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Should You Include Cardio In a Strength Training Program?

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Strength training is a great type of exercise that most people in this world would benefit from.

It helps to strengthen your muscles, strengthen your bones and help you become a stronger human being overall.

Additionally, it's also an extremely good way to relieve stress and tension built up from life, as well as well as reap some great health benefits that come with regularly exercising.

But what about cardio?

Does it have a place in your strength training program?

Or should it stay in the weight loss program that you've kept stored away for the

post-holiday season?

In this post I'll be going over the benefits of cardio, looking at the impact that it has on a strength training program and helping you decide whether or not you're going to want to incorporate it into your strength program.

Female athlete tired during workout and lying on the ground


First of All: What's the Difference Between Strength Training and Cardio?

In case you don't know the difference between strength training and cardio, we'll give you a brief rundown here, and then you can go and read our article that fully breaks it down in the link below.

Basically, cardio (also known as aerobic exercise) is a kind of exercise that's mainly intended to elevate your heart rate and get your heart into a 'working zone'.

Cardio is meant to primarily train and improve your cardiovascular system, which consists of the heart, the arteries, veins and capillaries.

It's meant to make you what people call 'fit'.

Examples include running, cycling, swimming, rowing and hiking.

Strength training on the other hand, is meant to help you get stronger and build more muscle mass, achieved through bearing some kind of weight through a range of motion.

Examples of strength training will include lifting weights at a gym, bodyweight training, resistance bands, and even some cardio exercises such as rowing and swimming which will have a little bit of rollover into strength training.

Learn about it all here in our blog post: Cardio vs. Strength Training.

Positive Impacts of Cardio on a Strength Training Program

There are several positive impacts that doing a little bit of cardio would have on your strength training program.

We'll go into what they are and why they're useful down below.

Helps You Recover Quicker

For starters, cardio is a great tool that you can use to help your body recover quicker from your intense strength training.

Active recovery works by flushing out some of the blood lactate that our bodies build up during intense exercise.

Fit man cycling on mountainous road and getting fit in the sun

The build up is going to lead to muscle tightness and soreness.

By continuing to do activity, but at a much less strenuous scale you're going to help your body flush some of the build up out and help you feel better after your workout.

For example, say you were deadlifting and squatting heavy the previous couple of days. You'd likely find that your legs were pretty sore afterwards.

If you were then to go on an active recovery session by doing something like a slow 30-45 minute bike ride, this would do wonders for your sore muscles and help speed up the recovery process by quite a lot.

Active recovery can also be done right after you complete an intense strength training workout, and it will have the same effect.

Even just 5-10 minutes of easy cardio can go a long way to ensuring that you're able to continue training and continue making gains in subsequent sessions.

Nobody likes to head into the gym still feeling sore and tired from the previous workout.

And please note that any active recovery work you do should be done at very low intensities, utilizing low impact exercises such as swimming, walking, cycling or yoga.

This is going to ensure that you don't place any further stress on the body and aren't actually doing another workout when you're mean to be recovering.

Improves Your Endurance

Doing longer, steady state cardio is a great way you can improve your muscular endurance and increase the amount of time that you're able to work for.

Steady state cardio helps you to build up your muscular endurance, which means you won't tire out as quickly during your sets and will be able to push harder for those extra couple of reps.

This can help you build more muscle by allowing you to accumulate more total workout volume and also train more intensely.

You'll be able to apply more metabolic stress (a primary driver of muscle growth) onto your body and be able to build more muscle quicker as a result of this.

Improves Efficiency of Oxygen Utilization

Doing cardio and forcing your body to require more oxygen is a great way to improve your body's utilization of the oxygen you breathe in.

By improving this, your body is going to be able to function better and be able to train better.

You'll likely find that you're able to push harder in your workouts with better oxygen utilization, and that you don't feel as fatigued all the time in the gym during and between your sets.

It's always beneficial to have a more efficiently functioning body, and especially during strength training when the intensity of your workouts matters so much.

Improves Cardiac and Respiratory Functions

This ties in with the previous benefit, but doing cardio is going to cause your body to become better at breathing in oxygen and pumping blood around the body.

Your body is going to get better at functioning and working hard, which is definitely a benefit to have when we're lifting heavy and training intensely.

You know that heart rates can shoot up when we train close to max efforts.

Fitter hearts are going to be able to pump more blood with each beat, which means we're able to get more blood at maximal efforts than someone with less cardiovascular fitness would be able to.

Help Prevent Injury

Man suffering knee injury after doing too much weightlifting and not taking his recovery seriously

Doing the same exercise day in and day out all the time can lead to injury through overuse and too much strain.

Instead of lifting weights 6 days a week, incorporating 1-2 cardio sessions each week could go a long way in helping you prevent injury and staying safe.

Switching up to a lower-impact exercise such as cycling or swimming is still going to help you build muscle mass and some strength, but won't be as strenuous on the bones, joints and muscles.

Sleep Better

Cardio does tend to be slightly more tiring (generally) than strength training is.

An intense cardio session is most likely going to burn more energy than an intense strength training would.

This is going to cause your body to run on less energy throughout the day and require more and better sleep to recuperate as a result.

This is always a benefit to have if you're trying to build strength and muscle in the gym or any other training grounds.

As you can see, there are several advantages to including cardio in your strength training program that most athletes would benefit hugely from.

But, there are still some negative impacts that you have to think about and take into consideration.

