It seems to reflect the classic argument of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” People frequently ask if they should do cardio or weights first when they exercise. Or should they combine cardio and weight training into one workout? Or can they skip one modality and simply focus exclusively on the other?
Even as research in exercise science and exercise physiology grows, there is still no simple answer that universally applies to everyone regarding the issue of cardio versus weights. The good news is that from what we know today, there is no right or wrong way to order, separate or combine cardiovascular activity from strength training. For overall health and fitness, both cardio and weight workouts are necessary – but how you structure your routine has various effective options.
Here we look at cardio and weight training, their influence on the body and how to develop an exercise plan that meets your needs and is aimed at achieving your goals. It’s important to remember that while some hard rules exist in exercise, every person has a different background, fitness level, objectives, availability to workout, preferences and access to a health club or home equipment. One size doesn’t fit all, and the best workout routines are those that are balanced, effective and adhered to.
Cardiovascular exercise is defined as activity that elevates your heart rate over a longer duration beyond one minute to 30, 45 or 60 minutes, or however long the workout lasts. It can be performed at a steady level, where the heart rate stays consistently raised throughout the workout at 65-85% of maximum heart rate (MHR), or the aerobic zone. Your theoretical MHR is 220-age.
Another popular way to perform cardio is interval training, where you raise the heart rate even higher than 85% MHR with short bursts (15-60 seconds) of higher resistance or speed to boost intensity. These rigorous intervals alternate with more moderate intensity, typically longer periods of 1-5 minutes throughout the workout. Interval training can increase caloric expenditure.
Options for cardio exercise are numerous, including brisk walking; running; cycling; swimming laps; using an elliptical, cross trainer or stairclimber; rowing; inline skating; cross-country skiing; hiking; vigorous dancing and some group exercise classes, such as kickboxing. Sports such as basketball, tennis, baseball, soccer and football, among others, definitely include cardio activity, but it tends to be stop-start – comprised of bursts followed by standing still – so technically these are classified as anaerobic because they don’t keep the heart rate consistently elevated over a sustained duration. Extremely rigorous competitions may be more aerobic where there is more constant motion (such as running up and down field in a soccer game).
Nevertheless, all consistent cardio movement, where steady state/aerobic or anaerobic, and regardless of format, is beneficial to the body.
Research has shown that cardio provides a host of physiological and psychological benefits, including:
- Weight loss and/or management
- Less body fat
- Greater energy and stamina
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and some types of cancer
- Decreased blood pressure
- Reduced cholesterol
- Stronger bones
- Stress management
- Better quality of sleep
- Improved confidence and reduced depression
Clearly, cardio is an essential component to maintaining health and fitness. You should do cardio 2-6 times per week, for 20-60 minutes per workout, customizing the frequency and duration according to your goals.
Strength training is working the muscles against resistance to build muscular endurance and strength. Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to exert force repeatedly, and muscular strength is the maximum force exerted one time. Strength workouts involve exercises using body weight; dumbbells or kettlebells; barbells and weight plates; elastic resistance bands and tubing and other accessories. Common exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, chest press, rows, shoulder press, biceps curls and triceps extensions.
The key to effective strength training is to lift enough weight to challenge you after 3-15 repetitions, based on your goals. Building larger muscles requires heavy weights with fewer reps; getting fit and creating a toned appearance means moderate resistance with more repetitions. Note that most women will not achieve bulky muscles due to limited testosterone.
You should be able to perform the exercises with good form, using slow, controlled movement (no jerking or swinging), and the last few repetitions should be difficult to execute. If you are struggling after only two or three repetitions, the weight is too heavy, and if you can continue well past 15 repetitions, the weight is too light.
Strength training’s benefits differ from cardio:
- Greater muscular strength and endurance
- More muscle mass
- Higher metabolism
- Increased bone and joint strength
- Enhanced memory
- Reduced risk of falls
- Improved coordination and balance
- Better body mechanics
- Decreased arthritis and back pain
- Greater ease in performing activities of daily living
Depending on your goals, perform strength training 2-6 times weekly, hitting the major muscle groups (but not the same muscles on consecutive days), for one to three sets of 3-15 repetitions.
Which Comes First?
Given the necessity of cardio and strength, which should you do first? According to a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), doing cardio after strength training resulted in a higher heart rate – 12 beats per minute – for the same workout intensity and duration. That might suggest that cardio should be done first, as a higher perceived effort occurs when cardio is performed after lifting weights.
However, other studies conclude that it’s better to perform strength training first, followed by cardio, because cardio can fatigue muscles, which negatively impacts the weight workout. Additional research shows that there is a slight increase in the use of fat for fuel when strength work is done first because the body’s carbohydrate stores are already depleted after targeted muscle activity.
Even more, researchers have found that running first negatively affects strength training, and moderate- to high-intensity cardio decreases the effectiveness of strength workouts.
As you can see, results are mixed, and no single recommendation properly can be applied to all exercisers. In the article, “Cardio vs. Weights,” ACE provided the following guidelines, based on individual goals and preferences:
Goal is to:
- Improve endurance – Cardio first
- Get leaner or lose weight – Strength first
- Build strength – Strength first
- Enhance overall fitness – Either cardio or strength first
- Work on lower-body strength today – Strength first
- Address upper-body strength today – Either cardio or strength first
You should experiment with what works best for you, noticing differences in your body’s response depending on how you order workouts. Or alternate doing cardio and strength first on different days.
Finally, another option for some, but ideally not all, workouts, is combining cardio and strength using intervals. You can do cardio for 3-5 minutes, then quickly perform a strength exercise, then return to cardio, and so on. This can make workouts feel like they progress much faster, and help to eliminate boredom and boost motivation.
Note, however, that every workout should not have these types of intervals if possible. The body and the mind benefits from isolated cardio or strength training as well, and you’re likely to experience better overall conditioning results by maintaining variety in the way you train.