Should You Do Cardio Before or After Your Workout?

By Stevie Lyn Smith, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDN, September 8, 2019

cardio-or-strength-training-first-warmup-gymWe’ve talked about how including both cardio and strength training is key to a well-balanced fitness routine. But which activity should come first when you step into the gym? Well, how you prioritize these depends on what your personal goals are. You should start your routine according to what you’re looking to improve—whether that be your endurance, strength and power, or if just overall health. So while there isn't a single answer, it's easy to come to the right one for you. Here's how.

Optimize your workouts with the right fuel. This free Ebook has 10 recipes for just that.Start with cardio if you want to build endurance

Are you signed up to race your first (or hundredth) endurance event? Whether you’re swimming, biking, running or taking on all three in order, plan to do these before any strength-focused activities to see improvements in your cardiovascular fitness. Engaging in these activities regularly will improve your body’s aerobic capacity—it’s ability to transport and use oxygen. Consistent aerobic training will improve the strength of your heart and lungs while getting oxygen to your working muscles to get you across the finish line.

Need some evidence? Well, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that runners who performed resistance activity before running had impaired form compared to people who ran before strength training. [1] That's why your priorities matter when making these choices—if you're a runner looking to improve their stride, this is an important difference!

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should forget about resistance training altogether. In fact, cardio lovers can best improve strength and power by simply incorporating a day fully dedicated to high-intensity circuit training to their routine. A separate study found that a session of only circuit training was more efficient at building strength and power than pairing it with an endurance session, regardless of order. [2] So don't be afraid to take a rain check on the cardio room! Adding strength training will increase or maintain muscle mass while also addressing any potential muscular imbalances (common in people who do the same exercises, like running, day after day) to prevent injury.

Go straight to the weight room if you want to build strength or power

Whether you want to gain muscle and power, improve your body composition, or just feel stronger in your daily activities, you should hit the weight room before the treadmill if you plan on doing both cardio and strength training in a single session. One study looked at the impact of different aerobic exercises—long slow distance, continuous flat, and continuous incline running—before resistance exercise, and found they all had a negative impact. [3]

A separate study looked at the effects of high-intensity endurance training performed before a strength training session. All of the subjects were in good shape, and yet their ability to perform resistance exercise after endurance was decreased. [4] So if you’re looking to build muscle and power, it is recommended that you avoid training sessions after your cardio to maximize benefits. [4]

Care about both equally? Switch it up.

If you want to gain the health benefits of regular, well-rounded physical activity, the order of your activities matters less. We certainly recommend including both types of exercise by choosing versions that you enjoy! If you have the time, try to dedicate entire workout sessions to either strength or endurance—as you've now read, you'll see a higher ROI that way. If you do decide to split workouts to include both, switch up whichever you start with. 

Whatever you choose, establishing a workout plan and routine that you enjoy will help set you up for success. For some guidance, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends the following to promote health:

  • Hit 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity each a week, preferably spread throughout the week, to see substantial health benefits
  • Additional health benefits are seen when you pass 300 minute mark of weekly moderate-intensity activity 
  • Moderate- to vigorous-intensity resistance activities should be performed at least twice a week and involve all major muscle groups [5]

These guidelines can help you to choose which approach will work best for you and your goals in the gym. If you’re new to exercise or are just looking for a change to your routine,  we recommend researching your local resources—like qualified personal trainers, group fitness instructors, or medical exercise specialists—for a safe and effective personalized plan.

When in doubt, start with today's priority

Whether a seasoned athlete or recreational exerciser, both cardio and strength exercises are important for your health and fitness goals. With busy schedules, knowing how to make the most out of the time you have to hit the gym is key to reaching your goals. While there is not one answer for the age-old question of strength or cardio first, the order can be boiled down to your goals:

  • Start with strength exercises if your main goal that day is to work on strength and power
  • Start with endurance work if you plan to improve cardiovascular fitness
  • If you're not looking to specifically improve on one or the other, try to separate workouts and dedicate entire days to one or the other. But...
  • If you choose to split workouts to include both, just switch up the one you start with each time

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[1] Doma K, Deakin G. The effects of strength training and endurance training order on running economy and performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2013;38(6):651-656. doi:10.1139/apnm-2012-0362
[2] Chtara M, Chaouachi A, Levin G et al. Effect of Concurrent Endurance and Circuit Resistance Training Sequence on Muscular Strength and Power Development. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(4):1037-1045. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e31816a4419
[3] Ratamess N, Kang J, Porfido T et al. Acute Resistance Exercise Performance Is Negatively Impacted by Prior Aerobic Endurance Exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(10):2667-2681. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001548
[4] Panissa V, Tricoli V, Julio U et al. Acute Effect of High-Intensity Aerobic Exercise Performed on Treadmill and Cycle Ergometer on Strength Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(4):1077-1082. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000000706
[5] Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Published 2019. Accessed September 3, 2019.

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