Updated: Jan 17, 2022
When people head into the gym, most of the time they're there to perform one of two exercise types. They're either there to lift weights or they're there to do some cardio.
Each of these exercise types has their own benefits, and many people actually like to do both. However, it's commonly asked which one comes first if you're going to do both in the same workout session. Do you do cardio first? Or lift weights first?
In this post, we'll be looking into that by carefully analyzing each one, and then drawing a conclusion afterwards. We'll also help you with applying this knowledge into your training so that you don't have to do any guesswork. If that sounds good, keep reading!
Doing Cardio Before Weightlifting
Choosing to do cardio before weightlifting is an option that many people do. Many people like to get the heart rate going and really focus on burning as many calories as possible.
It can also help you ensure that you don't ever go into a weightlifting session cold, as you'll likely already be sweating and fully warmed up by the time you get to the weightlifting portion of your workout.
However, we would generally not recommend that you do cardio before weightlifting if you're doing them on the same day. There are several reasons for this.
You Lose Strength and Muscle Gains
The first reason is that you're likely going to lose a lot of energy doing cardio before weightlifting. Unless you're simply doing a warmup on a cardio machine for a couple minutes, you're going to be expending quite a lot of energy regardless of your cardio choice and the intensity that you take it to.
This loss in energy is going to have a huge impact on your ability to lift weights and make good progress from your time in the gym after the cardio workout.
You either won't be able to lift as much weight or you won't be do as much volume and train at the same intensity as you otherwise would've been able to. This is going to affect your ability to build strength and muscle by quite a lot in the long run.
You see, strength is a skill. And as with any skill in life, you have to practice to get better at it. You have to lift heavy often if you want to get comfortable lifting heavy.
However if you're doing cardio beforehand and expending large amounts of energy before you even get started with weightlifting, you're severely limiting your ability to lift heavy weights and consequently build strength.
And since you're not able to lift as heavy, you won't be able to build as much muscle either. The primary mechanism of muscular hypertrophy (growth) is mechanical tension. That's basically the amount of weight that you're lifting and placing onto your muscles.
In order for our muscles to grow in size, we must gain strength over time to continue to apply more and more progressive overload onto our muscles. This has been shown in several studies.
Another primary mechanism of muscle growth is metabolic stress. This is basically putting the muscle under stress for an extended period of time and making it continue to work when energy runs low.
Now if you were to do cardio before weightlifting, you wouldn't be able to lift as heavy and you wouldn't be able to train as intensely either. We're limiting our muscle growth in two primary mechanisms.
You Risk Injury
Since you lose quite a bit of energy doing cardio before weightlifting, you're going to risk more form breakdown during your weightlifting and increase your chances of injury as a result.
Especially under heavy loads, form can very easily break down and slip by accident. For example, if you were to do a heavy deadlift in a fatigued state, you could very easily do a bad rep and cause an injury in your spine that could take you out for weeks or even months.
It's much safer to do your cardio after weightlifting instead, as form breakdown on a bike machine, rowing machine or treadmill is going to be far less risky in terms of injury than it is when you're placed under a heavy bar.
You'll Experience More Fatigue
Nobody likes to go through a weightlifting workout feeling extremely fatigued from the very beginning. We already know it limits our gains, but can also reduce our motivation and reduce our focus.
If you go into your weightlifting session feeling tired and out of breath, the chances of you still pushing hard to make gains immediately decrease. For most people, it's too much to recover from and their gains and satisfaction from the weightlifting portion of the workout are going to suffer immensely.
For these reasons we just outlined, it's generally not recommended that you do cardio before weightlifting if you choose to do them on the same session.
But Athletes May Want to do Cardio First
However, there are some people that will still benefit from this.
These would mainly be people that have to do their cardio in order to train for a specific sport or event such as running a marathon or a rowing a 2km race.
Often times the performance of these athletes is going to be recorded and it's important that they're feeling their best when they go into it. In this case, weightlifting can wait.
For the people whose cardio performance matters more than the gains that they get out of weightlifting, it makes sense to do cardio first.
Doing Weightlifting Before Cardio
We would recommend this over the previous to most people. Doing weightlifting first is going to allow you to build the most strength and muscle.
Plus, the effects of cardio and the gains you get from it aren't impacted as much when you're fatigued. For example, if you were to run on a very hot day as opposed to a day with a grey sky and no sun, your running speed and time would be comparatively slower.
This is because your heart has to beat faster and pump harder to keep your body cool. All of this extra energy and blood flow is drawn away from the muscles and your performance is going to drop no matter how hard you try to prevent it from doing so. (Assuming you're working at maximal efforts on both days).
Basically, your cardiovascular system would have to work harder to achieve the same effect. However, just because your performance drops this does not mean that you're not getting the same results in terms of cardiovascular fitness gains. Your heart does not know that your performance has dropped.
All it knows is that it worked hard, and that it is going to get better at doing that the next time you train. In terms of cardio gains, you're achieving the same result.
So you can push yourself as hard as you want in weightlifting and you'll still get the same benefits of your cardio workout.
However you don't have the same privilege if you do your cardio before lifting weights. You don't compromise anything extra, you just avoid compromising your strength and muscle gains.
And if you're wondering whether you should do cardio or lift weights first if your primary goal is fat loss, you should still look to do cardio after hitting the weights.
Because weightlifting is going to allow you to build more muscle, which helps to increase your metabolic rate and naturally burn more calories without you doing anything extra.
Simply put, a pound of muscle burns more calories each day than a pound of fat does. This is going to increase the rate at which your body naturally burns calories and you're going to find it easier in the future to keep that extra weight off of your body if you build more muscle.
So you can maximize your gains in both portions of your workout if you do weightlifting first. This is going to be the most optimal choice for the majority of people out there.
Like we said earlier, unless you've got a very specific reason to be doing your cardio first, it's just not worth the extra performance. You'll still get your cardiovascular fitness gains.
So What Can You Do?
If it's not clear enough by now, most of you reading this will benefit more from doing your weightlifting first.
However, a potentially even better choice you can make is to actually split up your cardio and weightlifting into different workouts/days.
If you split them up, you're going to be able to maximize your performance and gains from both exercise types without compromising anything. Except maybe a little extra free time.
If you find that you can't do this or don't want to train that many days during the week, you can try to split it up into two different workouts throughout the day. Maybe you'll do your weightlifting workout in the morning and your cardio workout in the afternoon/evening.
This is still a great way to ensure that you can perform close to your best for both weightlifting and cardio and get the best of both worlds.
If you do this, you'll find that you can enjoy each workout as much as possible and you won't experience nearly as much fatigue as you otherwise would.
This is what many sports team coaches will get their athletes to do. Morning sessions and afternoon sessions, with either school or work in between. It's what we recommend that you do as well if you can.
You definitely can do cardio and weightlifting in the same workout session. However if you do choose to do this, make sure that you're weighing everything and not simply making random decisions.
You need to think about your goals, your availability and recovery capabilities. Picking the wrong one could lead to killing your gains and possibly even wasted efforts in the gym.
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