Should You Do Cardio Before Strength Training?

Exercise sequence can help burn more calories

Illustration women working out at the gym
Illustration women working out at the gym. AlonzoDesign/Getty Images

If you want to lose weight with exercise, you already know that involves a lot of workouts. In fact, the exercise guidelines set out by the American Council on Sports Medicine recommend up to or more than eleven workouts a week.

That's five cardio workouts, three strength training workouts, and three flexibility workouts, although that number isn't always to same for everyone. The number of workouts you do can easily change based on your goals, fitness level, schedule, and level of intensity of your workouts.

The harder you work, as in high intensity interval training (HIIT), the shorter the workouts. But if you're doing lower intensity workouts, you may need to workout up to 7 days to see significant weight loss results.

Trying to cram that many workouts into one week often feels impossible, and, for many of us, it seems like the only way to do that is to combine workouts. Combining workouts saves time and it also allows you to work on all areas of fitness - Cardio, strength, and flexibility - all in one workout.

That leads to the age-old question: Which do you do first, cardio or strength?

The answer isn't always cut and dried but here's one way to look at it: If your goal is to lose weight and you want to maximize your workouts, doing cardio first might be the way to go.

The Benefits of Cardio Before Strength Training

If you're confused about whether to do cardio or strength training first, you're not alone.

Experts differ on this issue, with some recommending cardio beforehand to get your body warmed up for lifting weights. Warm muscles perform better and there's less risk of injury if your body is warmed up and ready.

Others suggest the opposite, saying that cardio may fatigue your muscles, thus making your weight training session less effective.

There may be something to that argument as well.

So, who's right? There really is no right answer and what you ultimately do will be based on your goals and what you prefer.

However, if your goal is to lose weight, cardio before strength may be your best bet because it:

  • Maximizes Your Calorie Burn - Doing cardio and strength during the same workout not only helps you burn more calories but doing cardio first actually maximizes the calorie expenditure of your workout since a session of cardio typically burns more calories than a session of strength training.
  • Increases Your Afterburn - Doing cardio first maximizes your post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the number of calories your body continues to burn after your workout. One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research followed 10 males who completed three different workouts:
    • A weight training workout
    • A weight training/running workout
    • A running/weight training workout
    The findings? The afterburn was greatest after the running/weight training workout. They also found that running was harder for the body after lifting weights first, which makes sense, particularly if you target the legs. Obviously, the lower body is heavily involved in running so it makes sense that your legs might be more fatigued if you lift first.

    Those are all good reasons to do cardio first, but there's another question about building muscle. Will doing cardio first negatively affect your body's ability to gain strength and endurance?

    One study, which followed participants over a three-month period, found that doing cardio during the same session as strength training didn't change the development of muscular strength or explosive strength and power. This is important if you want to build muscle or work on your strength.

    The real key is to go by your goals. If your main goal is to build bigger muscles, lifting weights should always come first so you can give all your strength and energy towards that goal.

    You may not even want to have much cardio, or stick with shorter HIIT cardio workouts to increase your power and endurance.

    Make It Work For You

    It's nice to have guidance but how you schedule your workouts will depend on a variety of things:

    • Your goals: If your goal is overall weight loss, you might do cardio first to maximize your workout time. If you have a specific goal or sport, you'll want to put that first. For example, if you're training for a marathon, you'll want to focus your best energy on your running workouts and schedule your strength workouts for your off days.
    • Your preferences: If lifting weights first feels good to you, there's no reason you have to change that. The idea is to have a consistent, balanced workout routine in whatever format fits your life.
    • Your schedule: In an ideal world, you'd be able to do separate strength and cardio sessions, but most of us don't have that kind of time. Carve out time to exercise and fit what you can into that time.

    And keep in mind that you don't have to separate cardio and strength exercises. In fact, these days there are a variety of ways to work everything in the same workout.

    Metabolic conditioning is one option, which involves both your cardio energy system and the energy system that supports your muscles. It involves using high intensity, whole body movements, often with weights, that both get your heart rate up while helping you build strength.

    You go from one exercise to the next and the speed is what keeps your heart rate up, as well as the compound exercises. This 10-Minute Met Con Workout shows you how this kind of workout works.

    Another option is similar to met con, high intensity circuit training. Like met con, HICT involves combining both cardio and strength training moves in the same workout. So, for example, you might jog in place for a minute, then move on to squats with an overhead press followed by burpees.

    Try this type of workout once or twice a week and you'll work on all areas of fitness while burning more calories at the same time.

    Fitting It All In

    With all this in mind, how do you fit it all in? What does a typical workout schedule look like if you're combining cardio and strength?

    There are so many ways to set up a cardio/strength routine, there's no way to cover them all. However, below you'll find just one example of how you might fit in all your workouts. This assumes you're working out for about an hour.

    Sample Cardio/Strength Weekly Workout Calendar

    Day 1:  30-Minute Cardio Medley WorkoutUpper Body TrainingDay 2: Choose 1 Workout from Burn 300 Calories in 30 MinutesCore Training
    Day 330-Minute Low Impact Cardio Blast Workout (2 circuits), Lower bodyDay 4: Rest
    Day 5: Cardio Endurance Workout, stretch  Day 6: Total Body Home Strength or Circuit Training
    Day 7: Light 20-30 minute walking workout 


    It may take time to figure out a schedule that works for you and that schedule may change from week to week, depending on what's going on in your life. In fact, you don't have to follow the same workout routine from week to week. It's great to mix things up and try different ways to exercise.

    You may find that you like doing strength first, which is fine. Or maybe you even like to workout twice a day, doing cardio in the morning and strength training later in the day.

    The key is to keep things simple and fit in what you can. There's no rulebook and there really is no wrong way to exercise. Just making sure you do something every day is a great goal to have.

    Sources:

    Chtara M, Chaouachi A, Levin GT, et al. Effect of Concurrent Endurance and Circuit Resistance Training Sequence on Muscular Strength and Power Development. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008;22(4):1037-1045. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e31816a4419.

    Dalleck, L. "Are Your Clients Performing the Right Kind of Exercise at the Right Time?" ACE: Community: Certified news: March 2011.

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