Who doesn’t want to maximize the benefits they get from strength training? When you’re busy, you want to make every minute count and get the most benefits you can with your training time. If you’re pressed for time, you may, by necessity, have to do cardio and strength training on the same day. When you do, which should you do first if you want to maximize strength gains?
The order of strength training and cardio is a topic of some interest – and controversy. Some experts argue you should strength train before cardio since you’re fatigued after cardio and that can limit strength training performance. Other people like to do cardio first to “get it out of the way” so they can focus on weights. What’s the best option?
Exercise Order and How It Impacts the Hormonal Response to Strength Training
A small study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at how exercise order impacted hormones released in response to strength training. Ten, healthy young men trained using two approaches on separate days: cardio first, followed by strength training or strength training followed by cardio. Cardio consisted of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on an exercise bike at 75% of maximal heart rate. Strength training was 3 sets of 8 reps at 75% of 1-rep max. The strength-training protocol emphasized compound, multi-joint movements with 90 seconds of rest between sets.
To determine the hormonal response, researchers measured testosterone and cortisol in the blood of the participants before and after each exercise session. The results? Testosterone level increased almost 42% with the cardio-strength workout order compared to only 3% with the strength-cardio order. Based on this small study, doing strength training after cardio stimulates a greater release of testosterone, an anabolic hormone, relative to cardio after strength training.
One thing to remember, this study was carried out on healthy, young men. It may or may not apply to women, who produce less testosterone naturally. Still, these results suggest doing strength training after cardio if you want to maximize testosterone level. In turn, greater testosterone release could lead to greater hypertrophy.
Does Exercise Order Matter When It Comes to Fitness Gains?
Doing cardio before strength training may induce a stronger rise in anabolic hormones, but what really counts is results. Will you gain more lean body mass when you strength train after cardio? According to a study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, exercise order may not matter. A group of healthy, young men did aerobic exercise on an exercise bike followed by strength training (dynamic leg presses) or strength training followed by an aerobic exercise for 24 weeks. Both experienced an increase in lean body mass and aerobic fitness and there were no differences between the two groups. At least in this study, exercise order made no difference with respect to fitness gains or changes in lean body mass.
Of course, neither of these studies takes into account all the possibilities. In both cases, the participants did moderate amounts of cardio and strength training. The results may have been different had the cardio been an exhaustive 90-minute workout. It’s pretty hard to perform your best with weights after a long, vigorous cardio session. What the results suggest is that if you’re doing a moderate amount of strength training and cardio, the order in which you do them probably won’t make a big difference in the returns you get.
If you plan on doing a long or very intense aerobic or strength-training workout, you might be best served by doing them on separate days or in two separate sessions, one morning and one evening. If you do an intense strength workout with lots of squats, lunges, and deadlifts using heavy resistance, leg fatigue will probably limit how the length or intensity of your cardio workout. Likewise, a hard spin session or run prior to lower body strength training may reduce the intensity or volume you can do.
The advantage of doing cardio and strength training on separate days is you can focus exclusively on one or the other and give it your best effort. When you do them during the same session, unless you’re doing circuit training, there’s the risk that your performance will suffer for the one you do second.
Another consideration are the fuel sources you use for each form of exercise. When you strength train first, you deplete most of your muscle glycogen stores. If you follow an intense strength-training session with intense cardio, your body will likely break down some protein to use as a fuel source since you’re glycogen depleted. That’s not what you want when you’re trying to build lean body mass. Plus, after a strength-training session, you want to “feed” your muscles with a carbohydrate/protein meal so they can recover as quickly as possible, not further deplete them of their fuel stores.
On the other hand, if your goal isn’t to build lean body mass, but to lose body fat, doing cardio after lifting may mobilize more fat since your body needs to use fat (and to a lesser degree protein) when glycogen depleted.
The Bottom Line?
Which form of exercise to do first is probably not something you need to stress out about. The order in which you do cardio and strength training probably won’t make a big difference in your overall fitness gains as long as you aren’t doing long or very intense sessions. If that’s the case, do them on separate days or different times of the day. It’s also a good idea to take your goals into account. If your primary reason for working out is to build lean body mass, it makes sense to focus more of your effort on strength training and do it when you’re still fresh or on a different day than you do cardio.
Fitness Science. “Order of Resistance and Cardiovascular Exercise Determines Hormonal Response”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 12. 3281-3288.
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
September 2014 – Volume 46 – Issue 9 – p 1758-1768
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