Thursday, April 24, 2014


When it comes to doing cardio and weight training within the same workout, what should be done first?  The cardio or the weights?  It's one of the most common questions asked so I found it interesting that a few weeks ago, I read an article about how cardio is best done before any weight training.  Then, just yesterday, I came across another blurb in a magazine that stated cardio should be saved for the end of your workout, after any weight training.  So, which is it?  Without having an understanding of what your body goes through during cardio and weight training, it's easy to get confused.  So, what's the answer?  Well, it depends (go figure!).  Let's look at the basics.

You probably already know the benefits of cardiovascular exercise (i.e.: improved heart health) and weight training (i.e.: boosts metabolism and improves bone density).  But what you may not realize is that cardio exercise (its type, intensity, duration, etc.) can have a negative impact on your fitness goals, especially when it comes to programs that involve weight training.  Here's why: Exercise uses glycogen and it's hard to lift weights if you don't have enough stored glycogen.  When you hear about your muscles "tapping into your stored energy", its glycogen that is being referenced.  The levels of glycogen in your body largely dictate your energy level and glycogen levels will fluctuate depending on what type of exercise you are doing.  The type of exercise you are doing will depend on your fitness goals.  So, in order to determine if cardio should be done before or after weights, you need to take a closer look at your specific goals and decide accordingly.

If you're trying to build muscle mass, you need to look at a couple of aspects of cardio, not just whether it should come before or after weight training.  When cardio is a part of a muscle-building (hypertrophy) training program, it plays a small (yet still important) role.  You should only be doing cardio workouts 1-3 days per week in this scenario.  If you do more than that, you may be hindering your body's ability to build muscle.  But should the cardio come before the weights?  No, it shouldn't.  Remember the glycogen I was telling you about?  Well, when glycogen levels are low (i.e.: after a cardio session), it's harder to lift weights.  Your muscles can't tap into the glycogen that was used in the previous cardio session.  Without being able to lift weights to your fullest potential, you miss out on opportunities to build lean muscle or maximize your calorie burn.  You can also avoid injury by holding off on cardio until after your weight training.  Your muscles get fatigued during cardiovascular exercise and that fatigue can compromise form and lead to injury.  I love lifting heavy weights and I didn't start seeing noticeable improvement until I switched things up a bit and started postponing my cardio workouts until after weight training (or doing my cardio on separate days).  My weight lifting sessions were also much more productive since my muscles weren't fatigued.  

If you're looking to lose weight, you want to burn calories not only during your workout, but also after your workout.  In this case, a metabolic workout using weights (and perhaps cardio before weights) would be the most effective program for fat loss.  An intense metabolic workout can continue this afterburn effect for up to 2 days!  If you're trying to lose weight and you're implementing a training program that uses heavy weights, use caution if doing cardio before weights (as mentioned above, your muscles may be too fatigued to lift heavy weights).  But, chances are that if you're trying to lose weight and you're completing more metabolic-type workouts (with lighter weights), then deciding what should come first isn't crucial.  For me, if my cardio workout is not very intense, I'll consider it more of an "extended warm-up" that will better prepare me for weight training.  However, if the cardio is more intense, I'll save it 'til the end of my workout.  Also, sometimes I like to switch things up a bit and do a few weeks of total-body metabolic workouts that combine both cardio and light weights at the same time.

Most individuals participating in an exercise program will complete their cardio workout AFTER weight lifting, regardless of their fitness goals.  If building muscle is your top priority, then it's easy: weights first, cardio last.  Of course, if the only way you can complete a strength routine using weights is by working up a good cardio sweat first, then by all means, do what ya gotta do!  Just know that it may be compromising your muscle-gaining goals.  If you're still unsure on what to do, don't fret.  By doing cardio before weights, it's not like you're doing anything "wrong".  You could also eliminate the entire debate by doing weight training and cardiovascular exercise on completely different days.  Or, do what fitness professional Jen Sinkler does.  When asked what she does for cardio, her answer was simple: "I lift weights faster!".  

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