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Cardio or Weights First?

You may think you know the answer to this question but the truth is more complicated…and subjective.

Step number one in reaching any fitness goal is pretty straightforward: start moving. But the subsequent questions of how and when to exercise aren’t always as clear-cut. Compounding such questions is the lack of your most valuable and limited commodity: time. With time in short supply, many look to be as efficient as possible with exercise. Enter in concurrent training and one of the most hotly contested debates in fitness. Which comes first, cardiovascular exercise or strength training?

The experts from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tell us how much to exercise but not necessarily which exercises to do or when. Current guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to intense physical activity. It’s also suggested that an optimal exercise program should incorporate a mixture of both strength and cardiovascular modalities. But these federal guidelines are vague and furthermore they are health related. There is nothing stated related to performance guidelines except that “people who are interested in training programs to increase performance-related fitness should seek advice from other sources.” If you insist.

Beyond the general ACSM guidelines, there is data that supports both the cardio-first and weight-first options. But regardless of what the science says, in many cases, the preference for the majority of exercise participants is to do their cardio first. My analysis comes from teaching well over 2000 HIIT-style classes which are comprised of half cardiovascular intervals and half resistance intervals. These classes allow for people to choose the modality they wish to start with based on a first come, first serve basis. Given the choice, participants routinely and consistently favor starting with cardio. The cardio-first mantra seems to be based in the feeling that somehow cardio should be your top priority or that cardio is more difficult following weights.

Also oft mentioned is the opinion that cardio serves as an effective warm-up for strength training. Of course, you could also say that doing weights effectively warms you up for your cardio.

While the majority of exercise participants may favor cardio first, a seemingly smaller segment the population prefers weights first and likely a desire for muscle hypertrophy opposed to calorie consumption, the theory being that cardiovascular exercise inhibits performance by creating a catabolic state in the body. The problem is, research on the subject is varied and inconclusive. Some studies even suggest that not only is cardiovascular exercise and/or concurrent training not an inhibitor (to muscular/strength gain), it may actually benefit muscle hypertrophy.

Preference and opinion may vary on the matter, but what’s important isn’t opinion — it’s the science. Ultimately, the science suggests that when it comes to performance, where you start does indeed matter. According to fitness author Alex Hutchison, once we start with one modality, we flip a “switch” that maximizes gains for either better strength or better endurance. Hutchison says we are all equipped with this “master switch,” an enzyme called AMP kinase, which controls adaptations for improved strength/endurance.

For example, endurance athletes clearly want to maximize endurance efficiency and therefore in training will ‘flip the switch” of starting with cardio first.

However, as it relates to health benefits, there may be valid reasons to consider both options or even weights first. A Japanese study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that arteries opened up and blood flow increased when aerobic exercise was carried out after weight training.

The bottom line is that for most of us (who aren’t competitive athletes), the ultimate answer to the question of cardio first or weights first is ‘yes’…and ‘no.’ Here are the main takeaways.

1. Where it comes to optimal health, there is no comprehensive and conclusive evidence that concurrent training is either counterproductive or that one modality is necessarily preferential to the other in terms of order.

2. If you’re a competitive endurance athlete, you should likely start cardio first if you’re in training and vice versa if you’re a strength athlete. Those of you who aren’t professional/competitive athletes can maximize performance gains in both arenas by switching up where you start your routine.

3. For best results, base your routine on breaking your routine — not merely your preference or opinion. Ultimately, human performance is predicated on evolution through resistance and change. A coach once said to me “you can either do what you feel like doing or you can get results.” Interpretation: the only way to grow is to change it up and break the cycle.

4. Nutrition matters. The major knock on concurrent training is that the body sooner enters into a catabolic state. However, the right pre-workout nutrition has a lot to do with the timing of catabolism. Try a healthy mixture of complex carbs and quality protein pre workout roughly 90 minutes before exercising.