There are two central components everyone thinks of when making their training program: cardio and strength training. Knowing that both of these pieces yield health benefits is enough to get people doing them, but often people are confused about the optimal order for doing them. Should you do cardio before hitting the weights, or after?
The short answer is that it depends on your goal. Are you training for a road race, exercising to lose weight, or trying to build muscle? These factors need to be determined before you can figure out the best plan. Good thing we don’t believe in just short answers around here… or this would be the shortest blog of all time!
Generally speaking, you should put your optimal effort into the training component which means the most to you. So, if you’re logging miles in an effort to complete a half marathon, it makes the most sense to get your cardio in when you’re fresh and full of energy. Personally, I can’t imagine trying to complete a 5 mile run (or even half a mile) after training legs! That would be ugly, like a baby deer learning to walk…
If building muscle is your end goal, cardio should be limited overall. To build muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus, and doing cardio is just going to burn more calories. In my off season, I keep cardio to a minimum – I got it through my fitness classes only (an hour twice a week), or the rare session if I felt like I need the mental relief of a good sweat (didn’t happen often last year). When I’m lifting weights, I’m usually sweating and winded from the effort I put into each set, so I incorporate cardio into each lift. That being said, there are some people who need to incorporate a little bit of cardio throughout their off season to help spike their hunger (this is NOT an issue for me – bring on the food!). You need to eat to grow, but if you have a hard time stomaching a lot of meals a day, throwing in some cardio might help you with that.
Finally, for anyone looking to lose weight – find your balance, especially if exercise is new to you. Maybe doing both cardio and strength training in the same session is too much at first. You might have to work yourself up to that amount of activity in one go – and honestly, you don’t have to do both at the same time. Split your activity up throughout the day, or alternate days of the week to focus on one component. Just keep moving!
If you’re just looking to be active for general health purposes, do what makes you happiest. If you feel like going for a bike ride with your family, do it. If you want to do a full body weight circuit, go lift. Hit up a spin or step class to sweat and have fun with others… as long as you enjoy it, you’ll stay active, and that’s the most important factor for your health.
An insider secret – when I’m in “prep” for a competition, my cardio sessions are prescribed to be done either first thing in the morning on an empty stomach (which some people disagree with, but I’ve had good results, so that’s all that matters to me), or AFTER a training session. Essentially, doing the cardio after training mimics the morning fasted cardio in the sense that you’ve used your calories and drained your system of glycogen. Theoretically, you’ve used up your quick energy stores and your body will resort to fat for energy at this point. There ya go! My helpful hint for Wednesday. Now, go sweat!