Jump to content

Cardio or Weights First?

Recommended Posts

Jade Teta ND, CSCS

What type of activity, cardiovascular or weight training, should I do first in a workout? This is a question almost every personal trainer has had at some time and we at Metabolic Effect are no different. However, our answer departs a little from the standard one-size-fits-all responses from many trainers. That standard off-the-shelf-answer goes something like this, “you should do weight training first because doing so will lower glycogen stores and cause the body to burn more fat during the cardiovascular session”. This is an answer I have heard repeated since I was 15 years old and first started getting involved in bodybuilding and fitness. At Metabolic Effect, the acronym ME means we take an individualized approach and filter our answers through the lens of the individual exerciser.

Exercise order and EPOC

Many people have heard of the metabolic afterburn we call the “metabolic effect”. While the impact and degree of this state is debatable, it can be used to maximize your efficiency in the gym. Since time is the number one reason people don’t exercise, perhaps this effect should be considered in recommendations about cardio first or second.

The May 2005 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared two versions of the same workout (3). In one version, 25 minutes of treadmill exercise was completed prior to a resistance training workout. In the alternate workout, the sequence was reversed with weight training completed first and cardio done second. For comparison sake, there was also a cardio only group and a weight lifting only group. The study found that the primary influence on magnitude and duration of the EPOC afterburn was based on resistance exercise with the cardio portion having very little influence. However, the magnitude and duration of the protocol starting with a run and followed by resistance exercise had a greater EPOC response.

This shows the standard answer of “do weights followed by cardio” may not always be exactly correct. While the Vo2 was higher during the workout for the weights followed by the run, the Vo2 after the workout was higher with the run followed by the weights. It is unknown which session would come out with higher energy consumption in the end, but given time is a major consideration for many exercisers, a shorter workout with a greater afterburn may indeed be a better option.

There is also the argument that weight training should be done first while the muscles are fresh, but again this is a one-size-fits-all answer that may not apply to those seeking primarily fat loss and who are unconcerned with how strong and big they can make their muscles. Despite these arguments, it appears the best way to handle this is not to separate cardio and weights at all.

The integrated workout

W. Jackson Davis PHD and colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of California at Berkley looked at this issue in a recent study (1). Researchers call workouts that incorporate cardio and weights together concurrent exercise. In this study, they compared strength, endurance, muscle mass, and body fat changes to different types of concurrent exercise protocols. However, instead of comparing cardio followed by weights to weights followed by cardio, they used a different design. Twenty eight women were divided into 2 groups and were tested before and after 11-weeks of concurrent exercise sessions done 3 times per week.

One group worked out with weights followed by cardiovascular exercise on a treadmill. The other group did the exact same weight training routine and the exact same amount of cardiovascular exercise. Only this time they did the cardiovascular exercise in-between sets of weight lifting. In this protocol, a weight training exercise was done, the exerciser then got up and went to the treadmill and completed 30 to 60s of a run. They then hopped off the treadmill and completed another set of weights. This alternating cardio and weight lifting sequence was repeated throughout the workout. The researchers called this back and forth protocol integrated concurrent exercise (ICE). The traditional group was called serial concurrent exercise (SCE).

One important reminder about this study is that the volume of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise of each group was equal. This is an important consideration when comparing exercise protocols because if work volume varies it is like comparing apples to oranges. The researchers in this study took extra care to make sure everything was equal.

The results after 11 weeks showed that the integrated group obtained substantially better results over the traditional group. Here are some of the results:

- 35.4% greater improvement in lower body strength

- 52.8% greater improvement in lower body endurance

- 28% greater improvement in lower body flexibility

- 143.5% greater improvement in upper body flexibility

- 82.2% greater improvement in muscle gains

- 991.8% greater loss in fat mass!!!

The integrated group had an almost ten-fold greater loss in fat and gained muscle at the same time, a very difficult trick to pull off. The entire results of the study are pasted below. The results of this study are compelling and call into question the common assumptions many trainers and fitness enthusiasts make regarding the order of cardio and weight training. It is also interesting to note that an earlier study on the same integrated approach showed it was able to decrease the subjective feeling of soreness from exercise known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) (2). The researchers have hypothesized that something about this integrated workout speeds the repair process and may explain why exercisers using this approach were able to gain more muscle mass as well as burn significantly more fat.

Final Thoughts

When evaluating exercise advice from trainers and fitness enthusiasts it is always useful to consider whether that approach fits your unique circumstances and goals. Many in the fitness industry, as in any field, prefer to stick with simple one-size-fits-all protocols and procedures. Some get great results with this advice and others do not. The answer to most questions in fitness are more nuanced and complicated. The order of whether cardio should be done first, second, or integrated in your workout really depends on you. The biggest determinant of your success will be how consistent and productive you are in the gym. So more important than following the science or the advice of your favorite fitness personality is to do what you enjoy and will stick with.

1) Davis, et. al. Concurrent training enhances athletes’ strength, muscle

endurance, and other measures. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. September 2008;22(5):1487–1502.

2) Davis, et. al. Elimination of delayed-onset muscle soreness by pre-resistance cardioacceleration before each set. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. January 2008;22: 215–225.

3) Drummond, et. al. Aerobic and resitance exercise sequence affects excess postexercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. May 2005;19(2):332-7.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is great info.

I've always like weight lifting more than just doing cardio for long stretches. So this is saying to incorporate cardio during your weight lifting and the benefits of doing this are huge.

Never heard of this work out process before but will definitely keep it in mind for after surgery.

very cool.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

If any of you have On Demand with your cable provider, you can try this for free! Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred. I LOVE it! It is circuit training for 20 minutes. She says you can lose up to 20 lbs in the 30 days. It is 3 minutes of strength training, 2 minutes of cardio and 1 minute of abs. Repeat, Repeat. I got the DVD but noticed the other day that it is on On Demand for free! It has 3 levels. I just started it last week and am on level 1 but when I did it this morning, I found it relatively easy (compared to day 1) and will be moving on to level 2 tomorrow. Try it out. It's a great way to: 1) get a quick workout in but also burn lots of calories 2) incorporate strength training and cardio mindlessly AND 3) Confinue to challenge your body by having additional levels to work up to.

Give it a shot! The first day SUCKS, but it gets better and better! :)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If any of you have On Demand with your cable provider, you can try this for free! Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred.

I'd love to try this. But I'm not ready for lifting yet. I sprayed weedkiller and holding that jug hurt my tummy. I've got to find out when it's safe to lift. Anyone know off the top of their head?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...