Should you do cardio or weights first? If you’d like the answer to that question, you’re not alone. Millions of athletes and fitness enthusiasts who want to reap the benefits of both types of exercise have wondered the same thing for decades.
By now, there is plenty of research on “concurrent training” – the technical term for combining strength training and cardiovascular exercise.
In this article, you’ll learn what happens when you combine lifting and cardio, if it’s a good idea, and if you should do cardio or weights first.
Should You Do Both Strength Training and Cardio?
The short answer is yes. Endurance exercise and resistance training offer unique benefits that help you stay strong, fit, and healthy throughout your life.
- Cardio strengthens your heart and improves your aerobic fitness. It increases the amount of blood flow from your heart throughout all tissues of the body, lowers your resting heart rate, and helps you burn fat as an energy source more effectively.1 2
- Regular aerobic exercise also improves your blood lipids and positively affects blood pressure. That means a lower risk of heart disease.3
- Cardio is also good for the brain: it improves your mood and your memory.4 5
Lifting weights gives you many of the same benefits as cardio but offers several that you won’t get from running or biking alone.
- It’s the best way to increase strength and power and boost muscle growth.6 If your primary goal is building muscle and strength, you have to lift weights.
- Lean muscle mass isn’t just for show. As you get older, it improves your quality of life dramatically.7 You can keep doing the things you love instead of letting age get the better of you.
- Your time in the weight room reverses aging. Your muscles literally become younger in the long run when you lift weights.8
- Anaerobic exercise like strength training reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease, independent of aerobic exercise. In other words, even if you do cardio, you’ll get further benefits if you include regular strength workouts too.9
- Weightlifting burns more calories post-workout than cardio.10 While your body burns more calories during your cardio session, strength training (and high-intensity interval training) for your major muscle groups raises your metabolic rate for hours after your workout through a process called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC.
Guidelines from the World Health Organization and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that you engage in aerobic physical activity (i.e., cardio) and muscle-strengthening activities (i.e., strength training) every week.11 12
The bottom line is that anyone looking to stay strong, healthy, and fit throughout their life should do both strength training and cardio.
Does Cardio Ruin Your Gains?
Many bodybuilders and strength athletes avoid cardio like the plague, thinking it will eat their muscle mass away or at least prevent or reduce their gains.
The good news is that current research shows that those fears are likely exaggerated or unfounded.
Early studies showed that combining high-frequency running and lifting compromises strength gains.13
The study that started the fear of combining cardio with lifting divided the participants into three groups and had them do the following:
- The strength group performed lower-body strength training five days per week.
- The endurance group performed bike intervals and running for 30–40 minutes per day, six days per week.
- The strength/endurance group combined the training of both the strength and endurance groups.
Over ten weeks of training, the strength group increased their strength, and the endurance group improved their aerobic capacity, as expected. The participants in the third group, who did both cardio and weights, improved their strength initially, but after seven weeks, their strength started to decline.
Their training volume was quite high: six days a week of cardio and five days of strength training. That’s a lot, especially since none of the participants had been training regularly for months. Maybe it’s no wonder such a sudden ordeal impaired their strength gains.
Even into the 2010s, studies suggested that endurance training negatively affects building strength, muscle power, and hypertrophy compared to focusing on lifting only.14
Numerous studies have tried to figure out why – is it simply a matter of fatigue and overtraining, or do cardio start processes in the cells of the muscle fibers that prevent resistance training from increasing strength and adding muscle tissue as expected?
Rat and test tube studies found that cardio activates an enzyme called AMPK that could suppress muscle protein synthesis. Stimulating muscle protein synthesis is an essential part of why lifting weights make your muscle grow. If cardio exercise tells your muscles not to grow, it’s obviously a bad thing.
However, human studies have failed to confirm these theories.
In fact, the last decade of research turned things around.
The latest and largest meta-analysis (a study that combines the results of other studies on a topic and looks at the overall outcome) published in 2021 looks at the effect of cardio and strength training in the same workout routine. It found that combining the two types of exercises do not interfere with maximal strength development or muscle hypertrophy.15
While there aren’t many studies looking at high-level bodybuilders or powerlifters, there is little evidence that cardio will ruin your gains. You likely won’t be able to become an elite marathon runner and a competitive bodybuilder simultaneously, but regular aerobic training does not compromise your ability to build muscle and strength.
