Including both strength and cardio in your training can allow you to achieve a formidable mixture of strength, size and fitness results, but only when done correctly. This article is going to look at whether you should do strength or cardio first for the best results. We’ll cover:
- Strength training or cardio first?
- Cardio and Strength Training on Different Days – The Ideal Approach
- Cardio and Strength Training Same Day – A Good Approach
- How long should I wait to do cardio after lifting weights?
- Cardio and Strength Training Same Session – Not Ideal, But Can Still Work
- Weights or Cardio First for Fat Loss
- 20 minutes of cardio after weights – Too Much or Too Little?
- Next Steps
Let’s jump straight in…
Strength training or cardio first?
A common question I get asked as a coach is “should I do weight training or cardio first?” and here’s the answer I most frequently provide:
“Ideally, your weight training and cardio should be performed in separate sessions as far apart as possible”
And that’s because of what, in sports science, we call the interference effect.
The Interference Effect in ‘Weight training or Cardio First’ Debates
The interference effect refers to the fact that cardiovascular exercise is a very different stimulus to resistance exercise, i.e. a heavy set of 5 squats creates very different adaptations in your body when compared to running a 10k.
When we put these two stimuli too close together in our training, we have good physiological reasons to believe that it can essentially blunt our body’s ability to appropriately adapt to either stimulus, so we get the worst of both worlds.
Luckily, this interference effect can be massively reduced by dividing our strength training and cardio into separate sessions.
Cardio and Strength Training on Different Days – The Ideal Approach
- Monday: Strength
- Tuesday: Cardio
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Strength
- Friday: Cardio
Of course, this is just an example, you could alter the days around to suit your schedule. You could also add or remove strength training or cardio sessions based on your individual goals and preference.
Cardio and Strength Training Same Day – A Good Approach
Your next best option if you can only train on certain days of the week is to aim to separate your sessions by at least a few hours. So you could do:
- A.M. Session: Strength
- P.M. Session: Cardio (3+ Hours after your strength session)
For best results using this structure, you should aim to eat plenty of food (especially carbohydrates) after your AM session so as to allow your body to start the recovery process and refuel glycogen stores in your muscles
How long should I wait to do cardio after lifting weights?
You should wait as long as possible after lifting weights before doing cardio. I recommend a minimum of 3 hours. If possible, 4 or 5 hours would be even better.
Cardio and Strength Training Same Session – Not Ideal, But Can Still Work
Now, with all that said, I realise that for many people dividing training into separate strength and cardio sessions isn’t always an option. You’ve packed your gym bag, driven to the gym, and gotten warmed up, and you want to get it all boxed off in one session. For you, you’ll need to combine both stimuli.
To decide whether you do cardio or strength first you need to consider 2 things:
- What will your cardio session look like in terms of difficulty and intensity?
- What are your goals and priorities?
What Does Your Cardio Session Look Like?
A big deciding factor can be the type of cardio you have in mind. For example, if you want to do 10-20 minutes that’s going to have a MUCH smaller interference effect than doing 50-60 minutes. Similarly, if you want to do an easy, low-intensity session, that’s going to have a MUCH smaller interference effect than doing a really hard, high-intensity session.
“Simply put, the longer and harder your cardio session is, the more it will interfere with your weights.”
At some point, you’ll just be so shattered from the cardio that weight training quality will just be terrible. Similarly, you might not want to do a massive cardio session after a long weights session.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch in strength or fitness training. So it becomes a trade-off, and you have to make a decision on where to spend your energy.
Goals and Priorities – Where to Spend Your Energy
- If your main goal is to get incredibly fit, run marathons, triathlons, do swimming events etc, then cardio should be your main focus. Do your cardio first and then pick a couple of resistance exercises to finish your session off.
- If your goal is to get really strong and/or jacked, then weight training should be your focus. Complete it first and then feel free to add in some low-intensity, ideally off-feet cardio for a few minutes towards the end.
- If your main goal is weight loss, then it genuinely doesn’t really matter. I would personally start with 10-20 minutes of easy cardio as part of my warm-up, and then move on to my resistance training session.
Weights or Cardio First for Fat Loss
Honestly, it makes no real difference. Weight loss is all about achieving a calorie deficit consistently over multiple weeks. Both weight training and cardio sessions can help you with this, so I would just do whichever order you feel like that day.
The key part is just consistently exercising, and consistently paying attention to your nutrition.
20 minutes of cardio after weights – Too Much or Too Little?
20 minutes cardio after lifting weights is pretty common, especially in the bodybuilding world, and for the most part, is totally fine. To limit interference, I recommend keeping the intensity low (slower, steady pace) and ideally using an off-feet or low impact exercise machine such as a bike or cross-trainer.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time to put theory into action…
1) If possible, separate strength and cardio into different sessions. If you can’t, then have a think about your goals and priorities, as well as how intense your cardio is going to be, and then you’ll know whether to put cardio or strength training first.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.