Myths and Misunderstandings About Mixing Strength And Cardio

Strength and cardiovascular training methods are often at odds. Many people train in strictly one or other, believing that the neglected training style will somehow hinder their progress. Gym myths and misunderstandings just add to the confusion, promoting ideas like “running burns muscle.” Other exercisers simply don’t know how to incorporate both strength and cardiovascular training into their schedule and favor the one they enjoy the most. Should these two training styles be used together? If so, how? Let’s dig in.

Usually, people practice cardio because they want to lose weight and lift weights because they want to gain muscle. However, two persistent— and incorrect — ideas have pervaded gyms around the world, deepening the divide between strength training and cardio workouts.

Some people who hope to slim down avoid lifting weights, because they are afraid it will make them too bulky. The truth is that muscle growth is a very slow process, and it requires a well designed program of diet and exercise to be followed for years before you appear “bulky.” On the contrary, proper weight training will increase the strength and endurance of your muscles, which will improve your cardiovascular efficiency and burn more calories and fat in the process.

On the other hand, weightlifters who are looking for bulk tend to fear that cardio burns muscle. This one is more of an oversimplification than an outright myth. It is true that in extreme cases of over-training your body will begin to use muscle for fuel. However, your body will only go catabolic when you exercise at a high intensity for more than 45 minutes, exercise every day, or exercise on an empty stomach. Put simply, cardio will only burn muscle when you give it no other choice. Balance in your training and in your diet will prevent muscle loss.

A healthy combination of strength and cardio training will allow your body to perform at its best, letting the two systems complement each other rather than compete.

How to Mix Strength And Cardio The Right Way

Understanding that cardio and strength training don’t cancel each other out is only half the battle: now you have to balance the two properly. Mixing cardio and strength training requires a highly individualized approach based on your goals, body type and chosen sport.

First, you should decide whether your focus is to lose weight or gain muscle. Trying to do both at the same time will most likely slow your progress and frustrate you, and may even lead to over-training injuries. Again, this does not mean that you are choosing one training method over the other; the key is to make them work together.

If your primary goal is to gain muscle, then you should lift three times per week, with two moderate-intensity cardio sessions of about 20 to 30 minutes each on your off days. Lifting and running on the same day not only takes more time, it increases your risk of overworking your muscles, which is exactly what you want to avoid.

Next, you need to consider your body type. Is it easy for you to lose weight or does it feel like a constant struggle? Are you naturally muscular? Your body’s natural tendencies will have a strong bearing on your workout plan. For example, an endomorph — someone who is natural heavy-set — will need to schedule more cardio days to lose weight, but will likely find it easy to gain muscle with plenty of stored fuel in the body.

Lastly, we need to consider your sport. An endurance athlete (such as a marathon runner) will need a completely different skill-set than a football player. While both of these examples lean towards either cardio or strength, these athletes can still benefit from both modes of training.

As is the case with many aspects of fitness, balance is the key to mixing both cardio and strength training into your routine. While these two modes of exercise are frequently considered incompatible, when scheduled properly, they will work together to help you reach your fitness goals.

Have any tips on mixing strength and cardio training? Please share them in the comments!

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Getting fit is hard, choosing the right equipment shouldn’t be. Whether you’re starting a fitness program for rehabilitation, to improve your health or to compete in local races, a treadmill is a great piece of cardio exercise equipment. But how do you spot a good one? With the range of treadmills on the market, it’s good to know what to look for. Read more.

Ever have a morning when you snooze past your gym alarm, but still want to squeeze in a quick workout? That’s where this no-equipment cardio workout comes in handy. All you need is a little space in your living room—and 20 minutes. This is a cardio workout, so we’re going to focus on getting your heart rate up. And since it’s relatively short, the idea is that you should push yourself. You can treat this no-equipment cardio workout like a HIIT workout, getting breathless for the work intervals, then taking full advantage of the rest.

One easy way to gauge how hard you’re working is to use ratings of perceived exertion, or RPEs. This is a simple scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means no effort and 10 means maximal effort—you couldn’t push yourself any harder. To think of this another way, use the “talk test.” This is just like it sounds: a measure of how easily you can speak while doing something. Low effort, when it’s easy to talk, might be a 1 to 3 on the RPE scale; medium effort, when you can still talk but it takes a bit more effort, might be a 3 to 5. When things get harder and you can really only puff out a few words at a time, you’re working at about a 5 to 7. And when you can no longer talk because you’re working so hard, you’re at a 7 to 10. Keep in mind that because RPEs are so subjective, what feels like a 6 one day might feel more like a 9 on another day, depending on all kinds of things, like your hydration, nutrition, or how much sleep you got the night before.

When doing the no-equipment cardio workout below, aim for about a 6 or 7 to start with and see how you feel. We’ve also provided three different work intervals below, so you can choose what’s best for you. Go for equal work and rest (30 seconds of work, 30 seconds of rest), or make it more intense. And hey, it’s totally okay to push yourself one day and then take it easy on another. Remember to do a quick dynamic warm-up before you start!

