Fitness Articles

Expert Solutions: Cardio or Strength Training First?

A Discussion with SparkPeople's Fitness Experts

It’s an age-old question, with no right answers. If you have to do both in the same day, does it matter whether you do strength training or cardio first? SparkPeople’s Fitness Experts voice their opinions on this hot topic.

Dean Anderson, Certified Personal Trainer
I think that the ideal would be to do these two forms of exercise on different days (or one in the morning and one in the evening), so that you can devote maximum effort and get the maximum benefit from each. Any time you do one followed by the other, the second one will suffer at least a little (although you may gradually improve your overall endurance this way).

If that’s not possible, then it comes down to a question of priorities and goals–for that day, and overall. If you’re trying to build muscle mass, doing cardio right after strength training is not usually a good idea, because the more depleted your muscle fuel (glycogen) becomes, the more protein you’re body will use as fuel. After an hour of fairly intense exercise, protein may provide up to 10% of the fuel used, compared to the 1-2% it normally provides. That’s the opposite of what you want for muscle building. To increase strength, you want your body to shift into "repair and rebuild" (anabolic) mode as soon as possible after your strength workout, and the best way to make that happen is to eat instead of doing cardio. A light cardio workout before lifting would be better. But don’t try to do a strenuous strength workout after you’ve already tired yourself out with cardio–that’s not safe.

If you’re mainly trying to lose fat and maintain the muscle you’ve got, then doing cardio after strength training can be a good strategy. The percentage of energy contributed by fat goes up considerably after an hour of exercise, and since strength training uses mostly glucose for energy, doing that first will also increase the amount of fat your body uses for the cardio. However, it’s also true that as more fat is being used to fuel the exercise, the less work you’ll be able to put out, and the fewer total calories you’ll burn. Your cardio will probably be less intense and/or shorter than it would otherwise be, and this may cancel out the amount of extra fat actually burned.

Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer
You'll find a lot of different opinions when it comes to this question. I don't know that there is a lot of reliable research to substantiate doing one or the other first, so I think it comes down to individual goals and preference. If your goal is to build muscle mass and strength, you'd probably want to do your weight training first. If your goal is to gain cardiovascular endurance, you'd want to do your cardio workout first. Here's an example. When I train for a marathon, my primary focus is increasing my mileage. Weight training is going to help prevent injury and increase strength, but what matters most is the running and increasing my distance. So in that case, I always do cardio first.

When it comes to weight loss, I recommend doing cardio first. Cardio exercise is going to help you burn the most calories in the shortest period of time. Although weight training is also going to help with weight loss (and should be part of any workout routine), I would make cardio the activity you're going to do while you have the most energy and your muscles are rested. No matter which order you choose, the second activity is going to suffer (to a certain extent) because you've already used up some of your energy. If you can do your cardio and strength training on different days, that would be the ideal situation. But no matter which order you use, you'll want to do a good 5-10 minute warm up before each workout session.

Nicole Nichols, Certified Fitness Instructor
What I always say matters most is that you're actually doing both cardio and strength training—in any order, on any days, at any time—and continuing to push a little harder to become even more fit. While I do agree with the perspective that it’s ideal to do cardio and strength training on separate days for optimal results, most people’s schedules don’t allow that. If you have to do both in one day, your second best option is to do them at different times of day—such as cardio in the morning and strength training in the afternoon or evening. This two-a-day approach gives you time to rest and refuel enough that you’ll have optimal energy once again by the time you get to your second workout.

But exercising twice in one day isn’t feasible for most busy people. If you have to fit in both during one workout, you should focus on whichever exercises will help you reach your main goals, and do those first. Perform cardio first if you want to lose weight, train for an endurance event, or achieve the general health benefits of exercise. Do strength first if you want to build size and power. Be sure to eat something within two hours of starting your workout session and within about one hour of completing it. Keep the length of your combination session reasonable and realistic so that you have enough energy for each part of your workout.

Personally, I do a little bit of everything—cardio first on some days, strength training first on others, cardio and strength on separate days, and even two separate workouts in one day. I like the variety, but also enjoy the mental and physical break that comes when I can focus on just one thing at a time. Changing the timing and order of your exercise program is yet another way to keep your body surprised, stave off boredom, and maximize your results.