Should You Do Cardio and Strength Training in the Same Session?
The updated findings also revealed that it does not matter if you perform your cardio and lifting in the same workout session, on the same day but in two different training sessions, or do your strength exercises and cardio exercises on separate days.
That’s good news: you can fit your cardio and weight training into your workout routine to fit your schedule and personal preference. You’ll likely get similar results from your workouts whether you do it all at once or split them into shorter sessions, as long as you allow for adequate recovery.
If you are a highly trained athlete, though, there might be a good reason to separate your weight training session and your cardio session if you’re going for maximal strength development. Another recent scientific review found that trained individuals need two hours of recovery between cardio and strength training for the best results.16
Likely, well-trained athletes can push themselves so hard that adding more training to their already exhausting workouts becomes too much.
Also, if you’re a jumper or a sprinter, you might want to avoid doing cardio and strength training in the same session for better results. While maximal strength is not impaired, doing both in one session impairs explosive strength.15
In addition, there are still practical considerations when planning your workout schedule. For example, your energy stores aren’t infinite. If your high-intensity workouts get too long, the glycogen stores in your muscles become depleted, and your performance might suffer.
If you find combining cardio and lifting in the same workout impairs your recovery, look into separating the activities on different days or at different times of the day.
The bottom line: in general, you can let personal preferences decide rather than try to keep lifting and cardio separated if you don’t want to. However, if you’re a high-level athlete trying to get as strong as possible, the best option is likely to wait at least two hours between the different forms of exercise.
Is It Better to Do Cardio Before or After Weight Lifting?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. It depends on your fitness goals.
- If your main goal is to build muscle, do cardio after weights. You want to perform your best in the gym and have a maximal mental focus on the weights when you’re going for muscle gain, not start your workouts with a tired body.
- For maximal strength gains, lift weights first, then do your cardio. To develop maximal strength, you need to lift heavy weights.17 Again, you don’t want to begin your weight room session more or less exhausted. If you’re doing upper-body strength training, you could do lower-body cardio first. That does not make you excessively fatigued, but there are no benefits either.18 A high-intensity run before squats is a bad idea.
- If your goal is to improve your endurance and aerobic capacity, start with cardio. Prior lifting impairs aerobic performance even if you separate strength training and cardio by several hours.19 A leg workout would be the worst, but even an arm or shoulder workout could adversely affect your running economy.
- You can do either first if your goal is general fitness and health. You’ll get the best of both worlds regardless. The better option might be to do the type of exercise you enjoy the least first. If you save your least favorite activity for last, it might not get done. Consistency is the most important thing of all.
- For weight loss, it likely doesn’t matter if you do strength or cardio first. You will burn more body fat as fuel during the cardio session if you lift first, but there is no evidence doing so leads to greater fat loss over time. Exercise or no exercise, calories in vs. calories out determines fat loss.20
How Often and How Much Cardio Should You Do?
Once again, the answer to that question depends on your goals, experience, and fitness level.
For Overall Health
The World Health Organization recommends you do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise weekly for health benefits. If you prefer, you can do at least 75 minutes of high-intensity cardiovascular training instead.11
An important note is that those 150 minutes of moderate intensity include activities like brisk walking. You don’t have to sweat on the cardio machines in the gym unless you want to. That means that if you do, for example, three 30–minute sessions of cardio in the gym after your strength workouts, you’re already well on your way to the recommended amount of time for significant health benefits. Go for a few walks during the week, and you’ll get some fresh air and the recommended physical activity without it feeling like “cardio.”
For Weight Loss
Cardio by itself does not lead to weight loss. You need a calorie deficit to lose weight and body fat; the most effective way to achieve that is by modifying your diet. That being said, cardio can help burn more calories, although most people overestimate how many.
Think of cardio as one more tool in your toolbox for weight loss, but not the most powerful one.
If you’re not used to doing cardio regularly, introduce it bit by bit into your workout schedule. For example, start with two or three weekly 20-minute sessions. After a week or two, move up to 30 minutes per cardio workout. The next step might be to add one more session per week.