Workout Directions

Do the moves below in order for your selected time interval, resting between moves for your selected rest interval. Do all 4 moves, then rest for 60 seconds. Repeat the circuit 4 times.

  • Beginner: Work for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds
  • Intermediate: Work for 40 seconds, rest for 20 seconds
  • Advanced: Work for 50 seconds, rest for 10 seconds

We checked in with Mike Wunsch, certified personal trainer and Director of Training and Large Group Programming at Results Fitness, for his workout-building tips.

Q: How can I get the best mix of cardio and lifting to burn fat?

A: Looking to work off those holiday pounds? Consider cardio secondary. For a well-rounded, fat-busting workout routine, your best bet is to swap the treadmill for resistance training. Strength training moves like dead lifts, squats, pullups, pushups, and lunges should form the basis of your workout.

If you hit the gym three times a week, focus on total-body strength training your first two days, and metabolic conditioning (“cardio”) on the third. And remember, there’s no need to lope along on the treadmill or bore yourself with an endless stairmaster climb. Try incorporating kettle bell swings and ropes or flip over that TRX for an easy transition from rows to jump squats.

Redefine cardio

Make traditional strength training your bread and butter, and end with cardio. Close out a 40-minute workout session with 5 to 10 minutes of post-workout anaerobic conditioning. For example, consider 30-second sprints on the bike followed by a minute of rest. Repeat three times and you’re done.

Fully rest between sets

When it comes to intervals, go 30 seconds on and 60 seconds off. Resting twice as long allows you to get a true interval, and makes recovery a positive work period. As opposed to Tabata, which is 20 seconds on and 10 off, the extended rest allows you to push past your anaerobic conditioning point for a more complete recovery, allowing you to go harder for the next set.

Bend and pull

Lower your risk of injury and work the body diagonally by alternating between pulls and pushes. Think of the body in quarters: the upper and lower and the front and back. Work out in noncompeting supersets—let the quads rest while working out the back and vice versa—to prevent burnout. For example, a Day 1 workout might include goblet squats (lower front), rows (upper back), lateral lunges (bottom front), and pushups (upper front), while Day 2 consists of dead lifts (lower back), overhead presses (upper front), stepups (lower front), and lateral pulldowns (upper back). Work from bilateral to unilateral—from squats and dead lifts to single-legged lunges and stepups. Alternate between stations for anywhere from 20-40 minutes.

Produce power

Go all out in longer sessions. A positive work period—resting twice as long as you’re exercising—allows for a longer workout. Longer sessions with higher intensity and full recovery are key to maintaining proper form and executing a full range-of-motion. Chose a weight that’s challenging but not impossible for one set of 15 (at one week you should feel like you can do three to four more reps); use the absolute lowest weight possible. A lighter load at a faster velocity increases power production and uses more of the body’s muscle tissue.

Work intervals

Don’t make the mistake of doing hard cardio. Instead of pacing yourself, take complete breaks. Use a heart rate monitor to make sure you go hard enough to get into the “red zone”—85% of your maximum anaerobic threshold—and don’t start again until you’ve transitioned to the “green zone,” 0-75% of your max heart rate. Think of the “yellow zone”—76%-84%—as a transitional zone. You might feel like you can go again in the yellow, but waiting for the green allows you to produce more power and strength the next time rather than struggling to maintain crappy cardio.

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Strength training is essential for building lean muscle, and having more muscle can help you reach your fitness goal whether that’s doing a pull-up, biking from winery to winery during your upcoming Italian vacation (goals), or running a faster mile. Muscle = strength and strength = crushing it. But if you’re looking to burn fat and lose weight, you’ll want to take a slightly different approach to get the most benefit out of your strength routine.

Lifting weights can absolutely be a metabolically intense activity on its own (and it’s an essential component of a working out for weight loss plan), but it’s not as inherently intense on your cardiovascular system compared to something like treadmill sprints. Adding more weight can help boost the heart-pumping effectiveness, but that’s not the only way to get more calorie burn out of a strength session.

One trick trainers often use with their clients is what’s known as a “cardio finisher.” Think of it as roughly 10 minutes of high-intensity cardio intervals that you do at the end of your strength training session, explains Ashleigh Kast, trainer at Drive495 in NYC and founder of Sophisticated Strength. Ending with a finisher adds a metabolic element to a strength workout that may not have that component built in.

Keep in mind that if losing fat is your goal you’ll need to do a combination of strength and cardio training, and eat a diet that contributes to body fat loss and muscle-building. With that in mind, here’s what you should know about cardio finishers and how to incorporate them into your next strength workout:

It’s called a “finisher” because it’s meant to be done at the end.

There are a few reasons you would do high-intensity intervals at the end of your strength workout—not the beginning. First, the focus of your strength workout should be on the strength moves—you want your mind and body to be fresh when tackling them. “High-intensity intervals take a lot out of you from an energy standpoint, and they are taxing on the nervous system,” explains Kast. So if you do them at the beginning of your workout, you’ll start the main part of your routine in an already exhausted state. This may up your risk of injury—sloppy squats aren’t great squats and they aren’t safe squats.