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Member Comments

  • I have been working out for more than 40 years. I always warmed up with 5 - 8 minutes on a treadmill. Then I went to strength training for up to 90 minutes with minimum rest in between (only enough time to change weights). Of course I always went in non peak hours ( 4 A.M. or 11 P.M.) so no waiting for machine. I did my best workout on 9 P.M. Saturdays. I got plenty of cardio benefits doing this way. I might walk on my treadmill at home for 20 - 30 minutes two times a week at home on or off lifting days. So one could do both but it would be easier to have cardio equipment at home. I had worked split routines on the same day in the gym but only for weight lifting.
  • I have to get my strength training in first, otherwise I won't do it.
  • I do about 5 min on the exercise bike to get my heart rate up before I lift wts.
  • I agree with all of the trainers, but what Nicole said sounds the most like my philosophy.

    The most important thing is that you do both, regardless of the order or time of day. If you were doing nothing before and you are doing something now, it really doesn't matter what order you do that something in. The important part is that you are DOING it!
  • You would not normally want to flush that away with cardiovascular exercise.
  • Yes, better to do them on different days. Yes, better to split them up with hours in between if needing to do them on the same day.
    If you must do them back to back, it is almost always better to do the resistance training last. If you are trying to lose weight, it is better to do the resistance last. If you are trying to build muscle, it is better to do the resistance last.
    The best way to lose weight over the long run is to increase your metabolism day in and day out; this means more lean muscle. Protein as explain in the beginning of the article is a factor; yes you should eat some good protein just after the workout. Beyond that, the pump you should be getting in the resistance workout is key to building the muscle. The swelling (so to speak) of the fibers. You would no normally want to flush that away with cardiovascular exercise.
  • For the poll, I had to check the "do it in same day, different times of day" even tho I use the 30 Day Shred circuit training DVD, which alternates between the two! There's no option for circuit training.

    I do need to fit in some elliptical, tho, to increase my endurance and add to calories burned off. I had a lower body injury over the summer that prevented me from doing anything much like that. It's now feeling 98% better. In which case, I'll be alternating it, I think, or doing it later in the evening, after dinner.
  • I was going to ask a similar question - what about interval training with both strength and cardio interspersed throughout a one-hour workout? Some of the most popular exercise videos are organized in this way...
    In a gym It much better for me to do strength training first because cardio first means I leave a puddle of sweat at each strength machine. Also cardio leaves me too tired to do the Nautilis-like machines.

    I've always had trainers tell me you should always do strength training first, primarily for safety reasons. Having proper form is very important when doing strength training, both in terms of maximizing the efficiency of your workout and in terms of preventing injury. You are far less likely to have good form when you are tired after a cardio workout. Much better to workout with weights first then do your cardio.
  • I keep hearing that is actually strength training that makes a difference in weight loss for the long haul??

    So, yes, I'm still somewhat confused. I want to lose weight.

    Should I just do cardio with a bit of weights added in?
    OR do I focus on weights 3 x's a wk & fill in w/ cardio?
  • Interesting topic and thoughtful suggestions...I thought the article was going to talk about when beginning an exercise program if people should focus on cardio or strength training to lose weight (think of the time in the gym on biggest loser).
    My personal trainer used to always require that I do a minimum of 10 minutes cardio warm up before weight training, and I was often pretty bushed afterward, although I would try to do maybe 30 minutes on the treadmill.
    I need to resume strength training, so I will keep these suggestions in mind and probably split the workouts instead of trying to do everything in one session. Just as when I cycle, I find I have to fuel up beforehand, or I will run out of energy.
  • I've always done cardio first - I'm not sure why, but that's the way I've always done it LOL. If I thought I would actually get my butt back to the gym a second time in a day, I think I would like to do two separate sessions, as suggested by the article. But I'm not ready for that yet so I'll settle for managing to get once a day in LOL.
    Sometimes I separate cardio & strength on alternate days. And it's true that I see and feel the best results doing this. But most often, because of my schedule, I do both on the same day, starting with cardio, or I do a circuit workout which combines both.

    I don't think I have it in me to work out twice a day. Once is plenty. LOL.
    I didn't even know there was a question about which type of exercise to do first. I've been doing a circuit training routine so far, but when I'm able to get in more fat burning I guess I'll go for cardio first.

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