

The rowing machine has become a staple in many gyms. It can be used for warming-up or for doing intervals during circuit-style training. But, the rowing machine can also be beneficial if you want to do a longer cardio session. When done correctly, this machine works your cardiovascular system, upper body, and legs--essentially giving you a total body workout.

HOW TO DO IT: Warm-up for 3 minutes. You can set your own resistance on the rowing machine, so if you are new to this type of exercise, start on the low side and work your way up. Alternate between 30- to 60-second work periods with extended rest periods in between. A rest period is rowing at a much lower intensity, similar to a light warm up.


Using the treadmill for uphill walking is a great way to burn calories and maintain lean muscle mass. Not to mention, it also gives your hamstrings, calves and glutes a killer workout.

HOW TO DO IT: Warm up for 3 minutes. While keeping a walking pace, increase the incline until you get to a level that is challenging for your heart, legs, and glutes. For an easier workout, you can alternate walking at an incline (up to 5 percent grade) with walking at 0 percent incline. If you want an extra challenge, keep the treadmill at an incline during the entire workout and alternate from lower levels (2 to 3 percent grade) to higher inclines (up to 15 percent grade).

Upright Bike

If you have access to an Airdyne-style bike that uses both your arms and legs, go for this option. If not, hop on a spin bike or upright bike. Just make sure you have plenty of levels of resistance to use. The goal here is to work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes with a harder resistance.

HOW TO DO IT: Warm up for three minutes. Like the rowing machine and treadmill, upright or spin bikes let you control the resistance. Start with a resistance that is comfortable. Increase the resistance until you feel the lower body being challenged (likely between level 8 and 15). You can alternate work and rest periods on a bike by slowing down your pace and decreasing the resistance (level 2 to 4 on rest periods).