Another reason to add the burst of exertion at the tail end of a workout helps fire up the glorious fat-burning engine known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC, AKA the afterburn). This is when your body has to expend more energy after strenuous activity in order to return the body to its normal resting state.

Ultimately, maximizing the calorie-burning potential of your strength routine is two fold, explains Heather A. Milton, M.S., senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. First you want to make sure that your strength routine is going to kick-start the fat-burning metabolic adaptations you’re aiming for. You do that by performing compound movements and lifting heavy weights. (Here’s how to determine if you’re using the right resistance.) This will lead to more EPOC and more calorie burn post workout. Then, consider adding on the post-strength aerobic work, she adds. The extra burst of activity will extend the total time you spend training, which translates to more calories burned.

But you need to make sure you have enough gas left in the tank to do it right.

Of course the big caveat here is that if you absolutely have zero energy left to give after your strength session, call it a day. You’ll still reap all of the muscle-building benefits of your strength workout, which by the way, does translate to fat loss in the long run. “If you feel lethargic, dizzy, or light-headed, that’s a sign you need to rehydrate and refuel before you continue any exercise,” explains Milton.

Here’s how you can do a cardio finisher at the end of your next strength workout.

This is the general formula Kast uses with her clients:

It’s usually a lot easier to decide what you’d like to get out of a fitness routine than to know exactly what to do to get there. If you don’t even know where to start, it can prevent you from, well, ever starting. And even if you hit the gym and do a few exercises, not having a solid plan can make it hard to stick with a routine—if you’re not feeling stronger or noticing changes, it’s kind of a buzzkill.

To help you lay out a roadmap to work toward your goals, SELF asked Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., cofounder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City and advisor to Promix Nutrition, to put together a comprehensive three-day workout plan. And since you’re busy (we feel you), we kept it to just 30 minutes—a short warm-up followed by three circuits of both body-weight and weighted circuits. Each day, you’ll end with a finisher that’s meant to skyrocket your heart rate.

Matheny’s plan is not split into upper-body and lower-body days—rather, each day you’ll do a workout that uses your entire body. That’s because it’s the most efficient way to reach your goals, he says. “You should try to move in as many planes and ranges of motion as you can and try to get a total-body workout when you can because that’s going to give you the most benefit for your time.” The reason: Working multiple muscles at once gets your heart rate higher than when you work individual muscle groups separately, even if you’re not doing traditional cardiovascular moves. You’re also getting strength and cardio work in one comprehensive 30-minute workout.

The first five minutes are dedicated to a dynamic warm-up to get your body ready. “It’s dynamic, so the warm-up is kind of a light body-weight workout. It gets you mobilized,” Matheny says. Trust us: You’ll be warm (and already sweating) by the time you get to the first circuit.

As you start to feel stronger and the workout feels easier, you can either increase your weight or speed (or both). Speaking of feeling stronger: Matheny says that if you’re doing this workout three days a week, you should notice changes gradually. “You should see improvements in how you can perform these exercises week over week,” he says. “As you get better at any of the exercises, it means your muscles are getting stronger.” And as you get better and progress these exercises by adding more weight or reps, your “body is going to change because it’s adopting. As long as your nutrition is in check, you’re going to be seeing visual improvement.”

Matheny makes an important point. If your goal is to lose weight or change your body composition (by swapping fat for muscle), you have to be eating the right foods and portions. Even then, weight loss depends on so many other factors—like sleep, stress, hormones, and genetics—that results will vary greatly from person to person. It’s important to have realistic expectations and know that getting stronger and simply being able to move your body in this way is a huge success.

That being said, if you commit to a cardio-and-strength workout a few days a week (like this one!), over time you should start to notice yourself getting stronger and more capable, and if everything else is aligned (which again, isn’t always easy and can require a lot of lifestyle changes), you may also start to notice a change in your body physically.

Here’s how the three-day workout plan is set up:

The workout begins with a warm-up, and then includes three circuits. You’ll do each exercise for 10 reps, and run through each circuit as many times as you can in six minutes. Between each circuit, take one minute to rest. You should be working at 60 to 80 percent of your max heart rate—an effort level that feels challenging, where you can breathe but not carry on a conversation. If you’re losing form and trying to catch your breath, you’re going too hard.

At the end of each day’s workout, there’s a finisher, which you just do once as quickly as you can while still maintaining proper form. Matheny says this is to spike your heart rate, and you should be giving it your all and working as intensely as you can. The benefit: Working at a high intensity increases calorie burn and helps boost the afterburn effect—meaning your metabolism will burn more calories afterward even when you’re not working out as your body works to adapt to the stress you put on it and return to its resting state.

It’s designed to be done three days a week, so pick the days that work best for you. “The ideal situation is to have a day of rest in between each workout,” Matheny says. Letting your body recovery properly is important so that your muscles are ready and energized to hit it hard again next time—slogging through workouts every day isn’t worth it if you can’t get in those and do them well.

