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Is It Best To Do Cardio Before Or After Weights?

I received this question via email this morning from a new personal training client at Shaping Concepts and figured it’d be a good subject to cover on the blog. That way I’d have a detailed explanation in the archives ready for the next time someone brings up the same question.

The reality is there’s no single right answer to this question. As is the case with a lot of variables in fitness training, it sort of depends.

There was a time in my career when I would’ve answered this question by replying “either way, doesn’t much matter.” Getting in your cardio is all about just doing it, doesn’t matter when, right?

Well, today I’d answer this question a little differently depending on the circumstances. Yeah, the timing of your cardio can make a difference with some individuals.

In today’s post we’ll dig into the details on what you’ll want to consider when deciding on the timing of your cardio.

More after the jump…

When it doesn’t really make much of a difference…

Let’s go ahead and start with identifying which individuals will fall into the category of “it doesn’t much matter.” For these folks they’ll benefit from doing aerobic exercise either before or after their resistance training workout.

You’re here if you fit into any of the below descriptions:

  • You’re just starting out on a fitness routine or starting back after an extended absence from exercise.
  • You don’t have fat loss as one of your training objectives. You’re simply looking to maintain muscle mass and use aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health.
  • You won’t be performing either resistance training or cardiovascular exercise at a very high intensity or for a long duration.

In all of the above cases, doing 20-30 minutes of cardio before or after your workout will be equally beneficial. This is especially true for someone just starting out on a fitness regiment.

The reason is neither one of your training segments (resistance training or aerboic exercise) will be at a very high intensity.

At least this should be the case. After all when you’re first starting out you’ll best served to establish a foundation of mobility, joint stabilization, and function before progressing to higher intensity resistance exercise. From a “cardio” standpoint, aerobic exercise which is low-moderate intensity in nature will also be preferential.

Think along the lines of walking, elliptical, stationary bike, etc. This is not the time for interval training, sprints, and the such. Because your workouts won’t be of such a high intensity to deplete most of your stored glycogen in the muscles or produce significant hormonal responses, the timing of your aerobic exercise won’t matter much.

Doing 20-30 minutes of aerobic based activities for your “cardio” either before or after your resistance workout will work just fine.

You’ll hear some fitness trainers talk about only doing your cardio after a weight training workout, so this way you’ll burn more fat.

This is hogwash, which I’ll explain more in a second.

When the timing of your cardio does make a difference…

Here’s a tip that I picked up over the years by observing what seemed to work best with my personal training clients who had fat loss goals.

As the exercise intensity increases with progression, I’ve found that “sandwiching” cardio on both ends of the weight training session to be highly effective.

Think along the lines of doing 15-20 minutes of cardio before and after the weights. Here’s why I believe this works so well…

Hormonal responses

For starters, there’s something to be said about stimulating the central nervous system and raising body temperature before completing higher intensity resistance work. From a physiological standpoint this “sets the table” for a more favorable hormonal response from your weight training.

Ignite the burn…

By initiating the training session with 15-20 minutes of cardio you’ll also begin utilizing a combination of fat and glucose for energy production. The duration of the cardio segment isn’t long enough to fully deplete glycogen levels so you still should have sufficient fuel to sustain muscle contraction during the weights.

Nutrient timing

There’s also the issue with nutrient timing post-workout that becomes much more of a concern for those individuals who have progressed to higher intensity workouts. There’s a window of opportunity to optimize the recovery/rebuilding process of lean muscle following an intense weight training session.

This is where you want to be consuming a small amount of carbohydrate and fast assimilating protein, such as whey protein, to initiate an anabolic state. Spending your time doing lots of cardio after you just worked hard with the weights could push you out of that window of opportunity.

Shorter duration cardio regardless of the intensity, say around 10-20 minutes is fine, but I just wouldn’t recommend trying to do excessive post-workout cardio (45 minutes or longer) as a means of attempting to burn more fat and calories.

The more you progress with the intensity, the more you’ll be relying on hormonal responses to elevate resting energy expenditure (REE) post-workout.

You’ll have a increase in metabolism over the next 24 hours or so following a high intensity weight training workout. Fat oxidation will be up so there’s no real need to try and burn more calories post-workout from a bunch of additional cardio anyways.

When too much cardio post-workout can be counter-productive…

If anything this could have a potential negative effect, especially when the cardio duration is too long post-workout.

The reason is further elevation in cortisol levels that can accompany prolonged physical activity. This is especially true when both the duration is long and the activity is moderate to high in intensity.

This will only blunt growth hormone secretion that could be working synergistically with other hormonal responses to improve fat oxidation. Again more with exercise isn’t always better from a fat loss perspective.

Now I’ve experimented with doing short duration but very high intensity cardio (like interval training), following weight training workouts, and while in theory this could be effective, I’ve found it not to be very practical.

You simply don’t have enough “gas in the tank” to be doing a full round of 7-8 high intensity intervals. I found that interval training works best on days in which weight training isn’t being done, or incorporating intervals right along with weight training exercises (advanced progression).

The traditional cardio alternative….incorporating metabolic finishers!

Having said that, I have found that “metabolic finishers” which are much shorter in duration to be an effective substitute for post-workout cardio. These will typically only take between 5-10 minutes to complete and can be done with a broad range of bodyweight exercises or those using equipment.

Personally, I prefer using metabolic finishers as I just don’t have the desire (or typically the energy for that matter) to jump on the treadmill or some other cardio equipment when I’m done hitting the weights.

Again, this will somewhat go back to personal preference, intensity with the weight training, individual goals, and other factors.

There’s nothing wrong with getting on the treadmill, etc, for 15-20 minutes following a weight training session, I’d just look to avoid doing sessions which are really long in duration. There’s simply not enough upside to it and a fair amount of downside if cortisol levels continue to rise.

Bottom line…

So there you have it. Depending on where you’re at with a fitness level, what your training objectives are, and how high of an intensity you’re working at during weight training sessions, these will all influence what you do for cardio and when you do it.

The only exception for doing longer duration aerobic exercise (30 minutes or greater) after a resistance workout, would be for those who haven’t worked the weights with high intensity.

Even then you’ll see much faster and better results when you focus on increasing the intensity of your resistance workouts over time through a progression to burst training.

If you’re doing lots of cardio but not seeing the fat loss you’d like, try switching things up by putting more intensity and energy into your resistance workouts, and shortening your aerobic sessions.

You might just find improved results with less time in the gym.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping people achieve a body transformation with burst training exercise and whole food nutrition. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fitness Training.