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The Science Behind Whether Starting with Cardio or Strength is Better

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Like many individuals, you likely confront this perpetual dilemma when you enter the fitness center: Should you commence with your cardiovascular exercises or weightlifting? The succinct response is that it mainly depends on your objectives.

“For instance, if you’re preparing for a marathon or any lengthy run, I would prioritize your run before resistance training so you can dedicate your attention to it without the interruption of fatigue in your legs,” asserts certified Apple Fitness trainer Betina Gozo. Conversely, if your aim is to develop stronger glutes, you might want to visit the squat rack preceding the treadmill. “Strength training entails considerably more muscle engagement, so you should conserve as much energy as possible for that,” explains Gozo.

Even if you lack a highly specific objective and aspire to enhance your overall fitness, it is crucial to intelligently merge cardiovascular exercises and resistance training in order to avoid overworking the same muscle groups. Concentrating on identical muscle groups during back-to-back cardio and resistance training sessions does not allow for adequate recovery, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Additionally, this approach could lead to exhaustion and subpar performance, consequently elevating the risk of injury. Consequently, it is vital to cautiously contemplate the type of exercises you engage in when contemplating whether to prioritize cardio or weights.

In the following sections, leading trainers and exercise science experts elucidate the circumstances in which performing cardio prior to weightlifting is advisable, as well as situations in which the opposite approach yields greater benefits.

Optimal Timing for Weightlifting Before Cardio

If you possess a specific strength-related goal — for instance, you aim to achieve a personal record in deadlifting or master the Turkish get-up exercise — you should undoubtedly begin your session by focusing on resistance training.

Here’s the rationale: Your muscles resemble rubber bands — they must be taut enough to constrict the objects they encompass, clarifies Gerren Liles, an ACE-certified Hyperwear athlete and Equinox master trainer. Liles states, “If you repeatedly stretch a rubber band, it becomes loose and loses its ability to hold items together. Muscles function in a similar manner. The repetitive movements involved in cardiovascular exercises diminish the contractile capacity of your muscles, placing you at a disadvantage when engaging in pure strength training and exerting maximal effort immediately thereafter.”

Scientific research supports the recommendation to prioritize weightlifting before cardio. A 2016 study featured in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research recruited 11 healthy and fit men and assessed their strength performance 10 minutes after an intense aerobic endurance workout.

They were assigned with operating on a treadmill at moderately difficult, highly difficult, or utmost intensity for somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes, then executing resistance exercises such as the elevated tug, crouch, bench press, deadlift, and shove press. These robustness exercises were conducted for 3 series of 6 to 10 reputations at 70 to 80 percent of their single repetition maximum, with a three-minute pause span between series.

Results indicated that their performance on the strength movements was significantly hindered following the aerobic workouts. Participants completed fewer repetitions with the squats, specifically, and there was a decrease in power for the high pull, squat, and bench press after engaging in most of the aerobic exercises.

Additionally, a study published in the European Journal of Sport Science in November 2016, which can be found at “”, involved 30 fit men participating in four distinct training protocols: strength training, strength training followed by endurance training, endurance training followed by strength training, and no training. The findings suggest that performing endurance exercises before strength training leads to impaired performance in strength training, especially when handling heavy weights. The study also revealed that maximum performance during single-repetition exercises was much better when focusing solely on strength training or doing strength training before endurance training compared to the reverse order.

Furthermore, there may be an additional benefit to performing cardio exercises after strength training, as mentioned by Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., the host of the podcast “All About Fitness”. McCall explains that muscle cells store glycogen, a substance that fuels muscular contractions. Glycogen is derived from carbohydrates that the body breaks down into fuel. When glycogen is converted into energy, it becomes adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This process generates byproducts, which can be recycled back into ATP and used as energy. Interestingly, glycogen is utilized as fuel during high-intensity exercises like weightlifting and produces these byproducts that can actually be utilized as fuel for lower-intensity activities such as steady-state cardio, according to McCall. It’s quite fascinating, isn’t it?

When it comes to the timing of cardio in relation to weightlifting, if you are training for a major endurance event such as a triathlon or marathon, it is generally recommended to prioritize your energy for your cardio training and focus on it before engaging in weightlifting.

Even if you don’t have a specific cardio-related goal, there are certain situations where incorporating some cardio before strength training can be advantageous, particularly as a warm-up. McCall states that doing cardio before strength exercises can be an effective strategy to ensure that the body is adequately warmed up and prepared for the challenges of the strength exercises. According to Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D., an associate professor of health sciences at Chapman University in Orange, California, engaging in some light, steady-state cardio for approximately 10 minutes before any intense physical effort or activity prepares the body for exercise or performance. You can find more information about Dr. Sternlicht at “”.

