I don’t include cardio and strength training on the same day in all of my programs, but I do in some. The question, then, becomes, should you do strength training before or after cardio? In this article, I’ll review the research behind each approach and then share some practical insights based on my experience working with clients over the past couple of decades.
Cardio vs. Strength Training
As I wrote about in The 3 Pillars of VIGOR, you can get most of the benefits of cardiovascular exercise from a well-designed strength and conditioning program. However, there are cases where including cardio in addition to strength training is beneficial.
Women, in general, tend to respond better to programs with a moderate amount of cardio. For women with PCOS, cardio can be especially important. And even for men, including cardio can help them get through fat loss plateaus, or get rid of the last 15 pounds of body fat to see a complete six-pack.
But just to be clear, I do not advocate doing cardio instead of strength training. If it comes down to doing one or the other on a given day, always do your strength training.
With that in mind, here are some of the most significant benefits of each form of exercise.
Benefits of Strength Training
Strength training obviously makes you stronger (hence, the name), but it does much more, whether you’re 18 or 81. Some of resistance training’s key benefits include:
- Increased muscle mass: Strength training promotes muscle growth, which can improve your overall body composition and appearance.1Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
- Improved bone density: Resistance training helps to maintain and improve bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.2Layne, J. E., & Nelson, M. E. (1999). The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 31(1), 25-30.
- Boosted metabolism: Building muscle increases your resting metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories at rest.3Campbell, W. W., Crim, M. C., Young, V. R., & Evans, W. J. (1994). Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60(2), 167-175.
- Enhanced functional fitness: Strength training improves your ability to perform everyday tasks, making you more functionally fit.4Rantanen, T., Guralnik, J. M., Sakari-Rantala, R., Leveille, S., Simonsick, E. M., Ling, S., & Fried, L. P. (1999). Disability, physical activity, and muscle strength in older women: the Women’s Health and Aging Study. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 80(2), 130-135.
Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise
When you look at most research and medical publications, you find a consistent set of benefits from cardio. They include:
- Improved heart health: Regular cardio can reduce the risk of heart disease by improving circulation and lowering blood pressure.5Mora, S., Cook, N., Buring, J. E., Ridker, P. M., & Lee, I. M. (2007). Physical activity and reduced risk of cardiovascular events: potential mediating mechanisms. Circulation, 116(19), 2110-2118.
- Increased endurance: Cardio helps to build stamina, allowing you to exercise for longer periods without fatigue.6Fletcher, GF., Ades, P. A., Kligfield, P., Arena, R., Balady, G. J., Bittner, V. A., … & Sibley, C. (2013). Exercise standards for testing and training: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 128(8), 873-934.
- Weight management: Engaging in regular cardio can help you maintain a healthy weight or lose weight when combined with a proper diet.7Donnelly, J. E., Blair, S. N., Jakicic, J. M., Manore, M. M., Rankin, J. W., & Smith, B. K. (2009). Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(2), 459-471.
- Stress reduction: Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels and improve overall mental well-being.8Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(1), 33-61.
However, research shows that resistance training also improves heart health, increases stamina, plays an essential role in weight management and overall body composition, and has stress-relieving effects.
The issue is you can’t strength train for hours on end. It would be catastrophic for your nervous and immune systems. So, when you need extra exercise without compromising your overall health, you can usually add extra cardio without hurting yourself.
Factors to Consider When Deciding Strength Training Before or After Cardio
When deciding whether to perform strength training before or after cardio, consider the following factors:
- Individual goals: Your personal fitness goals will play a significant role in determining the best order of exercises. For example, if your primary goal is fat loss, you might prioritize strength training first. Conversely, if your goal is endurance improvement, especially if you’re an endurance athlete, you may choose to do cardio first.
- Time availability: If you’re short on time, as I already mentioned, you’ll almost always be best served by doing your strength training.
- Time between workouts: If you have to complete one workout after the other, which is the case for most people, the rest of this article will help you understand which to do first. However, if you can do one in the morning and one later in the day, it probably won’t matter which one you do first.
