Fit Bit: Which Should I Do First?

by tinareale on September 18, 2012

cardio or strength

I have received the above question quite a few times. If I do both cardio and strength training in one day, is there a better one to do first? Well, I’ll give you my two cents on the subject. Before I give my thoughts on the topic, however, I’ll share a couple of the common claims I have heard behind doing one before the other.

Claims to do Cardio First

  • acts as a warm-up to prepare your body for strength training
  • burn more overall calories for the workout, since you have more energy for the cardio (which typically burns more calories during the workout)

Claims to do Strength First

  • your body burns more fat for fuel during the cardio since it used glycogen during the strength training
  • body isn’t tired for the strength workout, so you can use proper form without fatiguing as easily

There is a whole slew of information I could go into about some of these (like Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption and the body’s use of glycogen) to say that the above claims aren’t substantial enough to truly put one combination over the other. I’ll save those topics in more detail for a rainy day, though.

The biggest factors that should impact this decision? 

a) which combination will best fit your goals and
b) which combination will give you the most motivation to complete your workout

For someone who loathes cardio, he or she may benefit from doing the cardio training first so as not to skip it after a strength workout. For someone with a goal to increase cardiovascular health and endurance, it may also be more beneficial to do that part of the workout first to give it the more concentrated effort.

On the flip side, someone with a goal to increase muscular strength may find better results in his or her training by having more energy for the strength portion of the workout. Or a cardio lover who hates to hit the weights could do the strength training first to ensure it gets done.

Whatever combination you choose, prepare yourself to adapt your workout intensity as the workout goes on – so you may have to lift lighter weights if you did a session of sprints first, or you may need to go at a lighter intensity  in spin class if you pounded out some serious squats beforehand.

Also, don’t negate the fact that you can still have a quality training plan by splitting these two workouts into separate days. You can certainly reap the fitness rewards by completing strength and cardiovascular workouts on alternate days. That is still great! You could also have a combined effort by incorporating techniques like circuit or metabolic training to get a cardiovascular component along with strength gains. It all boils down to what works for YOU and your goals and your schedule. Just get out there and move! Winking smile

Your Turn – How do YOU prefer to combine cardio and strength? Or do you separate them? Why?

{ 44 comments }

1 Miz September 18, 2012 at 6:19 am

I always get this too.
and counter with “IT MAKES ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENT WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY. WHAT WILL YOU ACTUALLY DO. CONSISTENTLY. PICK THAT WAY” ;-)

2 Angela @ Happy Fit Mama September 18, 2012 at 6:28 am

Very popular question! I always tell my clients, patients, friends, it’s what works for you. I personally prefer to do cardio first.

3 Lindsay @ Lindsay's List September 18, 2012 at 6:30 am

i usually strength train first and do cardio second. it’s what works for me – i’m too tired to lift if i do sprints first.

4 H September 18, 2012 at 6:58 am

Since I dislike weights, I tend to put my energy into my running first and if anything is left go hit the weights, which I am admittedly inconsistent in doing ;-)

5 chelsey @ clean eating chelsey September 18, 2012 at 7:20 am

If I have to do them both on the same day, I’ll do cardio first. However, I typically separate them!

6 Lauren September 18, 2012 at 7:26 am

I usually do cardio first just because I like to use most of my energy for it. But I can definitely see the benefits on both ways.

7 Khushboo September 18, 2012 at 7:35 am

Interesting post, Tina! I used to always do cardio because I thought it was a more effective workout and hence wanted to get the most benefit while my energy levels were still high. Now I always do weight training first, otherwise I am too tired to lift to my potential! That all being said, I rarely combine the 2- I hate having to half-ass either of the 2 workouts!

8 Rebecca Wright September 18, 2012 at 7:40 am

I try to do some before & after but if the cardio machines at the gym are getting filled quickly I’ll go ahead & do all my cardio just to get it over with while I already have a machine

9 Steph September 18, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m a BodyPump girl, and my gym pairs that class with the cardio classes, sometime before, sometimes after. I like mixing it up like that.

10 Lee September 18, 2012 at 8:12 am

I will typically separate them into two different days – sometimes two different times at the gym on the same day though. If I am doing them together, I usually do strength first.

11 tinareale September 19, 2012 at 7:00 am

PS – We need to get together soon. And are you going to be there next weekend?

12 Julie @ Sweetly Balanced September 18, 2012 at 9:02 am

I personally love to run, but don’t exactly enjoy strength training as much. I actually only started incorporating strength training into my workout routine recently. So, for me I have to do that first. If I decide I go for run first then the strength training gets skipped 99.9% of the time.

I agree with you in that you have to do what is best for you! Thanks for sharing!! I was nervous at first when I read the title of this that you would tell me I have to do cardio first! Glad I can keep going with my normal routine!

