Fitness Tips

Cardio or Strength Training First? We Asked 3 Trainers What to Do

Rachel Lapidos

Photo: Getty Images/Hinterhaus Productions
When I'm working out, I'm all about doing cardio first—then I go about with my strength training routine. It just feels right to me to get my heart rate up by running and follow that by lifting a few weights. On the flip side, I know people who are adamant about doing things the other way around. Then, there's the Barry's Bootcamp lot who intersperses cardio and strength training together. So what gives with all the different sequences, and which one should you do first to make the biggest impact in your workout?

"If you think about the physiology of training, the sequencing of your workouts matters," says Matt Nolan, an instructor at Barry's Bootcamp. "That also tends to go hand-in-hand with what your specific training goals are. Based on individual priorities, the best sequence for one person will be different than that for another person."

Whether you do cardio or strength first, incorporating cardio into the mix is an important part of the overall workout practice and impacts the body’s performance. Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT, an OBGYN, NASM-certified personal trainer, and founder of postpartum health and fitness site Postpartum Trainer, says the biggest benefit of doing cardio is that it helps make your heart more efficient. “This means that it can pump more blood through your body with each heartbeat,” she explains. “As a result, your heart can beat at a slower pace yet still provide your entire body with an adequate amount of blood. This is why athletes tend to have a lower resting heart rate.”

Furthermore, Dr. Robles adds, “aerobic activities like cardiovascular training have also been clinically proven to improve your sleep quality. Sleep is critical for recovery and restoration for all athletic performance.”

Of course, doing cardio or strength first over the other has its own line of benefits (and more on that in just a few), the most important thing of all is that you're working out in general. "Really, keeping it fun is the main thing," says Selena Samuela, a Peloton instructor. "You know your body better than an expert or a study—so if it feels good to do cardio first, that's what you should do. And the other way around—listen to your body."

Nolan agrees, noting that "the best exercise is always the exercise that you'll do." If you're still curious about the difference between workout sequences and benefits, keep scrolling. But first, here’s why many people do cardio and strength training.

Why people do cardio

1. To get their sweat on

There is something so satisfying about getting super sweat during a workout. Dr. Robles notes this is one of the top reasons why people incorporate cardio into their fitness routine. “Many people feel as though they did not get in a good workout unless they are dripping sweat,” she says. “Cardio exercises like running or cycling will do just that.”

2. To burn calories

“Compared to regular weight training, cardio has the potential to burn the most calories depending on the duration of your workout session,” Dr. Robles says, making this another top reason why many people prioritize cardio over strength training. And, not only does cardio burn more calories during the workout, Dr. Robles notes that studies have shown that high-intensity interval training can help burn calories for hours after a workout.

3. Fear of getting bulky

According to Dr. Robles, another reason why some people, women in particular, gravitate towards cardio over strength training is due to the fear that lifting weight may make them appear bulkier. However, she clarifies, “women are less likely to get bulky than men because they do not have as high testosterone levels as men, and generally aren't training and eating in a way to induce significant amounts of muscular hypertrophy.”

Why people do strength training

1. To build strength

Building strength is one of if not the top reason why many people lift weights, which cardio alone can’t accomplish to the same degree. “Resistance training is the only way for your muscles to undergo hypertrophy, also known as muscle growth,” Dr. Robles says.

2. To feel accomplished

There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition with yourself, and strength training is one way people can work on improving and setting new personal records in the gym and trigger that sense of accomplishment we all crave. “Many people lift weights and try to be better than they were the day or week or month prior,” Dr. Robles says. “It is the perfect place to compete with yourself and try to improve day by day.”

3. To releases endorphins

Beyond building strength and breaking personal records, Dr. Robles says feeling good is perhaps the main reason why people do strength training exercises and we have endorphins to thank for that. “Endorphins are endogenous opioids that help us to feel good and improve our mood,” Dr. Robles says. “This is why exercise has been associated with improvements in symptoms of anxiety and depression.”

If you do cardio first...

If you hit up an elliptical, spin bike, or tread first thing, you'll reap some very specific perks. First off: It's the best bet if you're training for a race or looking to improve your running game. "If your goals are improving better running times or if you're training for a marathon, or looking to improve your endurance, then cardio first is a great option," says Samuela.

Also, doing cardio first means you're more likely to slay it, rather than having heavy legs later on. "By running first while you're fresh and ready for it, you will perform better than if you do your strength exercises first," says Nolan, who adds that doing strength first can make the cardio session feel harder than it really is.

You're definitely warming yourself up by spiking your heart rate, too. If you're not doing your full-on cardio sesh, it's still a good way to get loose before you hit the weights. "Using cardio first warms your body up," says Samuela. "The only con to doing cardio first is that you might burn out—especially if you're doing something like a HIIT class before lifting. Instances like that would probably mean you won't be able to get as much strength in post-cardio."

If you do strength first...

Keeping cardio second also allows you to really go all out with your strength training routine—so do this if you're looking to build muscle or work on your strength. "Lifting weights is comparable to sprinting—it involves short bursts of extreme effort, and requires that your muscles use an energy source other than oxygen to perform the exercise,' says Nolan. "Depending on your fitness level, your muscles and heart can only handle a set amount of anaerobic training before becoming tired." And so if you've gone all-out in a cardio sesh, he explains that you won't have as much energy left to build strength.

Samuela agrees, saying that doing cardio first can make it hard to lift heavy afterwards. "If your focus is really working on your booty or your legs, for instance, I'd definitely recommend starting with strength because you'll have more energy," she says.

If you alternate between the two...

So then that leaves the whole cardio-strength switch-up sequencing in which you hop into one, then the other, then back again, keeping each component of your workout at a limited length. "If your focus is on general fitness, that's when you can mix up your workout with 15-15 or 10 on 10 off," says Samuela.

Or maybe you're the type of person that easily gets bored during a workout, when doing one thing for a sustained period of time. This way is also ideal for you: "If you easily get bored, that's where this comes in as a good option," she says. "Go back and forth, mix it up, and make it more interesting." You're the boss.

So all in all, deciding whether you should do cardio or strength training first or alternate between the two will depend on your goals and personal preference. No matter the order, combining the two forms of exercise will certainly take your fitness game up a notch and positively affect the performance of the overall workout. To recap, Dr. Robles says cardio increases your aerobic capacity, meaning you’ll be able to workout longer and harder, and resistance training builds lean muscle mass, improves muscle strength, and enhances your metabolism so you’ll burn more calories even when you’re not working out.

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