Tailoring Your Workout Ritual: Cardio or Weights First?
Both cardio and strength training have their perfect place in everyone’s fitness rituals, and while you may prefer one over the other (don’t we all?) the CDC highlights that the ideal fitness ritual includes a balance of both. More specifically, they note that, in a perfect world, we need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio, combined with two (or more) days of strength training each week, but how you break it down is up to you! But that freedom begs the question: cardio or weights first?
Fortunately, you can combine them into a single workout, but asking the simple question of whether to do cardio or weights first spurs anything but a simple answer. There is no “one size fits all” workout ritual, and it all depends on your end game and your preferences. Let’s break down exactly when it is most beneficial to perform each first in your own ritual!
- Starting your workout with weights or cardio highly depends on your goals, lifestyle, and preferences.
- If you’re looking to increase endurance, start with cardio. If you’re looking to get stronger, start with weights.
- There is ample research that supports the benefits of starting with cardio or weights. You can tailor your workout ritual to create a sequence that keeps you happiest and healthiest.
Cardio or weights first?
First things first: extremism of any form in the world of fitness can be a bad idea. Alternating between “always” and “never” and incorporating both words into your exercise vocabulary can miss the point of finding an ideal, consistent workout ritual and can potentially create bad habits. That being said, it is important to find the perfect balance of both strength and cardio training that works for you, your lifestyle, and your goals.
When incorporating them both in the same trip to the gym, and trying to decide whether to do cardio first or your strength training first, the answer is dependent on a plethora of factors. There is no “wrong” answer, and the only wrong solution is when we take an answer that works for one individual, and we assume it is the best template for everyone to follow; this couldn’t be further from the truth.
We have two systems in our bodies that we use when exercising: the aerobic system and the anaerobic system. Our aerobic system breaks down glycogen (a form of sugar that is stored in the muscles and used for energy) into ATP (the fuel muscles need to contract) using oxygen; your aerobic system is used when performing long-duration, medium-intensity cardio. This is why we get so out of breath during cardio (of course it has nothing to do with being out of shape…)
In contrast, the anaerobic system breaks down glycogen and leaves lactic acid as a by-product. Our bodies primarily use it during short-duration, high-intensity exercises such as strength training and sprinting. This is responsible for that intense burn you feel after a grueling set of chest presses.
Many fitness experts will advise you to perform your cardio AFTER strength training because you use up most of your anaerobic energy, which fatigues your muscles before completing arduous weight training. But, there is no evidence that necessarily proves this; the research really shows that there is no wrong answer, and your sequence should largely be determined by your goals and priorities.
Breaking down the benefits
Two main factors should determine the sequence of your workout ritual:
1. Your goals. (Are you trying to burn fat? Lose weight? Improve your mental health? Build muscle? Have more energy for day-to-day activities? Sleep better?)
2. Your attitude and mindset. (Do you hate working out? Do you love it? What is your favorite type of exercise? Are you struggling with your ritual?)
Additionally, here’s a circumstantial cheat sheet that can help determine which you should perform first:
- Is your goal to improve endurance? → do cardio first
- Is your goal to get leaner or lose weight? → do weights first
- Do you want to build muscle? → do weights first
- Are you working upper body? → you choose
- Are you working lower body? → do weights first
- Do you have general fitness goals (i.e. to feel better, with no focus on strength or endurance?) → do whatever you like better last
Research has found that performing cardio after strength training resulted in a heart rate that was 12 beats per minute higher when performing a workout with the exact same intensity and duration. Based on the results, it seems that doing cardio first would be the preferred sequence, as the increase in heart rate could lead to a perceived switch in intensity from ‘moderate’ to ‘vigorous’ with no actual shift in intensity, meaning the workout seemed harder than it was.
However, this shouldn’t be perceived as advocacy to always perform cardio first. Contrary studies reveal that lifting weights first shows an increase in using fat for fuel because the body’s carbohydrate stores are exhausted first.
Research also shows that muscle capability decreases when lifting weights after running on a treadmill while heart rate and perceived intensity level increase. Further studies show that running or cycling before lifting limits the number of repetitions that participants could do compared to lifting before.
Additional studies have shown that the logic applies to the other side: if your main priority is to improve endurance or become a faster runner, weight training before your cardio can impair your running. All this goes to show that, while there have been a plethora of studies done on this subject, the answer is extremely complex, and there is no one “right answer.”
Benefits of performing cardio first include maximizing your calorie burn, as your heart rate increases initially, increases your body temperature, and heightens the metabolic demands placed on the body; in this case, your heart rate will remain elevated and burn more calories overall. Additionally, it increases your EPOC (the number of calories you continue to burn following your exercise,) not to mention improving your endurance.
When strength training first, you get to the fat-burning part of your workout faster, resulting in better strength and building and toning your muscles. After all the glycogen is exhausted, you will burn more fat during the cardio portion of your workout.
In conclusion, when deciding to start with either cardio or weights, focus on your goals and attitudes! There is no simple answer to a simple question, and there is nothing wrong with doing either first. Regardless, you are getting out and moving, paving the way to a happy and healthy body! If you do have specific goals, focus on starting with the one that aligns most with your priorities, so you can tailor your workout ritual to best suit your needs.
The best thing you can do is to have a consistent ritual that works best for you and fits your lifestyle. Keeping an open mind and switching it up every once in a while can do amazing things for your body as well.
Written by Morgan Taylor