What Should You Do First Cardio or Weight Lifting?
Or, should you train them separately entirely?
It’s easy to believe that strength training a few times per week is enough to keep you healthy as a horse.
But, whilst strength training certainly offers a myriad of health benefits, we would also do well not to forget the health benefits of cardiovascular training.
It’s true that cardio requirements will vary depending on lifestyle factors.
For example, if you’re very active in your job or in your day-to-day, or if you perform a high volume of resistance training (say 6 hours or more per week), in all likelihood you’re already reaping a decent amount of cardio metabolic effects from those activity levels, lessening the need for copious amounts formal cardio.
However, if you’re desk-bound most of the time, and performing moderate-to-low volume training a couple of times per week, it may be beneficial for you to run (no pun intended) some ‘formal’ cardio alongside your resistance training.
Aside from the health-benefits, an often overlooked advantage of cardio is that it might actually aid your strength training. If your work-capacity is improved through cardio, you may actually find that this endurance allows you to complete more training volume, resulting in better gains.
But, how do we go about incorporating cardio without sabotaging strength and / or muscle?
Is it true that cardio will ultimately steal your gains?
Or can you perform the two disciplines concurrently, improving both strength and cardiovascular endurance simultaneously?
That which in concept is more optimal is not always practical, nor indeed possible.
But if we do have the capacity to try for the optimal - what is best: resistance training before cardio, or cardio before resistance training?
The short answer: it depends.
The long answer…
In 2017, there was a study lasting 6 months (summarized over 2 papers).1 They split subjects into four training groups: two groups trained in the morning, two groups trained in the evening. Within each time frame, one group performed strength training before cardio, with the other group performing cardio before strength training.
The results indicated that the groups performing strength training first tended to have slightly better strength outcomes than the groups performing aerobic training first.
On the flip side, the groups performing aerobic training before strength training experienced larger improvements in measures of aerobic performance than the groups performing strength training first.
On the whole, the findings of this study are in support of the notion that your training order should reflect your priorities: if your priority is to achieve greater strength and size, you should do your strength training first. If your priority is to enhance aerobic fitness / cardiovascular endurance, you should do your cardio first.
(As an aside, the results of this study suggests that if maximizing hypertrophy is the primary goal, you may achieve more significant gains by training in the evening instead of the morning, with the difference becoming more notable over time).
The findings of this study aren’t particularly surprising: put simply, we have more energy to devote to the type of training we do first in a session. It makes sense logically that entering into a task in a fatigued state stands to impair the outcome. If you want to prioritize improving a given physical quality (be it strength or endurance), train it when you’re fresh.
However, there is a distinction to be made between pre-training cardio as a warm-up tool, and performing cardio before training as a fat-loss tool. The former being fine, the latter potentially being sub-optimal.
10-20 minutes of low-intensity cardio may be performed pre-workout with the view to reducing injury risk and priming for performance. Any warm-up cardio should ideally be low-intensity, low-impact, and not lengthy so as to avoid fatigue ahead of strength work.
Again - anything that stands to cause fatigue (I.E.: rigorous cardio) stands to negatively impact that which comes after.
It’s also worth considering the length and intensity of the cardio you choose to perform in addition to resistance training, if the idea is to limit the impact on strength outcomes.
Very lengthy and high-intensity / high impact forms of cardio are likely to have more of a noticeable effect on training performance than, say, low-intensity cardio kept separate from your strength training.
It has sometimes been argued that strength trainees should perform cardio first, as cardio is catabolic (causing muscle breakdown). As such, the argument goes that catabolic aerobic training stimulus may dampen the post-exercise anabolic signaling resulting from resistance training.
But, I’m not aware of any data that suggests that it’s detrimental to gains to perform cardio after your training.
The present study2 suggests that it may be marginally better for gains to perform cardio after your training, whilst other studies conclude that performing strength training before cardio doesn't necessarily yield significantly superior strength outcomes, rather a ‘null’ effect’3,4.
On the whole, the literature suggests that whilst it may not hugely affect outcomes whether strength training or cardio is performed first within a session, performing the discipline you most want to improve will have a neutral-to-positive effect.
If it won’t hurt but it might help, it’s usually worth giving it a try.
When it comes to strength training and cardio, the existence of an order of effect makes sense logically.
If you want to get better at any given quality, you should perform that first quality when you’re fresh.
If you want to improve cardiovascular or endurance measures, perform that first.
If you want to improve strength measures, perform that first.
In an absolutely ideal world, I’d suggest keeping your strength and cardio entirely separate. This might look like performing your cardio in the morning, and your resistance training in the evening.
But, this requires an enhanced time commitment that is out-of-reach, and frankly unnecessary, for most recreational trainees.
It’s worth noting that you can build strength and gain muscle mass if you do your cardio and strength in the same session. If those ‘sub-optimal’ strategies better suit your schedule or personal preference, they are still valid options. They are just not ‘optimal’ according to the current research. But, we must remember two things:
- That suboptimal doesn’t mean pointless. It simply means that outcomes could potentially be improved and / or sped up using different measures.
- That on-paper optimal isn’t optimal at all, if you’re less likely to adhere over the long-haul.
About the author Charlotte Ranson
Lottie is a UK-based online coach who works with clients all over the world and is passionate about sharing evidence-based content with the view to making the fitness space less of a minefield. Lottie specializes in strength training, improving body composition, and cultivating a balanced approach to exercise and nutrition.
1 Küüsmaa-Schildt et al. (2016, 2017)
2 Küüsmaa-Schildt et al. (2016, 2017)
3 Gravelle et al. ( 2000)
4 Chtara M. et al. (2005)