Science Says You Should Start Your Workouts With Cardio

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Science Says You Should Start Your Workouts With Cardio

Sometimes, just getting to the gym is the biggest struggle of your workout routine (especially on a Monday…sigh). But, before you start applauding yourself, know this: what you do once you get there, or, more specifically, the order that you do it in, is even more important than simply showing up.

The American Council on Exercise and researchers at Western State Colorado University recently did some research, and they’ve discovered exactly how you need to structure your workout in order to get the most out of it. Here’s what they did: 24 men and women between 18 and 39 years old were asked to perform 24 exercise sessions of every possible workout order combining cardiorespiratory exercise, resistance exercise, neuromotor (agility, speed, and balance) exercise, and flexibility exercise.

So, what order worked best? Cardio first, followed by resistance training and then flexibility and neuromotor exercises in either order. When the participants performed cardiorespiratory exercise first, the average heart rate increased less than when it was performed last. That’s a good thing, says study author Lance Dalleck, Ph.D., because too-vigorous exercise can lead to injury and increased risk of cardiac issues. And, doing resistance training second maximizes its effectiveness without making it feel too hard (score!).

Although, the researchers did note that these results aren’t totally cut and dry. “The order determined by this research stems from purely physiological findings, and it’s essential to know, for example, how sequencing affects cardiorespiratory performance and can account for that effect in the workout design,” says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., ACE’s Chief Science Officer. And, Dr. Dalleck added, not every workout needs to include all four aspects; you should take your own personal preferences into account before shaking up your whole routine. Moral of the story: If you want to maximize your workout, cardio comes first. Otherwise, proceed at will!

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29 responses to “Science Says You Should Start Your Workouts With Cardio”

  1. Avatar Shay says:

    I lift HEAVY so I ALWAYS do my lifting before cardio. I don’t want to sacrifice my muscle gains by doing long cardio sessions, I tend to do HIIT. If I do long steady cardio sessions I do them on a day that is specifically for aerobic exercise.

    • Avatar clg says:

      Well, as they said, their findings are purely on physiological findings like heart rate and they don’t account for other factors/goals. I would not be surprised if these researchers agreed with you (although they’d probably note your heart rate would be lower if you did your cardio first).

  2. Avatar I'm so tired says:

    Reading about fitness is so incredibly tiring. I literally read the exact opposite in another fitness magazine a few months ago so I switched and started doing weights first and then cardio. Like what the heck??

    • Avatar NittyNat says:

      I know!! I literally just read an article stating the exact opposite. That cardio should not be done before strength training. Ughh

    • Avatar ZA says:

      Do whatever you want, really. If your goal is to lose weight, a combination of resistance training and cardio will do the trick, the order doesn’t really matter. It’s all about preference and what your goals are. You can even combine the two in your workout and do some circuit training! (That’ll really start burning some fat!) All of this would be useless though if your diet isn’t in check. Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you WILL lose weight. Feel free to message me if you have any questions about anything. Stay motivated!

      • Avatar Leslie says:

        That’s my hardest thing. The diet. I hate feeling deprived and my portions leave me hungry. And I do not have the time to eat six times a day. I’m lucky to do twice a day.

    • Avatar MBotello says:

      I know what you mean, everyone contradicts eachother. It’s quite frustrating.

  3. Avatar Ron Lee says:

    No science doesn’t say to start with cardio. In fact this study doesn’t meet minimum criteria and would never pass the muster to a peer reviewed journal. So, now in addition to bloggers talking rhetoric we have to contend with poorly designed studies being promoted in the mainstream as being scientific?

    Sampling on this is poor and the overall design would by any self respecting academic standards be embarrassing. Shame on you My Fitness Pal

  4. Avatar adam says:

    I can believe this…….go look up “fasted cardio” for another take on this……Fasted Cardio is what skyrocketed me into my weight loss……paired of course with MFP 🙂 But yes……it does get tiring……for the 3+ years I’ve been working out now, It seems every couple months, some “new study” comes out…….and from what I’ve heard, a lot of it also depends on what your “goal” is……if your goal is to gain muscle, then by all means, do weight training FIRST…….so you have your full potential of energy stores available to get your best lifts possible……..then afterwards, do your cardio as a sort of “cool down” before you head home for the night……The couple times I have tried doing cardio AFTER weights, I just didn’t feel as good about my output during the cardio session… I could have ran faster/longer/etc…..but that’s due to the fact that I lifted FIRST, which didn’t leave much energy left for cardio 😉

    But yea, I do recall reading an article somewhere, something to the affects of:

    For muscle gains: weights first…..
    For fat loss: cardio first……

    And it seems to have helped me……80+ lbs lost….after 2 years (as of September 18th….the day I actually started “counting” calories, workouts, etc……with MFP). The year+ before……I was pretty much the casual guy at the gym…..come in, jump on a couple machines… my thing, then leave…….hehe

  5. Avatar RB says:

    This isn’t science.

  6. Avatar Thom says:

    Brilliant. RPE is nice… if you are in tune enough with your body that you can accurately tell how much exertion you are using. Secondly, not a particularly good resistance routine to begin with. Thirdly – oh, you don’t want to get the HR up too high, so that’s why you think you should start with cardio? OK, do the cardio later, but with less intensity. Lastly – for this post, anyway – this order is best for whom/what, exactly?

