Some people just lift weights and some just do cardio, but some people like to do both weights and cardio. The question is, if performed on the same day, which should be performed first?
Consider that this subject is usually confined to those who want to achieve the highest levels of physical fitness. For example, many of the “boot camp” style competitions that are now popular require both high levels of cardio and strength. Then there are those who may be doing cardio to lose fat, but also want to maintain or increase their strength or muscle mass as they do it.
Of course, many of the options about training depend upon your schedule. Some would like to do one type of training in the morning and another type of training in the evening, but that means getting to the gym twice. Those with few outside commitments can make this work, but the risk is that you can easily experience mental burnt out with such frequent training and not want to go to the gym at all! That said, let’s see what the research says.
In one study published in the September 2017 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine, 51 male subjects were divided into four groups. Two groups trained in the morning (between 6:30 am and 10 am); one did cardio first and another did strength training first. The other two groups trained in the evening (between 4:30 pm and 8 pm); one did cardio first and another did strength training first. So not only did this study look at which was better, doing cardio or strength training first but also what time of day was best to develop a specific quality of physical fitness.
The resistance training program used relatively simple exercises, such as the leg press, and the loading parameters were changed every four weeks. For example, the exercises were prescribed as follows:
Weeks 1-4: 2-3 sets x 10-20 reps, 40-70% intensity (of 1-rep max), no rest
Weeks 5-8: 3-4 x 10-15, 70-85%, 90-120 seconds rest
Weeks 9-12: 3-5 x 3-8, 75-95%, 120-180 seconds rest
Weeks 13-16: Repeat Weeks 1-4
Weeks 17-20: Repeat Weeks 5-8
Weeks 21-24: Repeat Weeks 9-12
For the cardio group, interval training workouts (85-100% of max heart rate) were alternated with steady-state aerobic training (65-80% of max heart rate). For both the resistance training and cardio groups, the training volume was increased by approximately 25 percent during the second 3-month period.
Regardless of the time the individuals trained, the researchers found that lifting weights first produced superior results in strength and muscle mass. Likewise, they found that performing cardio first produced superior results in aerobic fitness. It should also be noted that for developing aerobic fitness, strength, and muscle mass, the researchers found that training in the evening was superior. These findings led the researchers to conclude, “… individuals who wish to perform strength and endurance in close proximity to each other over prolonged training periods are advised to choose the training order based on individual goals.”
Touching on the subject of splitting up cardio and strength training on separate days, this program design question was examined in a study published in April 2017 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. The study involved 48 men and lasted 24 weeks. The researchers found that splitting up the training sessions caused a decrease in inflammation markers related to reductions in abdominal fat. So if losing belly fat is your Number 1 priority, consider alternating your cardio and strength training workouts.
The bottom line is that you should prioritize your training goals, and then design your workouts accordingly. Yes, the more frequently you can train the better, but sometimes life gets in the way and you have to do what your schedule permits. In other words, “There’s optimal training, and then there’s reality.”