Should you be doing cardio before or after weights?

If you’ve done a little bit of research, then you probably know that it is essential for any fitness routine to incorporate both cardiovascular and muscle-building modalities.

Yes, this goes for all regimens. Unless you are training for a triathlon or preparing for the world’s strongest man competition, you should be finding ways to train your entire body so that both your endurance levels and abilities to handle heavier loads are improved.

The biggest problem with this is that most people don’t enjoy every aspect of fitness. Some “meat-heads” would prefer to work on increasing their one-rep maxes rather than improving their mile time, while most marathoners would probably rather become better bikers or swimmers than lift dumbbells.

I get it. We enjoy what makes us comfortable, and why change what works? The answer to this is pretty straightforward, actually: comfort, at least in a fitness program, is arguably the greatest enemy. The moment you become comfortable with being comfortable, you’ve failed.  You can’t grow, physically or mentally, without the struggle. If you can trust that you’re making yourself better each time you do an exercise you don’t necessarily like, you’ll be better for it. Most people, however, can’t do this, and that is what makes real progress so hard to attain.

This lack of enjoyment, at least in my estimation, is the biggest reason why we don’t see people training for total fitness. The second biggest deterrent revolves around a simple concept, and that concept is time – or a lack thereof. People don’t have the time to fit eight or more training sessions into their weekly schedules, and so they pick and choose which area of training is most important to them.

Make no mistake: all phases of fitness training are equally important, which brings us back to the point of this post. Instead of separating the days you lift big from the days you run, bike or row miles, why not try to combine both in one training session? HIIT training is a great way to do this, but if you enjoy long runs or heavy lifts, then maybe HIIT isn’t always the way to go. If this sounds like you, you need to know when exactly it is appropriate to execute these movements so that you make the most of your training, and the best way to do this is by learning whether doing cardio before or after weights is most beneficial.

Before we dive too far down this rabbit hole, let us first address what I mean by “cardio.” To me, cardio is an elevation of one’s heart rate to the point where continuing exercise is legitimately challenging. So no, I’m not talking about a quick warm-up run. How long does it have to stay elevated for? That all depends on the exercise. If you’re simply running a mile, performing some sort of Tabata routine, or completing a quick WOD, then chances are your “cardio” is going to be finished in less than 10 minutes. That’s totally fine, so long as that heart rate stays elevated. If you plan on doing a more prolonged cardiovascular activity, like running a 5K or 10K, then chances are your heart rate is going to stay elevated for a much longer period of time.

Now, before you start wondering why anyone looking to better their cardio would ever do shorter workouts opposed to longer ones, you must realize that it is not the length of the exercise that matters, but rather the intensity. Shorter workouts tend to be more intense, and these “burners” can yield fantastic results due to EPOC (which is an entirely different topic altogether, but one that can’t be flat-out ignored in a discussion such as this).

Is this too much information? Maybe – especially if you’re a beginner, so just know that regularly switching between long, sustained cardiovascular activity and shorter, more intense bouts of exercise can do wonders for your body. Still, the question at large remains unanswered – when should you be doing cardio workouts in relation to weight-training?

Regardless of how long you’re going to be engaged in cardiovascular activity for, it is standard for this type of work to come after you’ve hit the weights. Sure, there are some who don’t necessarily see it so black-and-white, but usually cardio performed after lifting will yield better results than cardio performed before.

Why is this the case? When running, rowing, swimming, ect., your body uses up its glycogen stores to produce the energy needed to sustain the movement. This leaves the body feeling drained, and, in part, is one of the reasons why sports drinks like Gatorade were originally invented – to supply the body with some simple carbs so that glycogen stores could be replenished.

Fortunately, weight lifting – especially heavy weight lifting – doesn’t use a lot of glycogen when compared to intense aerobic exercise. Those shorter, heavier lifts use the phosphagen system, otherwise known as the ATP-PC system, to produce the energy required in max-like efforts. To understand this a bit more, let’s use a real-world example: say you need to help shovel a parking lot on a windy winter’s day. Would you rather handle the areas that got the most snow (a.k.a. the heaviest sections) at the beginning while you’re still fresh, or at the end when you feel entirely spent? If you opt for the latter, your body will have drained all of its primary energy stores, so those heavier sections may very well feel like literal mountains of snow rather than just a few more inches.

Furthermore, focusing on the cardiovascular system after you’ve finished lifting weights will enable your body to tap into its fat stores for energy (given that it will have already used up its energy sources from carbohydrates). This, by definition alone, will help you burn more fat!

While the terminology can be a bit confusing, the key thing to know is that there are different times to train in different ways in order to yield the best possible results. The way your body metabolizes and uses energy plays a vital role in your ability to move efficiently for both shorter and longer periods of time. If you’re strapped for time and must condense your cardio and weight-training workouts into one daily routine, evidence points to focusing on the weights first in order to maximize your results.

For more advice on how to better your physical and emotional self, check out the other fit tips from Frankie.

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