Here’s how your daily schedule will look:

Day 1:

5-minute dynamic warm-up

  • Walk-Outs — 1 minute
  • Side Lunges — 30 seconds alternating sides
  • Foot-to-Hand With Shoulder Rotation — 30 seconds alternating sides
  • Banded Steps — 30 seconds
  • Overhead Triceps Stretch — 15 seconds each side
  • Side Bend Stretch — 15 seconds each side
  • Standing Figure 4 Stretch — 15 seconds each side
  • Arm Circles — 30 seconds each side

Circuit 1

  • Dumbbell Front Squats — 10 reps
  • Push-Ups — 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows — 10 reps
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Circuit 2

  • Reverse Lunges — 10 reps each side
  • Single-Leg Deadlifts — 10 reps each side
  • Lateral Crawls — 5 sets of 3 steps each direction
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Circuit 3

  • Renegade Rows — 10 reps each side
  • Suitcase Deadlifts — 10 reps
  • Forward Lunges With Overhead Hands — 10 reps each side
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Finisher 1

  • Drop Squats — 10 reps
  • Forward/Backward Crawls — 5 steps each way
  • Single Leg Glute Bridges — 5 each side

Day 2:

5-minute dynamic warm-upPerform the same warm-up detailed above.

Circuit 2

  • Reverse Lunges — 10 reps each side
  • Single-Leg Deadlifts — 10 reps each side
  • Lateral Crawls — 5 sets of 3 steps each direction
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Circuit 3

  • Renegade Rows — 10 reps each side
  • Suitcase Deadlifts — 10 reps
  • Forward Lunges With Overhead Hands — 10 reps each side
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Circuit 1

  • Dumbbell Front Squats — 10 reps
  • Push-Ups — 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows — 10 reps
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Finisher 2

  • Dumbbell Thrusters — 10 reps
  • Skater Lunges — 10 reps alternating sides
  • Hand Release Push-Ups — 10 reps

Day 3

5-minute dynamic warm-upPerform the same warm-up detailed above.

Circuit 3

  • Renegade Rows — 10 reps each side
  • Suitcase Deadlifts — 10 reps
  • Forward Lunges With Overhead Hands — 10 reps each side
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Circuit 1

  • Dumbbell Front Squats — 10 reps
  • Push-Ups — 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows — 10 reps
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Circuit 2

  • Reverse Lunges — 10 reps each side
  • Single-Leg Deadlifts — 10 reps each side
  • Lateral Crawls — 5 sets of 3 steps each direction
  • Repeat circuit for six minutes.
  • Rest 1 minute.

Finisher 3

  • Suitcase Deadlifts + Bent-Over Rows — 10 reps
  • Squat Thrusts + Tuck Jumps (optional) — 10 reps
  • Mountain Climbers — 20 reps alternating sides

And here’s exactly how to do each move:

Healthy Reads

In a recent post, we considered whether cardio exercise or weightlifting is the most effective exercise for weight loss. For some people, the immediate calorie burn of cardio exercise is the best way to get started, while for others, the biggest impact will come from integrating weightlifting into a cardio routine.

For example, if your PartnerMD body composition report reveals that you have low muscle mass and high fat mass, you’d want to focus on weightlifting to increase muscle mass and become more efficient at burning fat. On the other hand, if you have high muscle mass and are overweight, you’d want to look at adding more cardio to complement the weight training.

What’s clear in all cases, however, is that incorporating some form of both types of exercise into your routine is the best way to maximize weight loss. Performing both exercises increases your muscle mass, takes off weight and builds both endurance and cardiovascular health. Weightlifting combined with cardio also increases the number of pounds you lose from fat, whereas a cardio-only routine might cause you to lose muscle as well.

Once you decide which form of exercise you’ll prioritize, here are tips for integrating the other into your routine so that you balance the benefits of both:

Adding Cardio to Weightlifting

If you’ve decided to prioritize weightlifting, you’ll want to rotate your weightlifting sessions with cardio sessions. Combining cardiovascular exercise with weight training will set you up to maximize your weight loss.

Here are a few ways to add a cardio element to your weightlifting routine:

  • Get creative. Multijoint exercise and combination exercises are a great way to be time efficient because they work multiple muscle groups at one time and increase your heart rate, giving you a cardio effect during weightlifting. For example, you can squat into an overhead press, or do a front raise directly into a lateral raise.
  • Add plyometrics between sets. Plyometrics are quick bursts of movement that increase your heart rate and tire you out. Several great plyometric exercises are jump squats, mountain climbers and burpees.
  • Take less rest time between repetitions. If you’re usually doing 10 pushups with one minute of rest between sets, change to a 15 second rest to get and keep your heart rate up.
  • Change it up. A cardio effect is most likely to occur whenever the body has to adjust to new stressors. Rotate between doing more repetitions of a lighter weight (if you usually do 10 sets of one exercise before taking a rest, try doing 20) and doing fewer repetitions of a higher weight (if you usually do 10 sets of 10 pounds, consider doing five sets of 20 pounds).

