Should You Do Cardio Before or After Weights?

There are only so many hours in a day. This is why, when planning our workouts, we want to get the most out of our efforts. And along these lines, a common consideration is whether we should do cardio or strength training first to get the most fitness bang for our buck, so to speak. It turns out, understanding our personal fitness goals will guide our exercise strategy and help us choose wisely between our strength and cardio efforts.

Know Your Goals

Are you looking to exercise to help with weight loss, to get stronger, faster or perform better at a specific task or skill? According to fitness experts, your answer to these types of questions helps determine whether you do cardio or strength training first.

Strength First

If weight loss is your primary goal, experts recommend you lift weights first. Strength training improves your body’s ability to burn more fat in the long run, essentially boosting your “resting metabolism.”  By starting off with a weightlifting workout, your body goes through its glycogen stores at a much faster rate, shifting your body towards a fat-burning mode when you follow with a moderate, steady-state cardio activity. 

When it comes to weight loss, getting into the fat-burning mode is another reason to do strength training before cardio. Your body burns through glycogen during higher-intensity exercise like lifting weights, and then creates byproducts called ATP which can actually be used as fuel for the lower-intensity cardio activities to follow. And cardio must follow if weight loss is your goal, says this study which shows that cardio and strength training are the dream team for weight loss. As beneficial as it is, strength training can't do it alone.

If your goal is more aligned with getting stronger or setting a PR on your deadlift or pull-up, research suggests you start with weights. A number of studies show that people who lift weights after an endurance cardio session have impaired strength performance, essentially doing fewer reps with less weight. This is due to physiological changes in the muscles that help you move. When you use them to fatigue before you do resistance exercises, your form and performance will both suffer. Form is super important when lifting weights so start there.

Cardio First

If you're training for an endurance cardio activity like a marathon, triathlon or cycling race, you should put your cardio training before strength. You want to dedicate your body’s resources to performance, which is tough to do if it’s fatigued from lifting weights. 

In a performance-based situation like a race however, strength training can play an important role. In fact, experts recommend switching up your workouts to alternate days between endurance training and focused strength work (for example quads and glutes for runners and cyclers) to support performance goals. Just make sure you allow for adequate recovery if you’re training back-to-back says the American College of Sports Medicine. Doing similar endurance and strength training back-to-back can lead to fatigue, poor performance and increase your risk of injury.

I’ll Take the Combo, Please

If your goal is to work towards better fitness overall and manage your body weight, regularly combining cardio and strength is a great option. This combo, also known as “concurrent training” combines strength and cardio into one session and is an efficient approach to maintaining a healthy body weight and building muscle without compromising form or performance. 

A variation on the combo, even if your priority is strength training, is doing a light cardio warm-up. Research shows that doing some light, steady-state cardio (10-15 minutes) before an intense activity can actually help prep the body for performance so you can hit the ground running.

A lot of people I know have fitness activities they really enjoy and they also want to be their most fit, strong and healthy selves. So whether you choose to do strength or cardio first really is an individual choice. It's finding that sweet spot of doing physical activities that bring you joy and also deliver the fitness payoff you're seeking.  Somewhere in there is some efficiency of time and effort that helps guide your exercise choices and makes you feel good!

How do you organize your workouts to keep you moving towards your fitness goals? Share your experience and ideas in the comments below. Be sure to come follow Blendtopia on Facebook to stay connected, and follow us on Pinterest to get even more ideas for maintaining our mental, physical, and emotional wellness.

 Nikki Pearl, Blendtopia Editorial Contributor