If you possess a specific strength-related objective, such as achieving a particular amount of weightlifting or acquiring a designated skill (e.g. an Olympic lift or kettlebell maneuver), maintaining a low-intensity approach is crucial. To minimize the likelihood of fatigue impacting your strength workouts, it is advised to avoid high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and instead choose steady-state cardio, according to McCall.

A study conducted in 2013 and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research supports this notion. The study discovered that participants who engaged in a 15-minute low-intensity warm-up were able to lift more weight on the leg press machine during a one-rep max test compared to those who did not warm up, only warmed up for 5 minutes, or engaged in a moderate-intensity warm-up of any duration.

However, if your strength training is purely for general fitness purposes, you can push yourself a bit more during your pre-weight lifting cardio. McCall suggests that individuals engaging in strength training for general fitness, without specific objectives, can do steady-state or aerobic intervals for 15 to 25 minutes, or a brief HIIT session lasting five to eight minutes before their strength training.

What if your aim is to shed pounds?

When it comes to weight loss, the order in which you perform cardio and weightlifting doesn’t significantly matter. However, Strenlicht emphasizes that strength training surpasses cardio in terms of overall importance. While most people tend to focus on increasing their cardio workouts when trying to lose weight due to the higher calorie burn, Strenlicht advises prioritizing strength training two to three times per week.

Why? Engaging in strength training helps you either build or preserve lean body mass, which in turn leads to a higher calorie burn in the long run. It is important to note that the more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate (the minimum number of calories your body requires for basic bodily functions), Sternlicht explains. Additionally, when you engage in heavy weight training with shorter rest intervals, you generate a greater excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which refers to the calories burned long after your workout. This is because such training demands greater reliance on anaerobic energy pathways during exercise, consequently increasing the need for oxygen post-workout. Therefore, the more intense your weightlifting sessions are, and the shorter your rest periods, the greater EPOC you will experience.

How to Effectively Combine Cardio and Strength

That said, you shouldn’t skip cardiovascular exercise entirely. “Ultimately, you expend more energy and burn more calories by engaging in aerobic training because you’re moving consistently, whereas, with strength training, you may spend two-thirds of your time recovering. Therefore, incorporating some cardiovascular exercise can increase your overall calorie burn,” says Sternlicht.

For that reason, it might be preferable to do hybrid strength-cardio workouts instead of steady-state cardiovascular exercise, says Gozo. “Each week, I recommend performing two total-body strength workouts with higher repetitions and lower weight, and including interval training in between (such as an Orangetheory or Barry’s Bootcamp class). Additionally, incorporate two or three heavy strength workouts,” she suggests.

If your goal is to lose weight, it’s also crucial to increase your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – in other words, any movement or physical activity you engage in outside of the gym, says Sternlicht. “Examples of NEAT include taking more walks, parking your car farther from the entrance, and opting for the stairs instead of the elevator. All of these activities will enhance your calorie burn,” he explains.

How to Effectively Combine Cardio and Strength

Regardless of whether you prioritize cardio or strength training, you’re performing a workout that combines both elements into one session, known as concurrent training. According to McCall, for the general population seeking to maintain a healthy body weight, incorporating both cardio and strength training in a single workout can be effective for burning energy and building muscle without significant risks.

In fact, a study conducted in July 2014 and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research involved 23 inactive female college students who followed an eight-week exercise program. The program consisted of either doing endurance exercise before resistance training or resistance training before endurance exercise. The endurance portion involved 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, while the resistance portion included 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of five or six different strength exercises. The researchers discovered significant improvements in performance, strength, and lean body mass, irrespective of the exercise order (i.e., regardless of whether cardio or weights were done first).

When it comes to designing a concurrent workout, there is no magic formula, according to Sternlicht. “You have to choose what suits your lifestyle and schedule,” he says. However, it’s advisable to mix things up occasionally. Varying your workouts – whether by alternating between cardio and strength training throughout the week or sticking to one for a few weeks before switching – helps challenge your body in new ways, preventing you from reaching a fitness plateau, says McCall.

Ensure that you do not over-fatigue a specific muscle group. For instance, consider combining upper-body workouts with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio sessions, and engage in lower-intensity steady-state cardio on the days when you focus on lower-body strength exercises, suggests McCall. “Since the leg muscles are already working during strength training, you don’t want to exhaust them further with intense cardio.” (See also: Here’s What a Week of Perfectly Balanced Workouts Looks Like)

In conclusion, when deciding whether to prioritize cardio or strength training, consider your goals and tailor your workouts accordingly.

If you’re concentrated on hoisting a specific magnitude of weight or conquering a fresh kettlebell maneuver, then you should definitely visit the weight chamber in the beginning and complement it with some continuous-state cardio on the treadmill, rower, or bike. Conversely, if stamina is your objective, you should conserve your vitality to traverse the length and combine the endurance-fostering workouts with low-load, high-capacity potency training. And if shedding pounds is your aim, you desire to engage in a amalgamation of potency and cardio — with a distinctive emphasis on potency.