Research on Strength Training Before Cardio
Several studies have examined the effects of performing strength training before cardio. Some potential benefits of this approach include:
- Enhanced performance in strength training: Research suggests that training before cardio may result in better gains and muscle development.9Eddens, L., Browning, R., & Lynn, A. (2018). The effect of concurrent training order on hormonal responses and body composition in healthy men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(4), 1063-1074.
- Increased calorie burn: One study found that performing strength training before cardio resulted in greater total energy expenditure than doing cardio first.10Drummond, M. J., Vehrs, P. R., Schaalje, G. B., & Parcell, A. C. (2005). Aerobic and resistance exercise sequence affects excess postexercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(2), 332-337.
- Greater fat loss: A study by Alcaraz et al. found that participants who performed strength training before cardio experienced greater body fat percentage reductions than those who did cardio first.11Alcaraz, P. E., Sánchez-Lorente, J., & Blazevich, A. J. (2018). Physical performance and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of heavy resistance circuit training versus traditional strength training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(3), 667-671.
Research on Strength Training After Cardio
On the other hand, some research supports the idea of performing strength training after cardio:
- Improved aerobic capacity: A study by Chtara et al. found that participants who performed cardio before strength training experienced greater aerobic capacity improvements than those who did strength training first.12Chtara, M., Chaouachi, A., Levin, G. T., Chaouachi, M., Chamari, K., Amri, M., & Laursen, P. B. (2005). Effect of concurrent endurance and circuit resistance training sequence on muscular strength and power development. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 593-600.
- Increased endurance: Engaging in cardio before strength training may lead to better endurance performance.13Docherty, D., & Sporer, B. (2000). A proposed model for examining the interference phenomenon between concurrent aerobic and strength training. Sports Medicine, 30(6), 385-394.
- Better recovery: Some research suggests that performing cardio first may promote better recovery between sets during strength training, allowing for more effective workouts.14Kraemer, W. J., Volek, J. S., & Clark, K. L. (1995). Influence of exercise on recovery responses of plasma creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 20(4), 480-490. It’s likely a proper warm-up would have the same effect.
How to Maximize Benefits of Both Strength Training and Cardio
To make the most of your strength training and cardio workouts, consider the following strategies:
For most clients, my goal is to help them build and maintain muscle first. Second, I want them to help burn more fat. Building muscle helps them do that, which is why the strength training portion of their program is so important.
One exception to this “rule” would be women with PCOS, who benefit from more cardio and less strength training because of their ability to maintain muscle, even when calorie-deprived. Often, they only need a couple of full-body strength training workouts each week, and then should do cardio three to five times per week to maintain a healthy weight and body composition.
The other exception would be endurance athletes. Since they need to maximize endurance for their sport, their endurance training, or cardio, takes precedence. However, they must include strength training a few days per week or risk losing muscle mass and bone density. Strength training also improves their overall power, which is important for running, cycling up hills, or sprinting at the end of a race.
Recovery and Nutrition Strategies
Ensure you provide your body with adequate rest, sleep, and proper nutrition to support recovery and performance in strength training and cardio workouts. The more overall training volume you perform, the more calories, electrolytes, and water you’ll need. If your training exceeds your ability to recover, you’ll not only compromise the results of your program, but you could end up with conditions like adrenal fatigue.
With the above information in mind, let’s get practical. For most of us, whichever form of exercise we perform first will leave us less energetic for the other form.
If you do cardio first, you won’t be as strong or powerful for your resistance training. If you strength train first, you won’t be as energetic for your cardio.
The reality is, it doesn’t much matter if you’re a little fatigued as you begin your cardio workout. It matters a lot if you’re fatigued as you begin your strength training session. To stimulate muscle growth and bone density, you need to train intensely.
Therefore, I almost always recommend doing strength training before cardio.
You might wonder, “Why didn’t you say that at the beginning?” Good question.
If I had given you the answer without all the reasoning to support it, you might have gotten a different answer from someone else and gone with whichever answer felt good to you. I don’t like making recommendations based on feelings. I do so based on facts and experience, which both suggest that for almost everyone, it’s best to do strength training before cardio.