13 Heather (Where's the Beach) September 18, 2012 at 9:12 am

I try to separate the 2 – even if that means a 2-a-day. But sometimes you have time contraints plain and simple. I try to get weights done first then cardio. But I have definitely done cardio first. I think you just have to pay attention to your body. If the cardio is too intense I think you end up maxing out your energy level and weights will suffer.

14 Fiona @ Get Fit Fiona September 18, 2012 at 9:32 am

I like to do cardio first cause that typically takes me longer. Once I have it done I’m over half way through my workout so I’m motivated to do the strength training part.

15 Katie @ Talk Less, Say More September 18, 2012 at 9:33 am

I’m so happy that you brought this up! I remember having a conversation with one of my friends a couple years ago about which to do first – she was more of a cardio first and I was more strength first. Then I read in a magazine that it’s about what is best for you and which you’re least likely to skip should probably go last. I often go based on how I feel that day – some days cardio feels like a pain and somedays I’m just not feeling the strength.

16 Sarah K. @ The Pajama Chef September 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

i love this! if i do both the same day it’s pretty much always cardio first cause that’s what i like better. ha!

17 tera norberg September 18, 2012 at 10:39 am

I’m a cardio first girl!!! I HATE running so I do that first so that I enjoy my weight portion. Plus if I went straight to weights I’d get all whiney because I would have my run looming in the distance. It’s all how your mind works, my hubby is the opposite he needs to lift first. Thanks for sharing.

18 Maria September 18, 2012 at 10:42 am

I always seem to do weights firsts, because its rare that I have a “bad” weights workout (and I have more than my fair share of bad cardio workouts). In fact, strength training is super motivating to me, so I usually follow it up with a quick and sweaty interval run because of this motivation.

19 Brittany @ GOtheXtraMile September 18, 2012 at 11:10 am

Love this post!! When I was focused more on my half marathon, I would always do cardio first. Now I’m more focused on muscles, so I usually do a little warm-up then my weights then my cardio!

20 jobo September 18, 2012 at 11:35 am

This is SUCH a good topic to write on. I think it just comes down to, to your point, your goals, but also, what your body reacts to best. For me, it’s usually splitting them up, at least different parts of the day, not back to back. Unless absolutely necessary. And usually then it’s really still not absolutely necessary ;)

21 Ali September 18, 2012 at 11:47 am

For me it depends on the day, and like you mentioned- my goals. On long run days I strengthen afterwards (super hard BTW). Mid week sometimes I strengthen first so I do not loose motivation, or I may separate them if I go to a Yoga class or something…

22 tinareale September 19, 2012 at 7:02 am

Whew! I don’t know how you can lift on long run days. That’s impressive.

23 Kathleen Ojo @ Onward; Inward September 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

I separate my strength and cardio, but that’s because I like to end each workout feeling like I have nothing left in my tank. I do Body Pump for strength and LOVE challenging myself with really heavy weights. I finish the class feeling like a limp noodle, I can’t imagine going for a run after, and if I go for a run before I would be disappointed with my effort during weights. After my long or hilly runs, I also feel like (triumphant!) death, trying to lift weights after would be pointless.

I might consider a light weight workout to follow up my easy runs, but I also have a tiny baby at home so I can’t really be away from home for so long right now. Someday!

24 Amy Lauren September 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I do a class called body pump for strength, and I would rather do it than traditional strength because it’s in a class and motivates me, and also it really gets your heart rate up like cardio- so if I have to skip cardio, at least I got it up a bit in the body pump class. It’s low weight, high reps, but it really works and it’s fun :) . Plus the music is great.

25 Danielle @ Itsaharleyyylife September 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I definitely always do cardio first before lifting or what not. I think it is because of the fact if I don’t I will for sure just skip out on the cardio part because I’d be “too tired” or “won’t have enough time” If I do the cardio part then I can take my time on the lifting and if I don’t fit it all in I don’t feel as bad but if I skipped cardio I would.

26 Shelley @ Mile High Healthy September 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I tend to do cardio before and after my strength workouts. Usually I’m going into a workout right after I wake up or right after I get off work and have been at a desk for 8 hours. I do about 10 minutes of warm-up cardio to get my body loose and help prevent energy. I will either do a 10 minute elliptical session or run 1 mile. Then I perform my strength training session and hop back on for 20 or so minutes of HIIT; again, either on the elliptical or 2 miles of sprints on the treadmill. This seems to work for me! Also, if I’m short on time I generally only do the pre-strength cardio because I feel the warm-up is vital to my workout and I don’t always want or need to do cardio afterwards, depending on my training for the week.

27 STUFT Mama September 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I like doing strength training first, then cardio, but currently I juts fit it in when I can. It’s usually combined in an interval type workout. :) Love this question though- I get it a lot. :) Yes… what’s best for you!

28 lindsay September 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm

i get a ton of questions about this too! I’ve learned what you just said. If i want to focus on strength, i do that first, put more energy into it. I’ve also heard it’s better to wait to do cardio till mid day because our joints our warmed up. But i am soooo slow when i do cardio mid day. Oh to each their own, yes?