Adding Weightlifting to Cardio

If you’ve decided to prioritize cardio exercise, you’ll want to work up to exercising 3-5 days per week for a combined minimum of 150 minutes of activity. As you increase your cardio, add alternating upper and lower body-weight training routines 3-4 times per week to help you maximize your weight loss.

Here are a few more ways you can add weightlifting to your cardio exercise routine:

  • Warm it up. Doing cardio first will give you more energy for your weightlifting session, so start with a 10-15 minute warmup on a treadmill, bike or elliptical before you move into strength-training.
  • Add it in. Add a few minutes of cardio between weight-bearing exercises. For example, if you’re doing squats, add a few minutes of jumping jacks, burpees or step-ups before you transition into lunges. Anything that gets you out of breath can act as cardio.
  • Finish strong. Tack 10-15 minutes of weightlifting to the end of your cardio session. Just make sure you rotate different areas of the body in order to give your muscles time to recover.

Getting Motivated for Exercise

Whether you dive into a routine of cardio or weightlifting, it’s perfectly natural for your motivation to workout to ebb and flow. Some days it comes easily, and some days you really have to fight to get yourself into the gym.

The first step in staying motivated is to start with realistic expectations. Consider how many days you ideally want to exercise and compare that number to how many days you can fit exercise into your schedule and your current level of fitness. Going from not exercising to hour-long sessions at the gym every day is too much too soon; it won’t benefit your health if you get hurt or burn out.

  • Read More: What is a Health Coach and How Do They Improve Your Life?
  • Read More: Helpful Fitness Tracking Tools to Inspire Exercise

As you add exercise to your routine, don’t forget that it’s just one piece of the health puzzle. A healthy approach to sleep (including an early bedtime) and a well-rounded diet will support your body as it develops muscle and loses fat, ensuring that you stay energized even with your increased activity.

Ready to get started with a weight-loss routine that will really work? PartnerMD can help you determine the best combination of cardio and weightlifting to reach your weight-loss goals and encourage you along the way. Speak with a certified health coach today to learn more!

Workout Dilemma: Cardio or Weights First?

It’s a question that has been asked for ages, which should be done first, cardio or weight lifting. There are many theories going around on this topic. Some can be helpful to those serious about their personal fitness, while others are nothing short of misinformation.

The reality is: the answer to that question is very complicated. It’s different for every individual. It comes down to what the person’s fitness goals are.

Before making an educated decision on whether you should be doing cardio or lifting weights first when you get to the gym, it is important you understand a few things about how the human body works. Read more on how the human body works

Now, let’s go over what happens to your body when you decide to do cardio before lifting weights and vice versa.

Cardio first

Cardio before lifting weights isn’t a bad idea if your goal is to be in shape with a decent amount of muscle to turn heads with. By getting to your cardio workout first, your heart rate is elevated early in your workout, as well as you internal temperature and metabolism.

You heart rate will remain elevated when it’s time to start pumping iron, so you burn more calories than you would have if you were only lifting weights or decided to lift weights first.

Of course, doing cardio first also means you end up with less energy for your workout. Energy you need to get that final two reps while lifting heavy looking to put on some size.

Weightlifting first

When you go right to the weights, you have all the energy you need to lift as hard as you want. That makes it easier to build huge, bulging muscles. Also, the anaerobic energy system that your body uses to power your weight lifting session isn’t as efficient as the aerobic system, so your glycogen stores are depleted at a much faster rate.

That means you start burning fat a lot earlier when it’s time for an aerobic exercise.

Now that you have a solid understanding of the energy systems that power the human body and the different efficiencies of both systems, let’s go through a few scenarios and figure out what works best for each person.

Scenario 1: Male looking to gain muscle

If you’re a male looking to gain muscle mass, you’d be better off starting your workout with weight lifting, then finishing up with some cardio to burn off any fat your body has accumulated. Weight lifting is an anaerobic high-intensity task, so your body burns off a lot more glycogen than it would if you were performing an aerobic task.

That’s leaves your body primed to burn fat once you’re done lifting weights. A short 30-40 minute aerobic exercise should be enough to burn any fat you have covering those bulging muscles you’ve been working so hard on.

Scenario 2: Male looking to be fit and build muscle

This scenario is where most fitness-minded males find themselves. You want to have cardio for days because of the many health benefits that come with that, and it’s always nice to be the only one of your friends who isn’t exhausted after a game of flag football.

You also want to have nice muscles you can show off every now and then, but you’re not worried about becoming the next Mr. Universe.

If this sounds like you, you’re probably better off doing your cardio first, then moving over to weights. That’s because getting your cardio routine out of the way first elevates your heart rate, metabolism, and internal temperature.

Once your heart rate is elevated, it stays elevated when it’s time to move over to the weights. Sure, you won’t have as much energy to push yourself during your weight lifting sessions, but you will burn a lot more calories and fat while lifting weights. The end result: You end up looking like a lean, mean muscle machine.

Scenario 3: Female looking to burn fat and tone muscles

Many females find themselves in this bracket where your primary workout objective is to lose fat/weight while toning up your muscles. If you find yourself in this bracket, it doesn’t matter much whether you decide to start your workout sessions with cardio or weight lifting, since women who are looking to tone their muscles and burn fat generally aren’t interested in doing any type of heavy lifting.

