Whether you’re a fan of hardcore cardio or strength training, you probably know that a well-balanced fitness routine includes some of both. But that raises the age-old question: Which one should you do first, cardio or lifting weights? It may just seem like a decision you make depending on your mood, but the sequence of exercises can make a difference, and it won’t necessarily be the same for everyone. Here’s what two experts had to say about the benefits of cardio and lifting, and when and how often you should be doing each.
Meet the Expert
What Does Cardio Do for Your Body?
Cardio is short for cardiovascular, which is heart-related, so clearly there’s some benefit in doing it, says trainer Joel Freeman. Cardio exercises help with your heart’s overall performance and efficiency, he says. They also help you increase your lung capacity and burn calories, which assists with weight loss. All of this can help prevent heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
The benefit of cardio is that it helps to improve our body’s ability to use oxygen when we’re performing physical activities, says trainer Ben Lauder-Dykes. “Our heart is a muscle and it will adapt/improve its ability to pump more oxygenated blood around our bodies with each beat, which is why we see a reduction in resting heart rate and blood pressure in those individuals with higher aerobic fitness and VO2 max, with VO2 max being a marker that is closely linked to overall health,” he says. (VO2 max is is the highest rate of oxygen consumption attainable during maximal exercise). Additionally, the more efficient our body is at transporting oxygen around, the better we’ll be at sustaining and recovering from physical activity.
What Does Lifting Weights Do for Your Body?
Lifting, or strength or weight training, helps increase strength and muscle tissue, increase bone density, and improve ligaments and tendons to help joint health and overall movement quality, says Lauder-Dykes. But beyond strength and muscle mass, once you start lifting consistently, you may also see other healthy benefits, including “improvements in blood pressure because your heart is a muscle, improved body composition increasing metabolic rate, and glucose storage and tolerance.”
Lifting is key to a strong muscular foundation, says Freeman. While bones give our body structure, muscles are what allow us to move. Resistance training is also important as we age to help prevent muscles from atrophying or shrinking, which can otherwise lead to an increased risk for falls and injuries. Plus, “muscle requires more daily energy (calories), so the more you lift and the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories you will burn throughout the day versus cardio only…it’s a win no matter what.”
Which Should You Do First, Cardio or Lifting?
If you’re looking for a definitive answer to whether you should do cardio or lifting weights first, unfortunately, there isn’t one. The answer is, it depends.
For example, says Lauder-Dykes, an individual runner may want to do their cardio at the start of a session, as that’s an important part of their sport, and then do lifting after. Whereas a bodybuilder or someone training for strength outcomes may want to prioritize their lifting first and then do cardio after. He advises that you decide which one to do first based on which activity will get you closer to your current goal. And those goals can change over time. “You may choose to modify as your goals evolve. Maybe in the beginning, someone may need more cardio to build their fitness to be able to sustain longer training sessions. And now that they have successfully done that, they might want to prioritize more lifting, as those benefits might be more impactful to improve their overall health, performance, and body composition,” he says.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has some basic guidelines, but again, there’s no one-size-fits-all workout for everyone, so you should make the best choice for you.
- If you want to increase your endurance, do cardio first. In one ACE-commissioned study, participants who did cardio before strength training had a lower heart rate, compared with those who did strength training before cardio, during the same workout. In other words, cardio first can help ensure a workout is being performed at the right intensity and doesn’t feel harder than it was meant to be. Another study in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism showed that when runners did strength training before running sessions, it impaired their running performance relative to those who ran first.
- If you want to lose weight or get stronger, do strength first. As mentioned before, lifting weights helps increase your muscle mass, increasing your overall body strength. Muscle also burns more calories than fat, so “not only does lifting weights build muscle, but it also increases your overall daily caloric burn, which can mean more fat loss,” says Freeman.
- If you want to improve your overall fitness, it doesn’t matter which one you do first. Choose the one you enjoy least and do it first so you can get it over with.
Can You Do Cardio and Lifting on the Same Day?
“If you had the luxury of lots of time available for activity, then it could be helpful to do cardio and lifting on separate days, but it’s definitely possible to be successful doing them in the same session,” says Lauder-Dykes.
Freeman suggests that if you do choose to do both on the same day, you should consider lifting first before cardio, as lifting requires more energy. “In going the lifting route first, you will get more out of your sessions while also helping prevent any fatigue injuries,” he says.
How Often Should You Be Doing Cardio and Lifting Weights?
Because there are benefits to both forms of exercise, an effective workout routine will likely include both. “So many still think that when it comes to losing weight, they need to lose first, then lift or ‘tone.’ Why not do both at the same time?” says Freeman.
An ideal frequency of cardio and lifting will again depend on individual goals and preferences. “Cardio and lifting can complement each other quite well, but you definitely want to make sure to not neglect the weights,” says Freeman. “I always recommend a minimum of 2–4 days/week of weight lifting and 2–3 days of cardio, depending on your own personal goals.”
Similarly, as a general rule, Lauder-Dykes says he recommends people do some form of cardio and some form of lifting twice a week. “If someone can train only twice a week, they would do a combination of both in each session. If someone is training four times per week, they could do two separate sessions for cardio and two separate sessions for lifting, or they could do four sessions with a combination of both. The most important thing is that the work gets done regularly and consistently; there really is no ‘best’ ratio or frequency.” He emphasizes that finding something that works best for you (instead of, for example, what the person next to you at the gym is doing) is going to lead to better adherence, which will ultimately lead to better results.
Shete AN, Bute SS, Deshmukh PR. A study of vo2 max and body fat percentage in female athletes. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014;8(12):BC01-BC03.