Do I need to do both cardio and weight training in the first place?
Short answer, absolutely!
Generally when people are doing both cardio and strength training, they are hoping to build some muscle mass while losing fat (which is a good plan). There are other important benefits for your health and athletic performance that can only be achieved from doing both cardio and resistance training, but as I’ve said to many people, there is nothing wrong with an improved appearance being your motivation.
On that note, from an appearance standpoint, you need both to get the look you really want. Cardio training is really the only way to trim excess body fat. Resistance training has it’s purpose, but it’s a poor fat burner. On the other hand, cardio alone will not reshape your body into the best version of yourself possible. Cardio only will give you the same body you have now, only smaller. If you want to lose weight and reshape your physique, you need to do both strength and cardio training.
When it comes to losing weight, combining strength training and cardio training has been shown to be far more effective than cardio training alone. It is not only better at reducing fat, but it helps preserve muscle far better than cardio alone. If you’re only doing cardio to lose weight, it’s actually possible to burn off just as much muscle as fat during your workouts. Adding strength training can reduce the muscle loss from dieting from 50/50 to 93% fat and 7% muscle. Beginners can actually see muscle gains as they remove fat (as long as they don’t run too big a calorie deficit). It’s really the well conditioned exercisers that will find it difficult to add new muscle while cutting fat at the same time. That’s why body builders do it in phases. One phase to gain muscle (and unwanted fat I’m afraid), and one phase to cut all the fat (while unfortunately losing some of their hard earned muscle).
Cardio doesn’t always burn off muscle
Now this scenario I mentioned above refers to people that are dieting and exercising to lose fat. During a calorie deficit, you will also lose muscle (it’s unavoidable), but adding resistance training will significantly reduce that loss. However, doing cardio and resistance training on a regular basis without running a calorie deficit (your maintenance phase), will allow you to favorably change your body’s composition so that you can steadily reduce body fat while building muscle mass.
Does this mean dieting is bad? No, of course not. Quick adjustments to your diet can yield positive long term results, but to make those results stick, you need to make both types of training, a regular part of your life.
So which should I do first?
Let’s get back to the big question of the article, which should come first: cardio or weight training. If you have a personal preference for the order, then I would suggest you stick with whichever you enjoy most. Sticking with an exercise routine long term can be tough, and anything that gets you to consistently exercise is always the best solution. However, to get the biggest benefit out of both types of training, I definitely would suggest you do your cardio after you finish strength training.
Why it Matters:
Resistance training is good at releasing stored fat but bad at burning it: Proponents of cardio first will tell you that it sets your body up to burn more calories during your strength training. While that is true for the first few minutes, you won’t maintain a higher calorie burn throughout the whole strength session. When it comes down to it, resistance training is not very good at reducing body fat. Many studies have shown that people doing resistance training only will actually gain weight (typically from increased muscle mass) over the course of the study while the cardio or combined groups shed body fat. While resistance training isn’t good at burning fat, it is good at mobilizing fat (releasing stored fat from your fat cells). Weight training raises noradrenaline levels which will cause your body to release stored fat from your fat cells, but the lower burn rate typically means that the free floating fat will just be redeposited into fat cells when your workout ends. You can see this in the fat distribution in weight lifters and athletes verses sedentary people. Instead of storing all their fat in their bellies, weight lifters and athletes have their fat stores evenly distributed across their bodies. From a vanity standpoint, it looks better than a big potbelly and skinny limbs, but more importantly, this is a much healthier fat distribution (less likely to contribute to cardiovascular disease). It visually shows that resistance training releases stored fat, but you still need to add the extra cardio to finally burn it off.
Resistance training first creates an environment for optimal fat burning: As I mentioned in a previous article, when you exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, your body is more prepared to burn fat during your cardio session. During the night, your body depletes any glucose in your blood stream and a great deal of the glycogen stored in your muscles. As a result, your body must rely on fat to fuel your early morning workout instead of relying on carbohydrates first. This is also true later in the day, if you do your resistance training before your cardio. Resistance training relies on the glycogen stored in your muscles to fuel your workouts. Your working muscles will clear out any sugar floating around in your blood stream which prepares your body to turn to stored fat as a fuel source early in your cardio session.
Increased chance of injury with cardio first: A lot of trainers will tell you that doing cardio beforehand will impact your energy levels later on and you won’t be able to lift as much weight. While this is true, strength training first will impact the energy you have for your cardio too. You’ll always be more tired for whatever comes second, that’s just obvious, so once again, I do think it’s OK to go with the order you prefer. Also keep in mind that as you get more fit and adapt to your training program, you’ll have more energy for the second half of the session. That said, I do think there is an increased danger of injury (for beginners especially) who lift weights while exhausted. Proper form is more likely to suffer and it only takes a little slip up to give yourself an injury that will plague you for quite a while. Cardio injuries tend to come from overuse and sustained impacts, so that type of injury will happen whether you do cardio first or second. Actually, one of the biggest reasons beginners get injured when they first start a cardio routine is because they go too fast and too long before their bodies have a chance to acclimate. Exhausting themselves with strength training first can actually keep the early cardio sessions shorter and safer. If you’re trying to protect yourself as you get fit, it’s a simple change that goes a long way.
As I’ve mentioned in many articles, I’m a big fan of short, intense interval circuits that combine strength training and cardio into one workout. It basically negates the question of whether cardio or strength training should come first because you do both throughout the entire session. As I mentioned in point number 2 above, cardio before strength training will keep your burn rate up for only a few minutes while you lift weights, but when you cycle back and forth between the two forms of training every few minute, it keeps your heart rate and your burn rate higher throughout the entire workout. It’s a more effective form of training, it provides better health benefits, and it’s typically shorter and easier to fit into your schedule. While it does provide the benefits listed above, it can increase your risk of a slip up injury when you’re tired so ease your way into this type of training with shorter workouts and build up over time as your fitness improves.