If you decide to start off with a low-intensity cardio workout, you get the benefit of having your heartrate and metabolism elevated early in your workout. By the time you’re ready to start the weightlifting portion of your gym routine, your body is prime for fat loss. Since there is no desire to gain large muscles with your weightlifting sessions, the fact you won’t be able to go as hard as you would have been able to if you didn’t start your workout session with a cardio routine won’t make any difference.

Scenario 4: Female looking to lose weight and burn fat

If your top priority when you walk inside a gym is to lose weight and burn fat, you’re better off starting off with the weightlifting portion of your workout, then moving over to a low-intensity cardiovascular exercise. The reasoning for this is simple. As stated earlier, the anaerobic energy system isn’t close to being as efficient as the aerobic energy system that is typically used during cardio sessions, so the glycogen stored in your body is depleted at a significantly higher rate when you’re lifting weights, compared to when you’re jogging or swimming for instance.

So, when you start off a workout by lifting weights, your glycogen reserves are burnt off a lot faster, forcing your body to start converting fat to energy, then eventually muscle. This is obviously beneficial to someone whose main focus is to lose weight since your body will likely start burning fat off before you even begin cardio work.

Compare that to a person doing only cardio, whose body might spend up to an hour depleting glycogen reserves before beginning the fat burning process.

What fuels the human body?

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the fuel that the human body runs off. That’s what allows you to contract your muscles when you’re doing bicep curls. The thing is, there’s only a limited amount of this ATP in your muscles at all times. When it’s all gone, your body needs to make more quickly.

Energy creation systems in the human body

There are three main energy systems that power the human body. For our discussion, we only need to cover two of these systems.

  1. Anaerobic system: Also known as the lactic acid system, it works by breaking down glycogen stores into ATP via a complex chemical reaction, leaving lactic acid as a byproduct. That’s where the burning sensation you feel while lifting weights comes from. This system is typically activated during high intensity short exercises. Anaerobic conversion: 1 molecule of glycogen= 3 ATP
  2. Aerobic system: Also known as the oxygen system, it works by breaking down glycogen into ATP using oxygen via a complex chemical reaction. That’s why you have a harder time breathing during cardio workouts since your body needs more oxygen to create ATP. The aerobic system turns on after 7-10 minutes of light or moderate exercise. It’s the reason why jogging – or any other similar low intensity activity – feels easier after the first 10 minutes. Aerobic conversion: 1 molecule of glycogen= 32 ATP (clearly the more efficient of the two systems)

From simply glancing at the conversion ratios above, it’s obvious the aerobic system is a lot more efficient than the anaerobic system.

Depending on the particular activity you’re performing, it can take your body up to an hour to deplete your glycogen stores. Once the glycogen is out of the way, your body begins to burn fat, then eventually muscle when there is no more fat to burn.

That’s the reason why there’s no clear-cut answer to the question: “Should I do cardio or weight lifting first when I go to the gym?”

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity a week, and a mixture of strength and cardiovascular training but there’s not much information out there on which should be done first.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the most important thing when it comes to figuring out whether you should be doing your cardio or weightlifting first is making sure you’re getting the right amount of both in the first place.

Lots of weightlifting without enough cardio, and you will likely find your impressive muscles being covered up by layers of fat. Likewise, lots of cardio without enough weightlifting will leave you looking more like a marathon runner instead of a lean, mean muscle machine.

When starting a new workout routine, before you even get to the part where you’re trying to figure out whether cardio or weight lifting should be done first, you need to understand your body.

There are three main body types: endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph.

Endomorphs

Endomorphs are people who are often pear-shaped, with large amounts of body fat. If you have this body type, you’ll likely have a harder time burning off fat and keeping it off, so you need to factor that in when coming up with a workout plan.

Ectomorphs

Ectomorphs tend to be on the long and lean side. These are people with very fast metabolic systems, whose bodies burn off fat easily and have little problem keeping it off. Ectomorphs tend to have a hard time adding muscle mass to their frame.

Mesomorphs

Mesomorphs are the people who find themselves in-between the two groups above. Mesomorphs tend to be well-built and muscular with high metabolism and muscles that respond very well to any stimulation. These people tend to have the easiest time achieving the “perfect body.”

To maximize your gains, it is important you figure out where you stand in all this. For example if you are an ectomorph trying to build muscle, you certainly want to hit the weights first.

Why?

If you have a hard time getting those layers of fat off, you’d also be better of lifting weights first if your primary goal is to lose weight. By starting off with a weightlifting workout, your body’s glycogen stores are depleted at a much faster rate. Remember, the anaerobic system uses 1 molecule of glycogen to produce 3 ATPs, while the aerobic system produces 32 ATPs with the same amount of glycogen.

Since glycogen stores must be depleted before your body begins to burn fat. A person who is lifting weights will reach the point where glycogen is depleted before a person who is jogging for example. If losing weight tends to be a struggle for you, it only makes sense that you would want to start burning fat as soon as possible when you get to the gym.