29 Kim @ Redefining Kim September 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm

In the past, I always did cardio on a seperate day from strength training. Now that I find myself having less time for workouts, but wanting to keep my fitness level up – I am combining the two. So now instead of 3 days of running and 3 days of lifting – I am doing circuit type workouts that have a cardio vascular benefit along with weights 2 days a week, and running 2 days a week.

But as the fab Mizfit says, do what you will consistently. And that answer could be different for everyone.

30 Katie @ Peace Love & Oats September 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I try and do them on separate days, and on strength days I warm up with just 5-10 minutes on the elliptical.

31 Sam @ Better With Sprinkles September 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I’ve tried it both ways, and right now if I’m not planning any heavy cardio for the day, I’ll do a 10 or 15 minute warmup on the treadmill or the elliptical before I hit weights. Or, if I want to do sprints, I’ll do weights first.

32 Leonor @FoodFaithFitness September 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I used to combine them and alternate, sometimes a run at 5am, then weights at 9am. No I spend less time in the gym and separate them. I am not a slave to cardio like I once was, so I lift 3x’s per week.

33 Jen@HealthyFoodandFamily September 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I try to not do them on the same day, but if I have to, it’s always cardio first and then strength.

34 Michele @ NYC Running Mama September 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Agree!!! I definitely do cardio (running) first since that is my focus/ priority…getting in a specific run is most important to me, so I’d rather be tired for the workout after my run then to try and get my run in on exhausted legs…I think as long as you get into a routine, it doesn’t matter what youdo first!!!!

35 Stacy @ Stacy Eats September 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I’ve always heard mixed opinions about what to do when as well. Typically I do cardio and strength on separate days. If they happen to fall on the same day though, they are done at different times – cardio before work, strength after work.

36 Katie @ KatieEnPursuit September 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Fun post on a commonly disputed topic! I like your take on the best combination which works for each individual. I have adopted that & if I feel like mixing cardio in-between sets, I do. Sometimes I wait to do intervals at the end of a tough lifting session. Many lifting sessions;~3x per week; my HR is high enough to get in a good burn & I find that mixing it up keeps it exciting. And some days I just do one of each, strength or cardio. Lots of interesting comments, thanks! :)

37 Pavement Runner September 18, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I run…. and then I run more… then I think about doing strength training… most likely while running. I wish I did more cross training, but it is just so exhausting spending hours running. When I was doing both, I usually lifted first. I then felt like I was stretching while running… not really stretching, but your arms and legs move and it feels like a cool down. That probably makes no sense. Go with what you said, That’s better.

38 @pluvk September 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I’m really happy you shared this information. Thank you! I’ve often heard that it’s better to do strength training first, so I always felt like I was “ruining” my workout by doing cardio first. Glad to know that’s not the case!

39 lauren @ sassy molassy September 18, 2012 at 11:31 pm

This is always an interesting conundrum! I tend to do the two separate because I only have so much time in the morning for a workout (typically I wake up in time for 30 min of something). I tend to do my strength work in the morning (because I’m home and it might be a bit dark out for a run) and then running/cardio later. If I go straight from work to a run, I’m more likely to bang it out rather than going home first and then heading out.

Occasionally, I do the two back to back and in that case I usually prefer doing the strength work first. Probably because I know the run’s going to make me too tired to do the moves properly (or do more than 1 set of anything).

40 purelytwins September 19, 2012 at 10:58 am

we agree with MizFit anything to get you moving is the best thing to do ;)
growing up we did them separately and noticed no major difference in our bodies, lately we do a lot of HIIT style (we try to do a mix of cardio and strength, but mostly strength) and we feel we are in the best shape of our life. but again you need to just move and do something to get results ;)

41 Brittany @Berries and Barbells September 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I usually separate my strength and cardio days but I will do 15 or 20 minutes of sprints before my strength workouts. Plus I usually follow up my a couple of my longer runs with a yoga class.

42 lisa {Smart Food and Fit} September 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Hi Tina, great post. I get asked that too. I prefer to do my weight training first, then cardio but I also do split days of cardio and weights. Lately I’ve been doing circuit training and compound joint movements to get both cardio and weights in at once!

43 Carissa @Fit2Flex September 19, 2012 at 6:12 pm

GREAT POST TINA! This is such a hot debate as I can see from the comments and it really does come down to the person’s goals like you said. I always do cardio last (and usually on a different day). I workout to tone and shape my muscles, so that’s my focus and where I want my energy. If I do cardio after a workout it’s to burn some extra calories.

44 Linz @ Itz Linz September 24, 2012 at 7:36 am

this is an interesting topic as i’ve heard compelling arguments for both sides. i like how you put it though – do what works for you. itz true: we’re all different and different things work for each of us depending on our preferences and goals! good call!

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