For many years, I routinely completed 30-60 mins of cardio before delving into the strength-training portion of my workout for about an equivalent amount of time, regardless of if I was trying to maintain my weight & physique, lose fat, build muscle or train for competitive reasons (dance). I got decent results from this method and never bothered to question whether this sequence was actually optimal or not, in other words, I was never sure whether I was making the best use of my time and effort working out.
There are many competing ideas and “facts” about whether one should complete the cardio portion of their workout before or after the strength-training component of their workout. Although the real answer depends on various factors (such as level of fitness, fitness goal), research seems to indicate that most people are better off completing cardio after weights whether their goal is to gain muscle, gain strength, or lose fat. I’ll explain why.
What I recently learnt, while researching best practises in fitness, is that in order to achieve “shreddedness” [According to Urban Dictionary, to be “shredded” means “to have well defined muscles, especially in the arms and abs”], your body needs to use your stored fat as fuel for exercise. In order to do this, you must burn off your glycogen stores first, which is achieved when you exercise. If glycogen levels are low, it affects our energy levels. If you have ever experimented with a low carb diet and experienced less energy, then you know what it feels like to have low glycogen levels. Similarly, when you do cardio before strength training – you use up your body’s preferred energy source for intense exercise, making it unavailable when you need to lift heavy weights, thereby compromising your ability to build muscle, increase strength, and/or maximize calorie burn through weight lifting. Thus, sweating it out after you crush iron will burn more fat and leave you with more energy for strength-training, which is critical for all fitness-related goals. Try it for yourself! Spend one day lifting before your cardio and another on the treadmill or elliptical trainer before you hit the weights. You’ll be able to tell which method works best for you!
After working out, your body continues to burn additional calories for up to 48 hours, which is known as Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). EPOC occurs because your body needs energy to repair your muscles after you’ve challenged them. It occurs at a much higher rate after intense weight-training than it does after low-intensity, steady-rate cardiovascular training (such as running 2.5 mph on the treadmill), which is why it is critical to put as much energy as you can into your strength training. Further, if you do steady-rate cardio before you strength train, you won’t have as much energy to spare. A less productive strength training session can impact EPOC which = Fewer calories burnt! A University of Tokyo Study found that doing cardio after weight training burned more fat during the first 15 minutes of the cardio session than doing cardio before lifting.
In addition, completing cardio can make your blood more acidic. As you exercise, energy gets broken down and is utilized to make lactic acid. Although lactic acid helps to replenish your fuel sources for continued exercise, it does so by creating excessive hydrogen ions, which need to be processed. This process lowers your pH (which makes your blood plasma more acidic) and this acidic environment causes muscle fatigue, which causes performance to drop. So, besides using the energy you need for strength training, doing cardio first also makes it harder for you to contract your muscles. Further, when you do cardio with strength training and especially before strength training, the mTOR pathway – the pathway that tells your muscles to grow. becomes inhibited, making it more difficult to experience results from training.
Finally, if you try strength train after an intense cardio session, you may be mentally and physically tired, which increases your chance of injury. In addition to requiring mental strength to weight train after cardio, you also need the help of assistance and stabilizer muscles for movement, which are likely to become fatigued from cardio beforehand. Also, by tiring these stabilizer and assistance muscles through cardio before performing heavy strength training, you risk the chance of completing an exercise incorrectly or with improper form, which compromises results.
Why Not Combine Cardio and Weights?
If you are strapped for time or seeking variety and a greater challenge in your fitness routine, you can combine strength and cardio (for example, by completing 2-3 strength training exercises – such as lunges and squats – and alternating with a stairclimber at maximum effort for 30-60 seconds. By combining strength training and cardio, you achieve required muscle damage, maintain your heart rate high as well as cause spikes in your heart rate thereby creating a greater oxygen deficit and using more energy stores.
I was recently introduced to HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), and although I left the first session totally deadbeat and literally unable to move, not to mention I was out of breath for the entire 35 minutes and felt I was going to puke, I felt amazing afterward and especially the next day when I actually followed-through with my AM and PM workouts feeling so much stronger and more capable.
A HIIT session usually consists of a warm-up, followed by 5-10 repetitions of high intensity exercise (completed at near maximum intensity), separated by medium intensity exercise (approx.. 50% intensity) for recovery and ending with a period of cool down exercise. The number of reps depends on the exercise. There is no specific formula to HIIT yet a commonly used formula involves a 2:1 ratio of work to recovery periods (i.e. 60 seconds hard sprinting alternated with 20 seconds of jogging/speed walking). HIIT sessions usually last 20-40 minutes (shorter than steady exertion cardio) and are a great way to maximize workouts that are short on time.
That said, HIIT is not for everyone and in fact I would only suggest it for those who have been working out for a while and have somewhat strong cardiovascular and respiratory health, since these workouts really peak breathing, heartbeat and oxygen requirements. I was told that the feeling of puking is actually quite common for many first timers. However, everyone can benefit from raising the intensity of their cardio workouts every few minutes, since this shocks the body, requires more effort and burns more calories not only while you are performing increased intensity activities, but afterward as well!
Although there are many benefits associated with strength-training before cardio, at the end of the day, the best fitness plan is one which motivates you, which you have fun with, you stick to and continues to contribute to your progress and help you produce your desired results. Fun Fitness to all!!!