Dedication trumps all

While it is important that you spend as much time as you can learning how to get the most out of your workouts, reading a bunch of articles isn’t going to get you your dream body, now is it?

You still need to come up with a workout routine that’s perfect for you, come up with a nutritional plan that ensures you’re getting all the essential nutrients and vitamins that you need, and, most importantly, you need to go to the gym and work your backside off consistently.

There simply isn’t any substitute for hard work and dedication when it comes to sculpting the body of your dreams. Do whatever you can that makes it easier for you to stick to your schedule. Hire a personal trainer if you feel lost in a gym or just need someone to push you to work harder, and workout when it’s most convenient for you so you’re less likely to miss a session. If you do end up missing a session, make sure you make up for it when you can.

At the end of the day, your attitude towards working out is more important than whether you decide to do cardio or weightlifting first.

Weights vs. Cardio: Keep Them Separate or Combine?

A while back, I received a message on Facebook from listener Lindsey. She said:

“In another episode you talked about how aerobic exercise and weight lifting affect each other, but I’m not sure I understood. As a runner, can I run to the gym to lift weights and run home again or should I keep the cardio and weights on separate days? Thanks for your help!”

After thanking Lindsey for her great question, I promised that I would do a deeper dive in the near future. I also told her that, in a nutshell, if she wants to get the fullest benefits of each workout, she should separate them. But since she is primarily a runner (and probably not too concerned about packing on as much muscle as possible), doing a short run to warm-up for and cool-down from a strength session is a great way to maximize her time and put a few more miles on her legs but not to do that every day. To be a good runner, she must also have dedicated run days.

Now, if I were Lindsey, I would have written back and asked me a follow-up question that would have gone something like this: “If I do want to get the fullest benefits of each workout, how much would I have to separate those workouts by?”

Well, good question, imaginary Lindsey. Let’s look at that!

How Long Should You Wait Between Workouts?

A recent study, aiming to determine whether the amount of recovery between a strength and an aerobic workout influenced the response to the training program, concluded that fitness coaches should avoid scheduling two contradictory qualities (like running and weightlifting, or swimming and powerlifting) with less than a six-hour recovery period between them if the goal is to obtain full adaptive responses to each workout.

Avoid scheduling two contradictory activities with less than a six-hour recovery period between them.

So, like I told Lindsey, if your goal is to get strong, there is some significant detriment that cardio can have on strength development. This is true whether you do the cardio workout in the same workout, or if you simply do cardio less than six hours before your weight training.

The researchers who performed this study also stated that daily training without a recovery period between sessions (or training twice a day) is not optimal for neuromuscular and aerobic improvements. So ideally, if you want to get stronger, you should separate your cardio and strength workouts by more than six hours.

Now, this seems straightforward for someone like Lindsey who is mostly interested in running and is doing strength training because she is a smart runner who understands the value of pre-hab. But what if the event you are training for requires that you perform strength and cardio simultaneously? Like an obstacle course race, the CrossFit Games, or even a killer hike with a big pack on your back? Or perhaps your goal is simply to lose body fat. Well, that changes everything.

Combining Weights and Cardio

A study that aimed to investigate the effects of intrasession sequencing (the order) of concurrent resistance and endurance training on the serum leptin (the hormone that inhibits hunger), testosterone, cortisol (the stress hormone), and body composition in obese men, came to some cool conclusions.

The “weights before cardio” group were slightly better off in every single test, including fat loss.

Thirty obese young males were divided randomly into three groups that either performed weights before cardio, cardio before weights, or didn’t exercise at all. They trained three times a week for eight weeks. Their cardio workouts were made up of running at 70–80% of maximal heart rate for ten minutes and their weight training consisted of three sets of eight repetitions at 80% of one repetition max. The lifts they performed were leg extension, lying leg curl, tricep pushdown, bench press, and lateral pull down. Whether they did the cardio or weights first, all the workouts were separated by five minutes of recovery.

The results showed that for testosterone, there were no significant differences. For cortisol, they found significant increases in both of the training groups. There were significant decreases in the leptin and testosterone to cortisol ratio (which indicates a positive fitness response) and both training groups also had a significant loss of body fat. The interesting thing (and the take-home message) was that the “weights before cardio” group were slightly better off in every single test, including fat loss.

Why Should You Combine Weights and Cardio?

Cardio (or aerobic exercise) is known to benefit your health and boost your fitness levels because it increases the density of some important cardiovascular components, like tiny blood-carrying capillaries. It is also known to build your mitochondria (your cellular power plants), assist with achieving and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, increase or maintain blood vessel flexibility, help with fat loss, and the list goes on and on.

It’s clear that doing a combination of both cardio and resistance training is the best way to increase health markers.

Resistance training (or weight training) has also been shown to have a significant impact on cholesterol levels, hormone levels, strength, lean body mass, bone density, ligament strength, tendon health, and fat loss.

So, if we put the two together, it’s clear that doing a combination of both cardio and resistance training is the best way to increase health markers, boost fitness levels, and also that golden goose, maximize fat loss. But it’s still not clear in what order.

