When it comes to designing the perfect workout, specificity counts. Because of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), your training should match your workout goals. That’s because your body responds to the stresses placed upon it, and exercise is most definitely a form of stress.
If you want to get build muscle or get stronger, you need to lift heavy weights. In contrast, if you’re going to become a better cyclist or runner, most of your workouts should revolve around cycling or running. You can’t expect to get stronger without strength training or fitter without cardio, period!
While the amount of each you need to do ultimately depends on your primary fitness goal, most exercisers should do cardio and strength training.
That’s because getting fitter will speed up your recovery between strength training sets and workouts, and being stronger will delay fatigue, increase joint stability, and reduce your risk of injury during cardio.
So, should you do cardio before or after lifting? Or are you better off doing it on a different training day altogether?
It turns out that all these options can work, and the right one for you depends on your goals and your personal preferences and circumstances.
In this article, we explore your strength and cardio training options so that you can decide which one to do when.
Cardio Before or After Lifting
When to Lift Weights Before Cardio
When it comes to any type of workout, you should prioritize your time and energy by doing whatever is most important first. For example, if you are a weightlifter or bodybuilder, you should lift weights before cardio. That way, you can put more energy into the most productive part of your workout.
Doing too much cardio before strength training will rob you of energy, so you may not be able to train as hard, heavy, or long as you need to.
That’s especially true if you did something like 30 minutes running before your leg workout. The impact would be less significant before an upper-body training session.
For this reason, you should take care not to spend too long warming up before hitting the weights. 5-10 minutes of EASY cardio are all that you need, and you may even be able to warm-up effectively without cardio.
Lifting weights before cardio may be helpful for fat loss. Lifting weights depletes muscle glycogen, which is glucose stored in your muscles and liver. Once glycogen levels are low, your body tends to burn more fat for fuel.
Doing cardio after weights means running, rowing, cycling, or stepping with fat as your primary energy source.
This effect is small, but in the battle against body fat, any advantage is worth having. On the downside, doing cardio after lifting will probably mean that you cannot run/cycle, etc., as hard or as long as you want to.
In summary, lifting before cardio works best when:
- Building muscle or strength is your priority
- You want to burn more fat or lose weight faster
However, doing weights before cardio will probably hurt your cardio performance.
When To Do Cardio Before Lifting
Doing cardio before lifting means you’ll be well warmed up when you hit the weights. It also means you can really go for it during your cardio workout, as there will be no muscle fatigue to hold you back. If getting as fit as possible is your primary goal, you should prioritize your time and energy by doing cardio first.
However, if you choose to run, cycle on a spin bike, row, etc., before weights, you need to understand that doing so will have a negative effect on your weightlifting workout.
You may find that you cannot lift as much weight as usual or that you are unable to do as many reps. It may be necessary to do fewer exercises to allow for the fatigue caused by doing cardio first.
While you should have no problem plodding through an easy cardio workout after weights, and it will still be beneficial, doing weights after cardio could mean you are too tired to train hard enough for your strength workout to be productive.
That may not be an issue if cardio is your priority, but if you want to get good results from your lifting workouts, this is a significant disadvantage.
In summary, doing cardio before lifting works best when:
- Cardio is your priority
- You are only doing a few easy strength training exercises
- You aren’t overly concerned with building muscle or strength
You can’t do cardio followed by strength training or strength training followed by cardio without making compromises. It’s a question of prioritization; whatever you do first will probably hurt your performance for the rest of your workout.
If you want to combine cardio and lifting, there are a few other options to try:
1. Alternate Between Cardio and Strength Training Workouts
Instead of doing cardio and lifting in the same workout, dedicate an entire training session to each one. For example:
- Monday – strength workout
- Tuesday – cardio
- Wednesday – strength workout
- Thursday – rest
- Friday – cardio
- Saturday – strength workout
- Sunday – rest
While what you do one day WILL affect what you do the next, the impact will be less noticeable than doing both cardio and lifting on the same day. You should still prioritize your energies so you can focus more on the type of training that’s most important.
2. Circuit Training
Circuit training was invented at Leads University in England back in the 1950s. It improves cardiovascular fitness and strength simultaneously. Circuit training involves moving quickly from one weightlifting exercise to another with little or no rest.
This increases your heart and breathing rate without actually resorting to doing traditional cardio. It’s also a useful training method for fat loss. For example:
- Squats x 15
- Bench press x 12
- Bent over rows x 12
- Lunges x 15 per leg
- Military press x 12
- Lat pulldowns x 12
- Box jumps x 15
- Barbell curls x 12
- Triceps pushdowns x 12
- Planks x 60 seconds
Rest 1-2 minutes and repeat. Do 3-5 laps in total.
3. Active Recoveries Between Sets of Strength Training
Most people take 1-2 minutes rest between sets of strength training. However, you don’t just have to sit around and recover passively. Instead, this is the perfect time for a short burst of cardio.
Assuming you do 20-25 sets of lifting per workout, this could add up to 20-30 minutes of cardio without making your program any longer.
Instead of sitting on a bench and waiting for the clock to run down, do 60 seconds of jump rope, jumping jacks, shadow boxing, or stationary cycling between sets.
You’ll still recover, and the cardio may even help speed up the removal of lactic acid, but your heart and breathing rate will remain elevated throughout your workout.
So, should you do cardio before you lift or lift before cardio? The answer depends on your fitness priority. If you want to get significantly stronger or build muscle, you should lift first and do cardio after. If cardiovascular fitness is your focus, you should do cardio before weights.
However, if lifting and cardio are equally important, consider doing them on alternating days or making the switch to circuit training. Alternatively, try active recoveries to squeeze more cardio into your strength training workouts.
Most exercisers need both strength training and cardio. After all, it’s no good being able to run a marathon if you aren’t strong enough to carry your kitbag.
Conversely, it’s probably not healthy to be able to bench press all the weights in the gym if climbing the stairs leaves you gasping for breath.
Find a way to do both while prioritizing the type of training that matters to you most.