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Cardio or Strength Training

CARDIO OR STRENGTH TRAINING: WHICH SHOULD COME FIRST?

By Kevin Boyle, Director of Explosive Performance Athlete Training

This is an extremely common question asked by everyone from first-time exercisers to high-level athletes.  As a fitness professional in the exercise sciences, my answer to this questions naturally comes with several qualifications and exceptions and is tempered by the exercise goals you have set - weight loss, muscle, strength, sporting prowess, appearance and so on. 

To determine the best answer for you, let's examine the questions below: 

Will I have enough energy?

As long as you've replaced your carbohydrate glucose stores after any previous exercise session with proper eating, the body will have stored up to 500 grams - a pound of glycogen. 

A jogging or running treadmill session of 40 minutes may use about 600 calories of energy, depending on your size and pace. Of this, some fuel will be fat, some will be stored glucose and some blood glucose. A reasonable estimate is that you would use around 80 to 100 grams (3 or 4 ounces) of stored glucose out of, say, 400 grams that you have available. You can see that you have plenty left in reserve for strength training.  So unless you are putting in distance runner–like cardio sessions prior to strength training, you will have more than enough stored energy for a great weight training session.

Which burns more calories?

If you perform cardio before your strength training, you will often do this part of your program more aggressively, at a higher intensity and with a higher aerobic fitness outcome.  Some studies have shown that EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) - a measure of the afterburn or energy output after you stop exercising - was greatest when cardio was done before strength training. Running after a strength session is physiologically more difficult than doing it before lifting weights - which has implications for efficiency and possibly safety. In the end, caloric burn depends so much on the quality or intensity of the session, so it is difficult to give a hard and fast answer. 

Will cardio make me less muscular?

Some people - weight trainers in particular - are reluctant to perform cardio because of its' potential to break down muscle stores. Cardio performed at length produces catabolic hormones like cortisol that could interfere with the anabolic muscle building process.  However, you can protect muscle from this process by ensuring adequate nutrition before, during and after a cardio session and by keeping aerobic training to less than one hour if you have a goal of building muscle. 

Ultimately, it’s all about performance.  If we level the playing field by assuming that pre-, during-, and post-workout nutrition is optimal, and that cardio will be under an hour for the given training session, then you know you will have enough energy to complete both cardio and strength and will have the nutrition necessary to recover and build muscle if it is so desired.

Next, we just need to take a closer look at what your goals actually are. Often, our members have goals to improve their weaknesses, but continue training behaviors that emphasize their strengths. A triathlete may want stronger legs for cycling power, but insist on cardio first because they experience greater perceived exertion during cardio after a weight training session.  This is more of a psychological issue -  “I feel slower” - but the reality is that strength should be the emphasis in this part of their periodized training program.  Bodybuilders and powerlifters feel the same increase in perceived exertion when trying to lift weights that seemed “easier” on a day when they did weights first.  If they are confident in one area, whether that be strength or cardio, they often take pride in it and are reluctant to enter a training program that negatively impacts this confidence.  But let's face it - the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." That applies here - continuing to focus your training on your strengths when your goal is to improve your functional weaknesses.

So… strength first or cardio?

The best answer is both - but on different days, depending on your training goals and the type of cardio you're performing. For optimum performance, you should strive for a multi-faceted training program that emphasizes cardio followed by strength on some days, power followed by cardio on others, and active recovery days to include low level cardio, stretching, and muscle release (massage) with no strength training. You also need to factor in the type of cardio you're doing and the energy system being used (high intensity intervals vs. low-level aerobic base building vs. a workout using multiple training zones). Want to discuss in greater detail? Click here to get a one-on-one consultation with a personal trainer! 

Sample program for optimal results:

The sample program provides something for everyone. The variety allows for optimum resulted and diminishes chances of a fitness platea. The bottom line is that in any given week, we should all strive to fit in strength training for maintenance of muscle mass; activities for daily living, work capacity, and prehab (injury prevention); and cardio for improved heart health.
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About the Author

Kevin Boyle is Director of Explosive Performance, which specializes in improving the ability to react quicker with bursts of explosive speed and power, which is an asset for any sport. Learn more at sportandhealth.com/ep
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