Cardio or Weights First? How to Best Structure Your Workout Routine

Jennifer Purdie
by Jennifer Purdie
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Cardio or Weights First? How to Best Structure Your Workout Routine

We all want to spend quality time at the gym, not quantity time. To use your gym visit wisely, it may pay off to work out in a certain order to maximize your efforts and attain optimal results.

A Western Colorado University research study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise focused on work out sequencing for optimum outcomes with a number of exercise variables, and researchers found definitive conclusions.

THE STUDY

Using a sample of 24 healthy, physically active men and women ranging in age from 18–39, researchers asked every participant to perform 24 supervised workouts and had them rest for at least 48 hours between sessions. The workout included 30 minutes of cardio on a treadmill, eight resistance exercises, eight flexibility exercises and three neuromotor exercises (shuttle run, hexagonal agility test and single-leg squat).

Researchers conducted 24 total sessions to allow for every possible workout sequence combination, which included:

  • Cardiorespiratory, resistance, neuromotor, flexibility
  • Resistance, neuromotor, flexibility, cardiorespiratory
  • Neuromotor, flexibility, cardiorespiratory, resistance, etc …

Researchers discovered the following: You will have fitness gains by starting your workout with cardio and then moving to resistance. You can then follow that with flexibility and neuromotor exercises, but you can do these last two in either order. They found not only does this sequence offer physical improvements but psychological benefits as well.

However, the researchers of this study agree their findings don’t work for those with very specific workout goals and are a generalization of how you should structure a basic workout. If you have specific goals beyond general improvement, you can personalize your own workout.

PERSONALIZATION TIPS

Here are exercise sequencing recommendations for those with more specific goals:

1

MARATHON TRAINING

Despina Pavlou, certified personal trainer and founder of PCOS, recommends doing your intense cardio in the opposite order: Start with weights and then move to endurance training.

“If [cardio] is done before, you will feel more tired and fatigued,” she says. “You will not have enough energy to lift heavy weights, and you may, as a result, lift with poor form and technique, in turn, increasing the risk of injury.”

For strength training, Alina Kennedy, physiotherapist and strength and conditioning specialist, says runners should strength train 2–3 times per week and stretch/foam roll at least once a week after the longest run.

A workout sequence for marathon trainees running five times a week during peak training could follow:

2

COMPACT MUSCLE BUILDING

Lisa Swanson, ACE certified health coach and certified personal trainer stresses weights before cardio to ensure maximum strength.

“It’s important that you have enough glycogen in your muscles during strength training,” she says. “If you do your cardio workout first, you will burn up those stores leaving you with little to work with when you go to hit the weights.”

Ben Tzeel, strength and conditioning specialist, says he cannot stress the significance of a quality dynamic warmup and mobility routine enough. “Not only does it get the blood flowing, but it’s activating the muscles necessary to perform the movements in the subsequent workout properly while reducing the incidence of injury.”

3

BUILDING FLEXIBILITY

For people wanting to develop pliability, Alice Holland, DPT, director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy, prefers cardio before lifting weights as a warmup. Then, in between lifting, she recommends gentle stretching to make your body limber.

“This way, the muscles don’t shorten too heavily during exercise.” She also incorporates balance training during strength building. A workout sequence Holland recommends looks like the following:

About the Author

Jennifer Purdie
Jennifer Purdie
Jennifer is a Southern California-based freelance writer who covers topics such as health, fitness, lifestyle and travel for both national and regional publications. She runs marathons across the world and is an Ironman finisher. She is also a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter @jenpurdie.

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7 responses to “Cardio or Weights First? How to Best Structure Your Workout Routine”

  1. Avatar Karly Bryant says:

    A study with only 24 people and all from a single area is inherently problematic—the sample size is far too small and not diverse enough to be considered valid.

    • Avatar kela gasparovic says:

      I agree

    • Avatar Justice League says:

      at the end of the day, do what works for you. it’s an individual thing. i’m just an avg workout guy, not a pro. i prefer cardio first because it lubes me up and lifts my spirits before the weight machines.

  2. Avatar Robert Wilson says:

    Thank you so much. I want to start but no clue how to, and this article gave me the perfect baseline.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge..!!!

  3. Avatar usa anon says:

    I am sure it makes no difference except for the elite athlete who already has a professional trainer anyway — no one ever got out of breath resistance training, do cardio first

  4. Avatar Larry says:

    this is for people that are in shape it would seem how would you go about this if one was out of shape and over weight

  5. Avatar Lee Carter says:

    I defer to any actual academic science behind cardio first, but two points that make me question this in real life. One, if you are doing real cardio you should be a sweaty pool of goo once you are done, do you really want to be a sweat cow on the weights? Also under the same pool of goo heading, if I am doing hard cardio I leave the workout finished – done – over. If I have enough in the tank to still do good weigths, for me, I would feel as though I didn’t do a good cardio. I am not trying to look like a body builder and do toning weights then a very hard cardio to push the cardiovascular system to the appropriate limits for my body. Then I go to starbucks like all elite athletes.

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