Should you do cardio or weights first?

Should you do cardio or weights first?

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When you’re working out do you think about the order of your exercise? Using the latest research, Exercise Physiologist Andrew Cate gives us his experts tips on whether to do cardio or weights first.

The order of exercise

Performing a combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise is an effective way to develop a lean, strong and energetic body. 

There are also several physical activities that require strength and aerobic conditioning simultaneously, making it important to develop different components of your fitness. 

But what if you want to perform both your resistance training and cardiovascular training on the same day? Does it matter what order you do them? Does one method of training interfere with the other? 

Known as the order of exercise, or training sequence, this is a hotly debated topic in fitness circles. 

Some experts argue you should lift weights first to maximize fat burning later when you perform cardiovascular exercise. While others might suggest you need to perform cardio first while your energy levels are at their highest. 

A good place to start when seeking the answer to this debate is looking at what the science says.

Should you run or lift weights first?

A study published in the journal Sports Medicine examined the role of exercise sequence, and its effect on different fitness outcomes. 

This was a review of several studies, where the common theme was that subjects had to train at least twice a week for 5 weeks. 

The most significant finding was that resistance training followed by endurance exercise was more effective compared to the alternative when measuring improvements in lower-body dynamic strength. 

So if you are following a running training program and you are doing a combined cardio and strength session, start with your strength exercises and finish up with your run.

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Choosing your order of exercise

Finding the answer to the best order of exercises actually starts with a question. Ask yourself - “what am I trying to achieve”? 

Knowing the answer is vital, because the best order of exercise will vary depending on the results you are seeking. Different health and fitness goals require different strategies. Let’s look at this through the perspective of a few different goals.
  • Building strength - As revealed in the study above, it is preferable to perform strength training first before cardiovascular exercise when strength is your goal. The order that you train muscle groups within your workout is also important here. Prioritise strength training exercises that include multiple joint movements (eg. squats, bench press, pull downs) ahead of isolation exercises that only use one muscle group (eg. bicep curls, calf raises)
  • Boosting your endurance - The fitness law of specificity states that the best type of training you can do should be specifically related to your chosen activity. In other words, elite runners should run, and elite cyclists should cycle. If your primary goal is to boost endurance, this should be the focus of your training. Whatever you train first will likely see the most benefit. However it’s still wise to include strength training once or twice a week to improve muscular power and efficiency of movement
  • Decreasing body fat - It may be best to perform strength training first, as this would deplete your blood sugar stores, and maximize fat burning during cardiovascular exercise. It may also be beneficial to include interval training as part of your cardiovascular workout routine. Even if your energy reserves are somewhat depleted after strength training, you only need to put in short bursts of higher intensity efforts
  • If you just want to be fit and healthy - The ideal order of exercise becomes less of a concern if you just want to train for fun, or if you just want to stay generally fit and healthy. Stick with what you enjoy, and go with whatever keeps you coming back. As they say, exercise doesn’t have to be taken seriously, just regularly. However, you may want to be more conscious of the order of exercise when you need to train for a competitive event, or prepare for a particular sporting activity
  • A lack of motivation - It’s important to consider variety and motivation, because you may get bored doing the same thing all the time. The order of exercise doesn’t mean much if you can’t face another training session, and stay on the couch. There’s nothing wrong with changing things around every once in a while, just for variety’s sake. The order of exercise is really fine-tuning, because ultimately, the most important thing is that you get off the couch and move

Source: Edens L et al. The Role of Intra-Session Exercise Sequence in the Interference Effect: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 2018: 48:177–188.