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Cardio or Strength Training First?

Cardio or Strength Training First

You want to make the most of every workout, so what should you do first -- cardiovascular exercise or strength training? There are arguments and research to support both sides, leading most experts to determine that it depends both on your goals and your personal preference.

Cardiovascular Endurance

If your goal is to improve cardiovascular endurance, especially if you are training for a distance race, doing cardio exercise first may be the best choice. Starting your cardio with fresh muscles will help you push through the time or distance you need to accomplish. Glycogen stores (glucose stored in the muscles for energy) are important for longer cardio sessions. Strength training can deplete these stores making cardio more challenging.

Improving Strength

If improving strength is your top priority, it may be best to do strength training first. Gaining strength requires that the muscles are challenged close to exhaustion. Performing a lengthy cardio session before strength training may reduce your ability to push your muscles as hard as you would if they were well rested. A Finnish study found that when healthy men and women did cardio training first, it initially interfered with strength training performance. However, after 24 weeks of training, this interference was less notable and both groups had similar gains in muscle size and strength. So if you absolutely love doing cardio first, this likely won’t hinder your ability to gain strength over time.

Weight Loss

If weight loss is your goal, recommendations are mixed. Cardiovascular exercises use large muscle groups for longer periods, which results in greater calorie burn than most strength training sessions. By doing cardio first, you may have more energy to push harder and exercise longer leading to more calories burned for weight loss. Some experts argue that when you do strength training first, the body relies on fat for energy during the cardio session, making it a better method for weight loss. It comes down to picking the combination you like best and one that you will stick with long term.

Choosing What Is Best for You

There are pros and cons to each exercise order, but the benefit is that you have freedom to structure your workout based on your preferences without negatively influencing your long term results. Here are a few things to consider when deciding if you should step on the treadmill or pick up the dumbbell the next time you hit the gym:

  • Do what you like the least first. If you love your time on the elliptical, but feel less enthusiastic about lifting weights, it may be easy to find an excuse to leave the gym once your cardio is done. Lift weights first and you will have it out of the way so you can thoroughly enjoy your cardio session.
  • Save time by making cardio your warm-up. All workouts should start with a 5 to 10 minute warm-up to prepare the muscles for activity. If you start with strength training, it’s best to hop on the treadmill or the bike to get warmed up. If you do your cardio first, it can take the place of your warm-up and save you valuable minutes of exercise time.
  • Separate your workouts for safety. Regardless of whether you choose cardio or strength training first, your muscles will be fatigued when you move on to the next type of exercise. Fatigue can result in poor form that leads to injury. If your strength sessions are intense and your cardio sessions lengthy, consider doing these workouts on separate days.
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