Whether it’s better to perform your cardio before or after lifting weights really depends on your current conditioning, stamina — and to a certain extent — your mindset. There are also some physiological and scientific reasons you might preference weight lifting over cardio earlier in your workout — but even here you’ll find some disagreement among trainers, exercise physiologists and even odybuilders.
Does the Order of Cardio and Weight Lifting Matter?
The order that you perform your cardio and weight lifting exercises does matter: To you.
In terms of whether cardio is best performed before or after lifting weights, you need to consider a few of factors:
How you answer these questions will help determine the best order for performing cardio and weight training.
Conventional Wisdom: Weight Training First, Cardio Second
In general, the conventional wisdom seems to be that performing cardio after your weight lifting or resistance training routine is better. However, even here, there is a fair amount of disagreement.
Depending on the intensity and volume of the weight lifting routine, many people find that if they perform either duration/distance cardio or high-intensity interval training before they lift weights, it can negatively impact their performance during weight training.
Weight lifting or resistance training, properly done, is very intense activity. It requires concentration, motor-neural recruitment, balance, coordination, strength and most of all, lots of quick-burst energy. If you are performing high-intensity, circuit-like training with very little rest between exercises or sets, it can be even more taxing on the body.
Although activities like running, biking or using and elliptical or stair-stepping machine primarily train for cardiovascular endurance, they also place a certain amount of resistance on the muscles — especially if you are doing your cardio training on an incline or increasing the tension on an elliptical machine or recumbent bike.
So depending on the exercise and intensity, cardio can pre-fatigue certain muscle prior to weight training, reducing your ability to lift weights at a level that will challenge your previous level of performance.
This is especially true for the legs, which are the primary group of muscles recruited during most cardio activities.
Performing cardio before weight training your legs can often leave your quads, hamstrings and even calves fatigued, reducing the amount of work these muscles can perform during weight lifting. It may also increase the risk for injury due to fatigue or deviations in form. Of course, if you just performed a grueling set of squats, your ability to successfully run afterwards can be limited as well.
Depending on your level of conditioning, bouts of higher intensity or long-duration cardio can also leave your body in a state of overall fatigue, which can also negatively impact your ability to lift weights later in your workout. Depending on the intensity, cardio can also deplete the body’s carbohydrate stores, leaving you short on critical fuel for when you lift weights.
What Does Science Say about Cardio Before Weight Lifting?
Interestingly enough, there is very little peer-reviewed research on the effects of performing cardio before strength training.
The most commonly cited research is a (thus far) elusive study conducted by Southern Cross University in Australia, which apparently found a reduction in muscular strength and performance when people performed cardio before weight lifting. However, I have been unable to locate this specific study for review.
Most advice around the order of cardio and weight training refers to “the latest research” but it typically doesn’t source that research. So for now, unfortunately, science has little to add in terms of guidance on this issue.
Cardio After Weight Training: Burn More Fat?
Another popular theory that you’ll frequently hear thrown around on bodybuilding and fitness bulletin boards is that performing cardio after weight lifting will burn more body fat.
This hypothesis is based on how the body preferences and utilizes certain short-term energy stores like muscle and liver glycogen versus fats. While I won’t get into the details of why this theory has some serious flaws, it’s enough to say that the hypothesis tends to under-estimate the amount of stored glycogen available to the body and over-estimates the amount of glycogen depleted during weight training and cardio.
So if you are determining the order of your cardio and weight training solely on the idea that performing cardio after weight lifting will burn more body fat, you may want to reconsider.
In fact, a small-scale study from the Human Performance Research Center at Brigham Young University found that cardio before weight training produced a greater increase in excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) — or the amount of energy you burn after completion of exercise — versus cardio after weight lifting, weight-lifting-only and cardio-only.
However, the researchers point out that the main driver of this increase in EPOC is the inclusion of the resistance training into the exercise routine. The resistance-only group also experienced a significant increase in EPOC, so the real take away here is that you should be including resistance and weight training in your workouts to maximize fat-burning. Period.
Also, it’s important to point out that the intensity and volume of resistance training in this study was fairly low — 7 lifts. So it’s difficult to know if the impact of the sequence of exercise on EPOC would be changed under higher-volume or more intense resistance training conditions — either pre-cardio or post-cardio.
As often is the case with studies like this, there are often as many new questions raised, as old ones answered.
The Order of Cardio and Weight Training: Do What Works for You
It’s easy to get caught up in all of the scientific debates, exercise physiology and advice from “gurus” when it comes to weight lifting and cardiovascular training.
While basing your decisions on facts, and not just theories and opinions, is generally a good practice in life, at some point, you also have to ask yourself: “What works for me?”
This applies to the whole “is cardio better before or after weight lifting” debate, as well.
Some people who don’t particularly enjoy cardio prefer to do it first in their workout and just “get it out of the way” so they can really focus on their weight training. Other people find that lifting weights first ensures that they are fresher and stronger, and do better performing cardio last.
Some people avoid the entire problem altogether and doing their weight lifting on one day, and their cardio training on another (although the Brigham Young study suggests a benefit to combining them on the same day.)
Each person’s body responds differently to training protocols. The best approach is to try several different ordering schemes and see what works best for you.
In other-words, make the “science” your own and conduct your own experiments.
If you are keeping a detailed exercise log with good mind-body notes (something recommended for any person, regardless of their level of fitness or training experience), you should be able to review your logs and see exactly how the ordering of your exercises — including when you perform cardio versus weight lifting — impacts your energy, strength, endurance, state-of-mind and even fat-loss or lean body mass gains.
At the end of the day, research and advice from fitness experts is best used directionally. Your real gains will come from trial and error and finding what works for you.