“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.”
Of course, even though doing one 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.” But if you’re still curious about the difference between workout sequences and benefits, keep scrolling.
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.
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