When going to the gym or exercising from home, does it make more sense to do cardio before or after lifting weights? This is a common question we’ve all probably asked before. Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all answer. If there was, the debate would’ve ended a long time ago. The truth is, although you may hear trainers answer this question concretely, in reality it all depends on your goals.
The goal of this article is to help you determine whether you should be doing cardio of weights first, based on what your fitness goals are.
Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, sometimes cardio should come first, sometimes weights should. We’ll examine both scenarios as well as provide a checklist to help you decide.
When To Do Cardio First
I don’t want to make too many assumptions (because we all know what happens when you do that), but in writing this I admit I have to make a couple. First of all, I guess I’m assuming that if you are reading this, you are doing both cardio and weight training exercises. If you aren’t, you need to start because both types of exercise are important to overall health.
My second assumption is that you don’t have all day to commit to working out. If you do, you are lucky (and I’m jealous) and can take a nice break between your cardio and weight sessions- basically omitting the need to decide which one you should do first because you have enough time to fully recover between them.
Most of us have at best probably an hour of time to spend working out on a daily basis. Personally, by the time I drag myself out of bed, get dressed, and actually get to my attic, it’s closer to 45 min.
The good news is that 60 minutes (or even 45 min) is enough time to do cardio and weight lifting if we are smart about it.
If your primary fitness goal is to improve your aerobic output (aka aerobic capacity), you should do cardio first. Simply put, if you want to improve your endurance you should do cardio first because you have more energy to put towards it. If you lift weights before cardio, you are going to burn through some of your body’s stored glycogen, leaving you less energy for your cardio workout.
That makes sense when you think about it- if you want to get better at something you need to practice doing that something. In this case, cardio.
The same thought process tells us that if you are training for a running event, like a marathon, you should do your cardio first. Or, if you are a sprinter trying to gain speed, you should also be doing your cardio workouts first.
Basically, anytime your primary goal has to do with improving an aerobic activity (running, cycling, swimming, etc) you should be doing your cardio routines first while your muscles are at their freshest.
When To Do Weights First
On the other hand, if your primary goal is to improve strength, you should be lifting weights first. And for the same reason mentioned above- your muscles will be at their strongest when they are fresh. Your potential to lift will be diminished if you do 20-30 min of cardio before hitting the weights.
You should also be lifting first when muscle hypertrophy is your primary goal. In order to make your muscles larger, you’re going to have to have the energy to perform several sets of various weight training exercises, depending on what body part you’re working on. Doing a cardio workout first is going to deplete your energy levels and make it harder to complete the amount of necessary reps to achieve hypertrophy.
The 2 scenarios above are straightforward and make sense. Again, whatever you want to get better at, do that first.
But what about if your primary goal is weight loss?
This question is a little trickier. Thinking about it, to me it would make sense to do your cardio first because you will burn more calories per minute during your cardio workout than you would during your weight training workout. And since burning more calories leads to more weight loss, there ya go.
There’s also the theory that since you are burning through your glycogen stores during your cardio workout, you would switch over to fat burning mode while you lift- which would lead to more fat loss. I guess that argument goes both ways though, one could argue you could burn through your glycogen stores as you lift weights and then switch over and burn fat while your run or cycle.
What does the research say?
Research shows that resistance training increases lean muscle mass, which in turn increases your resting metabolic rate (aka, your metabolism). Increasing your metabolism during the day is the most effective way to lose weight because your body is burning more calories regardless of what you’re doing: reading, watching tv, playing Nintendo, etc.
So, even though you burn more calories per minute during cardiovascular exercise- it actually makes sense to do weight training first because increasing your muscle mass makes your body continues to burn more calories throughout the day.
Wow. Mind blown yet?
The same theory would apply if you are trying to tone up and get more definition- do weights first so you can get the most benefit from the resistance training and built more lean tissue mass, which will in return burn more calories throughout the day.
|Goal||Cardio First!||Weights First!|
|Improve Cardio Specific Task (running, cycling, rowing, etc)||X|
|Build Muscle Mass||X|
|Improve Definition/Get Tone||X|
Both cardio and weight training workouts are important for optimal fitness. In a perfect world, we would have plenty of time to devote to both. In the real world though, we often find ourselves having to combine workouts due to time constraints. Busy schedules make it harder to exercise, but with some dedication and planning you can make it work.
With these combined workouts, goal oriented scheduling is important. Basing your workout routine around your primary fitness goals will guide you into whether you do cardio or weight training first.
If you want to improve cardiovascular performance, you should do your cardio training first. If improving strength or building muscle mass is your goal, hit the weights first.
Weight loss is a little more complicated, but the research tends to support the idea of weight training first so that you can built more lean muscle mass and speed up your metabolism. There’s also combined interval workouts, like HIIT training, that has been shown to be great at increasing metabolism.
What about exercising for general health? If staying healthy is your primary goal, then it doesn’t matter which one you do first, as long as you incorporate both types of exercises in your workouts.
The important thing to remember is that as long as you are exercising, there is no wrong answer. When in doubt, start one way and see how it goes. If you don’t get the results you are looking for, switch up your routine and see what happens.