Gradually increase how much time you spend doing cardio. On a weight-loss diet, sooner or later, you’ll find that your progress stalls or comes to a halt. If you went all-out with 5–6 long cardio sessions from the get-go, you don’t have that tool to bring into the equation. You can’t do even more cardio. But if you’re only doing two weekly sessions, adding a third and kick-starting your progress takes little effort. Along with monitoring your diet, of course.
To Improve Your Aerobic Fitness
How much cardio you need to improve your cardiovascular fitness depends on your current fitness level and training experience.
For example, if you’re a recreational runner without competitive aspirations, two or three 30–45 minute runs per week is enough. On the other hand, a high-level endurance athlete might train for an hour or more every day.
If you’re in poor shape and find it challenging to walk around the block without getting out of breath, you’ll get great results from two medium-intensity cardio sessions per week. Don’t overdo it if you’re not used to cardio. You increase the risk of injury if you go from zero to 100, and you’ll probably get mental burn-out if not physical.
If you’re an endurance athlete and your main focus is to improve your aerobic capacity, lifting weights is your supplementary training.
In that case, not overdoing the weight workouts becomes crucial for recovery, or your legs might feel like lead before long. Always balance your combined strength training and cardio with your ability to recover and your fitness level.
Check out Strength Training for Runners for a comprehensive guide to lifting weights as a runner. It’s also applicable to other endurance sports.
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A Final Word
A good rule of thumb is to begin your workout with the type of training you prioritize:
- To get stronger and build muscle, lift weights first.
- To improve your aerobic fitness, do cardio first.
- And, if you’re training for overall health, do either first.
Current research does not support the theory that cardio kills your gains. You can safely include cardio and resistance exercise in your workout plan and benefit from both forms of training.
That being said, there is a reason runners look like runners and bodybuilders look like bodybuilders. Both benefit from lifting and doing cardio, but the ratio between the types of exercise will be quite different. You can only recover from so much training.
How much lifting and how much cardio is best for you depends on many factors, but everyone benefits from doing at least a little of both.
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- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2008 – Volume 40 – Issue 7 – p 1336-1343. Effect of Intensity of Aerobic Training on VO2max.
- Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2002 Mar;29(3):218-22. Adaptations of skeletal muscle to prolonged, intense endurance training.
- Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 90, 1991 – Issue 1. Health benefits of aerobic exercise.
- Brain Plasticity, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 127-152, 2017. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review.
- Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 37, Issue 8, September 2013, Pages 1645-1666. The effects of cardiovascular exercise on human memory: A review with meta-analysis.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 1988 – Volume 20 – Issue 5 – p S132-S134. Skeletal muscle adaptations consequent to long-term heavy resistance exercise.
- Nutricion Hospitalaria, 01 May 2014, 29(5):979-988. Benefits of strength training for the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia.
- PLoS One. 2007; 2(5): e465. Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: January 2017 – Volume 49 – Issue 1 – p 40-46. Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease.
- Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Volume 86, 2015 – Issue 2. EPOC Comparison Between Isocaloric Bouts of Steady-State Aerobic, Intermittent Aerobic, and Resistance Training.
- WHO GUIDELINES ON PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND SEDENTARY BEHAVIOUR
- ACSM Physical Activity Guidelines
- European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology volume 45, pages 255–263 (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2012 – Volume 26 – Issue 8 – p 2293-2307. Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis Examining Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Exercises.
- Sports Medicine volume 52, pages 601–612 (2022). Compatibility of Concurrent Aerobic and Strength Training for Skeletal Muscle Size and Function: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Sports Medicine volume 51, pages 991–1010 (2021). Development of Maximal Dynamic Strength During Concurrent Resistance and Endurance Training in Untrained, Moderately Trained, and Trained Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2017 – Volume 31 – Issue 12 – p 3508-3523. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: March 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 3 – p 793-801. Acute Neuromuscular and Metabolic Responses to Concurrent Endurance and Resistance Exercise.
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 25 January 2013. The effects of strength training and endurance training order on running economy and performance.
- Ann Nutr Metab 2007;51:428–432. Fat Loss Depends on Energy Deficit Only, Independently of the Method for Weight Loss.