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!

If You Lift Weights, Will You Get Bigger Muscles?

As more and more fitness trainers and blog articles describe the many benefits of strength training, many ­­people who never tried it before are now curious about lifting weights. Unfortunately, some folks worry about "bulking up," so they refrain from it.

In my professional experience, women tend to be the most concerned about getting "bulky," but I've also encountered men who worry about this. (I don't blame women for this -- we are constantly bombarded with media messages that tell us to be smaller and frailer, but that's a soapbox message for another article.) They are afraid that if they lift weights, their arms will get too big for all their shirts, their legs will look like tree trunks, and their midsections will grossly thicken. So instead of benefiting from weightlifting, they revert back to the same old cardio-centric program that has never worked before and probably never will.  Then they wonder why they're still gaining or can't lose fat. 

You may think that lifting weights will turn you into the Hulk, but the concept of gaining bigger muscles isn’t so black and white...or green. It is WAY harder than you think to get those giant muscles that you fear. Instead of getting bigger, weightlifting (done right) is the best way to get those long, lean muscles or smooth, toned look that you crave.  

Unless you're dumped in a bucket of radioactive ooze or whatever, it's gonna be REALLY hard to look like one of these guys. 

Unless you're dumped in a bucket of radioactive ooze or whatever, it's gonna be REALLY hard to look like one of these guys. 

Of course, weightlifting CAN make you bigger, if you train and eat in a way to support that growth. Here are some things to consider, whether you ARE or are NOT interested in making your muscles grow larger. 

What is your gender?

Women don’t have nearly as much testosterone as men. This means that unless their bodies are very unusual (like some Olympians this year) or take steroids, they can't bulk up at the same rate as men, according to Tipton. Testosterone and a few other sex hormones help in the production of proteins that build muscle. And in the process called hypertrophy, these hormones go overboard and muscle fibers are created. 

So ladies, if you’re afraid of getting as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger, don’t be. It’s genetically impossible.

Regardless of gender, if you want to make a difference in your health, one of the best ways to do that is through strength training. And if you want bigger muscles, hypertrophy should be your goal. In order to reach hypertrophy, you’ve got to lift. Heavy.

One way to do this is by finding your one-repetition maximum (the maximum amount of weight you can lift in one rep, or 1RM) and then lifting in a strategic range of reps, sets, and percentages of that weight (to learn more about lifting on your own, check out the Science and Practice of Strength Training -- but a good personal trainer is the best person to talk to about this).  Now, I don’t recommend you going to the gym and piling a bunch of weights on a bar; there’s an easier (and safer) way to do this.

There are several calculators online that can help you calculate your 1RM. Here’s a calculator from Bodybuilding.com, or if you’re really up for the challenge, you can calculate it yourself using Brzycki’s formula (hint: use the calculators).

Of course, these calculators won’t always be accurate. It’s because they give you your 1RM free of conditions and situations you may be in. For instance, it doesn’t account for if you’re not used to lifting every day. or if it’s even your first time in the gym and you’re feeling nervous.

The more accurate route is to test out your max with yourself AND a personal trainer to prevent injuries. 

To summarize, if you don’t want to get too bulky, your chances of that happening are slim if you’re a woman. And even if you're a dude, you're going to have to work hard to bulk up. But there are two other factors that play a hand in the muscle-building process.

What do your genes say?

The type of muscle fibers that your body predominately uses is determined by your genetics. There are two main types: fast- and slow-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers contract fast and make it easier to gain muscle.

Slow-twitch fibers do have their perks, though; they’re ideal for activities involving endurance, and they fatigue a lot slower. You can research which types of fibers your body is mostly comprised of following this guide.

How intensely are you training?

Regardless of your gender and genetics, you have to push yourself if you’re interested in gaining more muscle. Doing the same number of reps with the same weight will engage your muscles, but it won’t make them any larger. If you want to see change, you’ve got to make a change! That's one thing that a certified personal trainer like me can help you with. We can put together a plan that varies the intensity and techniques of your workout in the right way to  fit your body and your goals -- whether or not they include growing massive muscles. 

Do you lift? Do you want to learn how to make lifting fit your goals? Just get in touch with me today to set up a complimentary consultation. We'll get you started safely and successfully. 

What is the Best Way to Lose Fat?

It’s the question that everyone asks at least once in their life, hoping that the answer will be as easy as buying products promoting weight loss. However, fat loss is a lot more complex than choosing fat-free cheese. (Seriously, is that even cheese?)

The best method for fat loss differentiates from person to person. Everyone’s body responds differently to everything. 

But one strategy that remains consistent to all fat-loss tips is exercise. If you want to lose your gut, you’ve gotta get off your butt.  And cardio alone probably won't cut it -- you should always add weight training into your program if you want to lose fat. 

Many people believe that if they do some type of walking or low-intensity workout that doesn’t involve much muscle building, it leaves their body no excuse but to burn fat. These people are right - partially. 

The amount of fat lost during more intense workouts is smaller compared to low-intensity ones, but the downside is that you’re doing far less work and burning even fewer calories. 

When you’re trying to lose fat, you need to focus on intensity. The more intense your workout, the more calories you’re burning. Since calories are a measurement of energy, the more calories you’re using, the more energy you’re using, and the more energy used, the more oxygen you’ll need (or else you’ll pass out). 

Oxygen is like the key to all the doors hiding the fat lodged near your stomach, in your arms, your waist, etc. You need high-intensity exercises to boost your heart rate. This will, in turn, enable your body to demand oxygen, which will help you burn calories from fat.  

But once you get in that stage of fat-burning, don’t think you can stay there forever! After all, you can only demand oxygen for so long until you really pass out.

Eventually, you’ll have to slow down so that you don't over train your body, but that doesn’t mean your fat-burning capabilities have to slow down as well. Prolong your fat-burning time by lifting weights. 

Build muscle to burn fat. 

Build muscle to burn fat. 

Strength training helps because it’s an anaerobic exercise.  In other words, you don’t need to rely on oxygen so much to burn fat.

When you lift weights, your body skips all those steps and goes straight to those fat reservoirs. That’s because when you’re lifting weights, you’re also boosting your metabolism. The faster your metabolism, the more fat your body uses up as energy. 

You may be thinking, “Why not just lift weights since that burns fat faster?” You definitely can lose fat by just lifting weight. But this study suggests that compared to just weightlifting, cardio and strength training together burn fat more efficiently (Dolezal & Potteiger 1998).

So what should you do if you want to lose fat? You can try going for a jog, dancing, or doing any other type of activity that’ll get your heart racing. But don’t forget to combine that cardio with weighted movements like squats, deadlifts, chest presses, or your other favorite muscle building exercises. Lifting weights is the key to building lean muscle tissue, boosting your metabolism, and turning into a fat-burning machine.