  7. Avatar thembe93 says:

    I always do cardio, always leave me with much more strength and greater weight loss results. Less aches too since my muscles are warmed up.

  8. Avatar Ny Phoenix says:

    My cousin is a physical therapist and she said no matter what you do first, end with 20 minutes on the treadmill to reduce the chance of pulled and strained muscles… so I always did my workouts 60 min cardio, 60 mins weights, 20 mins walking on the treadmill

  9. Avatar Gina says:

    Diabetics may benefit from strength training first and aerobic last due to hypoglycemia concerns…

  10. Avatar Johnny Morris says:

    I don’t agree at all with this. I train hard on the weights and always leave the cardio at the end. Anecdotally and from my own experiences if I train cardio first I lose far to much in strength gains while lifting. It doesn’t make sense that you should burn up valuable glycogen stores doing cardio and then hit the weights with the same intensity. I’m beginning to believe the majority of these ‘new’ studies are just designed to put some Grad student through his final year project and have no basis in real situations at all.

  11. Avatar Ben Davolls says:

    Get your heart pumping with cardio then do your weights. If you’ve still got the energy/time do more cardio after 🙂

  12. Avatar Luci Gabel says:

    In my experience, not only with myself but with my clients, a cardio workout first is best. There is no evidence that cardio before strength takes away from the strength workout. Cardio uses different muscles (slow twitch) than strength training (fast twitch). Finally, when you are sufficiently warm, you will be able to lift “more” due to the increased blood flow, fuel and O2 going to your muscles. If you feel you might get too depleted (from fuel) to do a proper strength workout, then do a shorter cardio session on your strength days.

    I do agree with Ron (below) though, this is only one study, and because there are too few subjects it would probably not be accepted in a scientific journal. The media tends to take one study and promote it as if it were the one and only truth, but then they promote a completely opposite study the next week! Science doesn’t work like that. Massive amounts of evidence must be uncovered before a hard decision can be made. Consumers need to get smarter and not be swayed so easily by this. It’s much better to ask an expert (with education, experience, etc) than try to figure it out yourself by reading popular media.

    • Avatar JDub says:

      Slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers in the same muscle use the same glycogen, thus cardio before resistance does take away something that would have been available for the strength workout.
      Don’t have time to provide a source, but I’m certain there is evidence to corroborate this.

      • Avatar JDub says:

        A VERY IMPORTANT FACTOR that this study/article completely ignores is that YOUR GOAL determines how you should workout.

        Trying to improve cardiovascular fitness and/or burn fat? Cardio first, middle, last, after and before.

        Trying to improve muscular strength? Resistance first, skip cardio to aid in recovery unless you are overweight and need to lose fat.

        • Avatar Luci Gabel says:

          You are right that there are slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers together in each muscle. But if you are simply doing a warm up before your weight workout, it’s not going to deplete the muscle. Even 30 minutes of medium level cardio won’t affect it much. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend doing a depletion cardio workout before a hard leg day, and although people have done it successfully, I don’t think that’s what anyone’s talking about here. As for the order you suggest above, 100% disagree. You will not build more muscle because you won’t be able to lift as much without the warm up. Give it a try and see.

  13. I have a friend with high blood pressure on meds for it, we works out 4 times a week cardio and weight training. How can I help him get off the meds, any idea?

  14. Avatar Johnny Morris says:

    more Bro-science….sheesh

  15. Avatar FitBrit says:

    Ugh, first this article comes from SELF and I have a real problem with fitness media geared towards women: they promote limited muscle gains, focus more on cardio and a slim “feminine” physique. Sooo this article is skewed research to fit their agenda. SECOND, in reading all these comments of “resistance first for gains and cardio first for weightloss”. WRONG OMG!!!! It’s not rocket science! Time and tested again and again “WARMUP, then STRENGTH TRAINING, then CARDIO!” Warmup doesn’t need to go past 10 minutes and you can even do warmup weight sets (use 25% less max for 15 reps prior to doing max weight for 10-12 reps or 8-10 or 6-8 depending what your goals are). Lift first to have all glycogen stores will help to PREVENT injury or poor form from being too tired from cardio. Once glycogen stores are depleted from strength training (FYI weightloss and fatloss are easier when your muscle mass is increased something cardio doesn’t help with) then do cardio ONLY if your goals are fatloss/weightloss simply to burn through extra calories and your body will start tapping into its fat supply for energy due to being depleted of readily available sugars. For NO fitness goal you need to start with a full on cardio routine ever. Cardio is only good for two objections: increased cardiovascular health and burning a few additional calories. 1 hour of weights will burn more calories and fat then 1 hour of cardio. Period. So unless you goal is running a marathon stick to cardio. Any other goal weights should always be the focus.

  16. Avatar Mista_Mr says:

    It was always suggested to do some cardio first then hit the weight cause cardio gets your blood flowing. Suppose to help when lifting weights.

  17. Avatar Farkle says:

    I don’t know, man… I’ve been a fitness nut since 1980 and the more I enjoy its benefits and continue to work out smarter, the less desire I have and benefit I see to doing the hamster on a wheel thing at the gym, bombarded by 20 screaming television screens spewing pop culture garbage at me whether I like it or not.

    I use the treadmill 5 minutes to get loose, then it’s on to the lovely barbells, dumbells and kettle balls, which, if done consciously, will get your heart rate up as much as the loathed treadmills.

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