You may be interested to know that research shows a greater total amount of calories are burned when cardio is done first, followed by weightlifting. So if simply burning calories is your main (and uninspired) goal, there’s that. But we fit folks are interested in much more than just calories, right?

Cardio Before Weights For Fat Loss?

A study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research looked into whether the order of resistance training and endurance exercise during a workout affects fat loss. Over the course of eight weeks, they investigated the effects that ordering and reordering workouts had on strength, VO2max, body weight, body fat percentage, and lean body mass.

A collection of previously inactive college females were randomly assigned to do their resistance training workout either before some endurance training or after it. Their training program consisted of four workouts per week, with each workout lasting one hour.

The cardio component of the workout lasted 30 minutes and was done at a “moderate intensity.”

The heavy lifting part of the workout had the subjects doing a three-way split routine (chest and back, shoulders and arms, and lower body). During this workout, they would perform three sets of 8–12 repetitions for 5–6 different exercises.

Whether they did the cardio first or the weights first, the rest period was no more than 5 minutes.

After doing eight weeks of combined endurance and resistance training, they all experienced significant improvements in VO2max, strength, and lean body mass. But unlike the obese males in the earlier study, it was concluded that there was no difference in effect based on exercise order of weights before cardio or cardio before weights. In addition, and this is important to note, the only participants who saw significant changes in their body fat percentage were the ones who also made dietary changes.

Do You Need to Do Cardio?

A recent study examined the effects of long-term endurance running and intense resistance training on central hemodynamics and answered the question: Can Weight Training Count as Cardio? They found that weight training is not only healthy for your heart but also, if the weight training is of adequate intensity and is performed in a controlled way that places stress on the muscles, it is absolutely going to give you a cardio workout as well.

If you are unsure about what I mean by “adequate intensity” well, to be “adequate” your heart rate should be above 60% of your max heart rate by the end of a single weight training set. For an easy way to estimate (and I do mean estimate) what your max heart rate is, just subtract your age from the number 220. My max heart rate is approximately 175 so those nosey folks out there can reverse engineer that to figure out approximately how old I am.

Weight training is not only healthy for your heart but also, if the weight training is of adequate intensity … it is absolutely going to give you a cardio workout as well.

If you are having trouble getting your heart rate even close to 60% or “adequate intensity,” try slowing down your lifting and resisting. Somewhere between 5-10 seconds up and 5-10 seconds down should do.

By spending more time on each lift, you will place more strain on the muscles, which demands more oxygen from the blood, which will demand more blood from the heart, which will make the heart beat harder and faster. Boom: adequate intensity and cardio!

What About Mixing Cardio and Weights?

The only thing we haven’t looked at yet is actually mixing the two together, not one followed by the other but repeatedly alternating them back and forth. This combo option involves brief bursts of cardio between each weight training set and this can make for a very effective, time-saving, and metabolism-boosting workout.

First off, a word of caution. If you are going to go for the mixed option, keep in mind that you must be able to maintain good form during your weight training exercises or you will find yourself standing in line at the physiotherapist or chiropractor’s office.

In 2008 the University of California evaluated the effects of concurrent strength and aerobic endurance training on muscle strength and endurance, body composition, and flexibility in female college athletes. To do this they had one group of athletes do only cardio, another group do only resistance training, and a final group do a concurrent training workout in which they would run like the wind for 30-60 seconds after completing each heavy lifting set.

Even though each group did what the researchers called “the same amount of work,” the group that mixed the cardio and weights experienced a 35% greater improvement in lower body strength, a 53% greater improvement in lower body endurance, a 28% greater improvement in lower body flexibility, a 144% greater improvement in upper body flexibility, an 82% greater improvement in muscle gains, and a hard to believe 991% greater loss in fat mass. What?!

That means the mixed group managed to burn fat and build muscle at the same time, and they also burned ten times the amount of body fat that was burned by the said groups that did cardio or resistance training only.

Should You Combine Weights and Cardio?

When you are trying to get or stay fit, it can help to do a combination of endurance and resistance training—but that is not always optimal for your fitness goals. And choosing which you should do first is often a matter of determining what those goals are. For example Lindsey, who kicked off this entire topic, whose goal is to run better, we know that she can combine her strength work with some short cardio without jeopardizing her performance, as long as she is getting dedicated run training done on her non-lifting days.

Choosing which you should do first is often a matter of determining what your goals are.

If your focus is not to burn fat but to build strength, stick to doing your resistance training as a separate workout. If you’re training for endurance, focus on a high-quality cardio workout that isn’t interrupted by strength training. If your focus is pure fat loss, then you should strongly consider combining your weight lifting and cardio in one workout.

But without splitting too many hairs, if you simply don’t have time to do a separate strength and a separate cardio workout, then just do it all in one big workout—I mean, come on. How many of us are actually hoping to compete in the Olympics after all? As we saw in the study on the inactive college females, no matter what order they did the workouts in, they all saw improvements in VO2max, strength, and lean body mass and for the most part, isn’t that what we are all hoping for?

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