We'll get into those now.

Negative Impacts of Cardio on a Strength Training Program

As we did previously, we'll list each one out and then give you a quick breakdown of why it has a bad impact on your strength training.

Cardio Can Impair Your Performance

If you choose to do your cardio workout right before your strength training and you do it intensely, you're going to severely limit your ability to perform in the strength training portion of your session.

Doing intense cardio burns up a lot of energy and it's almost never a good idea to do it before strength training unless you have a very specific reason to be doing so.

Being tired and experiencing all that extra fatigue is going to cause you to lift much less than you otherwise would've been able to, and hinder your ability to build strength/muscle.

Man exhausted during workout and lying on a bar to support himself as he rests

This could also lead to form breakdown and injuries if you're not careful enough.

You need to make sure that whatever you do, your cardio is not going to have too much of a serious impact on your performance in the strength session.

Doing Cardio Means Less Time Spent on Strength Training

If you're a competitive athlete or are REALLY focused on building strength and muscle exclusively, trying to incorporate actually cardio workouts is going to take away from your ability to do strength training.

You could include some active recovery on your rest days, but that's about it.

Trying to include an intense and proper cardio session is going to mean that you have to give up some time that could've otherwise been spent on strength training and further developing on it.

If you're more of an advanced strength trainee that needs lots of volume, trying to incorporate hard cardio sessions into your program is likely going to be pretty tough.

Trying to Incorporate Cardio Could Throw Your Diet Off

If you were to try and incorporate hard cardio sessions into your week, you would be burning up a lot of additional calories that are needed for your body to perform during and recover from your strength training.

This would either cause you to fall out of your calorie surplus and build strength/muscle at a suboptimal rate, or cause your body to become starved of energy and have to look for other sources of it. This will lead to fat loss, and also potentially some loss of muscle mass.

Either way, you're going to end up making less progress towards your strength training goals if your diet is thrown off.

Learn more:

Remember, eating the wrong number of calories is going to severely hinder your progress and possibly even halt it completely.

Clearly there are some negative impacts that cardio can have on your strength training program if you're not smart about how you program it in.

It's important that you understand everything and take it all into consideration when you come to make the decision as to whether or not you'll include cardio in your program.

Deciding Whether or Not You Should Include Cardio

Making this decision can be tough. And not to add any more stress, but this decision is going to have a big influence on the rate that you make progress towards your goals.

Please note that we're not talking about including active recovery here.

Almost all athletes of all kinds would benefit from doing active recovery right after their workouts or on their rest days.

We're talking about deciding whether or not you're going to include hard cardio sessions such as HIIT or long-distance and steady state cardio such as rowing, running, etc.

So how do you make this decision?

Consider Your Goals

It's important that you take a look at your goals and you create a plan as to how you're going to approach these goals.

You can then decide whether or not you want to include cardio in your program based off of that.

For example, if your primary goal with strength training is to build muscle, but you also want to live a healthier lifestyle and improve your overall health, then you might want to include a little bit of cardio for the health benefits that strength training alone isn't as good at offering.

Generally, if any of the following apply to you, then you'd likely benefit from doing cardio in conjunction with your strength training program.

  • You care about being healthy (looking healthy and being healthy are very different)

  • You enjoy doing cardio

  • You want to lose some weight at the same time (cardio can be used to help you go into a calorie deficit)

  • You're not sleeping well at night

  • You have some lingering pain/discomfort from strength training all the time and could try something new

  • You're training for athletic and competitive purposes

Take a Look At Your Diet

You also need to look at your diet and see the impact that cardio is going to have on your progress towards your goals.

For example if you're currently eating in a small calorie surplus of around 200 calories a day, including a hard cardio session would cause your daily calorie balance to fall into a deficit, and you wouldn't be able to make as many strength/muscle gains.

Man tracking calories from a burger to make sure that he is in a calorie deficit for his fitness goals

Or if you're currently trying to maintain your bodyweight and are eating at your maintenance calories, then including cardio would cause you to burn some additional calories and cause you to lose weight, which goes against your goals.

Of course, eating a little bit more could help to combat this.

But it's not always that easy for some people.

Some people find it hard to eat more and more, and it's not very practical for people that live very busy lives.

Personal Preference

If you simply enjoy doing cardio or don't enjoy doing it, then that should be a factor you take into consideration when you're deciding whether you'll include it in your strength training program.

Ultimately, the program that you enjoy running and can stay consistent with is going to be the most suitable program for you.

It's going to be the one that allows you to make the best gains and most consistent progress possible.

Really, the only reasons that people would include cardio in a strength training program would be due to weight loss goals, health benefits or specific athletic purposes. Or they like it. Otherwise, there's no other real reason for anyone else to be including cardio in their strength training program.

Final Thoughts

The question as to whether cardio belongs in your strength training program is one that requires lots of thinking and careful consideration.

You have to weigh everything and understand the benefits of either choice, and then look at your goals and your circumstances to make the most informed decision possible.

Everybody lives different lives, and what works for me might not work for you. It's up to you to make the best decision for yourself.

I hope you've found this post helpful and have been able to learn something from it.

If you did, remember to share it with your friends to we can reach more people and help more reach their own goals in fitness!

If you would like some help with getting fit, and you're tired of putting in time, money and effort but seeing no real results, check out our personalized programs feature and upgrade your account to Gympulsive Pro for full access to the site!


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