Which Should You Do First: Cardio or Weights?

Have you ever stepped into the gym, full of confidence and purpose and ready to get yo' fitness on, only to freeze in confusion, torn between the two greater goods: cardio or weightlifting? You probably know that the best way to lose weight and live a healthier life is to combine cardio and weight training, but which one should you do first?

Cardio is a lot more fun when you do it outside in a beautiful place.

Cardio is a lot more fun when you do it outside in a beautiful place.

Cardio vs. Weight Training

Public health organizations mostly tell you to do steady-state aerobic exercise. This "cardio" exercise does enhance cardiorespiratory fitness and has some impact on body composition -- that is, it can assist with fat loss. Aerobic exercise increases the number of critical cardiovascular components in your body, like tiny blood-carrying capillaries. It also builds your mitochondria, which as you may recall from biology class, are the "powerhouses of the cell." Additionally, cardio exercise improves cholesterol levels and increases blood vessel flexibility.

Yet research demonstrates that resistance exercise training has dramatically positive effects on the musculoskeletal system. Weight training helps you maintain functional abilities (perform healthy human movements) and prevents osteoporosis, sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), lumbar pain, and other issues.

Recent research shows that resistance training may also have positive impact on health risk factors such as insulin resistance, resting metabolic rate, glucose metabolism, blood pressure, body fat and gastrointestinal transit time. By reducing these risks factors, you reduce your chance of developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer. 

Weight Training Before Cardio?

There’s a popular belief that lifting weights before cardio will deplete up all the energy you already have stored in your body and force your body to use fat for fuel. Although this idea isn't too far-fetched, studies show that this theory isn't 100% accurate.

A recent study on women (specifically women who may be considered "beginners" in fitness) showed no difference in results regardless of whether they started their workouts with cardio or lifting.

A recent study on men (specifically clinically obese men) showed slightly better results for participants who lifted weights before they performed their cardio exercise. But this improvement was minimal.

So what's the final verdict on which type of exercise you should do first?

Lifting is a lot more fun when you track your progress and appreciate your results.

Lifting is a lot more fun when you track your progress and appreciate your results.

It All Depends on Your Body and Your Goals.

I want you to see exercise as an enjoyable part of a healthy lifestyle, not a painful chore. So if you hate doing cardio after your workout and love doing it before, well, do what you love. If that doesn't get you the results you want, then change your strategy.  Everyone's body is unique so you may respond differently to a training stimulus than someone else; there is no universal prescription for health. 

So let's say you don't really have a strong personal preference on doing cardio before or after weightlifting. In that case, do the most important type of exercise at the beginning of your workout, while you're fresh. If you want to focus mostly on weight training, do that first. If you want to focus mostly on cardio training, do that first instead. And if you just really feel like mixing it up, do whatever you feel best about on each day.

However, I generally recommend that you involve cardio in your workout in 4 key ways:

  • Include easy-breezy cardio in your warm-up before you lift. This means a few minutes (less than 10) in a light jog, row, or cycling bout. You should find a pace that gently increases your heart rate an loosens up your joints but doesn't leave you feeling gassed. You should be able to pass the "talk test," that is, hold a conversation or sing while you move.
  • If you're training for fat loss, include bouts of cardio (running, burpees, bunny hops, brisk walks) in between your lifting sets. This offers a variety of benefits, from increasing blood flow to your muscles to boosting your metabolism. Just make sure you don't perform your cardio so intensely that you lose proper form on your lifting. 
  • Finish off your workout with a 10-30 minute cardio session. I usually only recommend this on days when your lifting regimen is light or focused on your upper body. You don't want to push your cardio efforts too far if your stabilizing muscles are too fatigued to protect you from injury.
  • Include one day each week that is devoted to either long and slow cardio (like long runs or rides) and/or short and explosive cardio (like sprints, hill drills, or box jumps). These days should comprise about 10-20% of your total training and should really push your limits. This is a great way to bump your overall fitness, endurance, and power up to the next level.

There are lots of ways to incorporate cardio and weightlifting into your routine, and your regimen doesn't have to look exactly like someone else's.  Just remember that you can’t out-train a bad diet, so no matter what you choose to do, make sure you eat healthy, nutrient-dense foods!