Should You be Doing Cardio or Strength Training First?

I get this question a lot when my clients are starting to get serious about seeing results and the answer is based on you. What is your ultimate goal? What is the reason you started on your fitness journey in the first place? Based on your answers to these questions you can determine what the best plan for your cardio routine will be. Let’s dive in to some of the most common reasons for beginning a fitness journey and when you should do cardio based on them. If your goal isn’t listed below, let me know in the comments and I’ll help you address it.

Longevity & Cardiovascular Health

The most common reason anyone begins a cardio exercise routine is usually for just that, cardiovascular exercise. The best time to do excercise to achieve cardiovascular benefits is quite literally anytime. Anytime you can increase your respiration to increase your heart rate is good cardiovascular exercise. So, whether you do it before or after your strength training routine doesn’t really matter.

I would recommend, if you’re doing it for cardiovascular health and longevity to incorporate it into your strength routine by doing exercises that both increase strength and cardiovascular health, such as circuit training, yoga, or pilates. Another thing I would recommend is not to look at it as a chore. Find a fun cardio intensive activity such as walking, bike riding, tennis, or pickle ball, and take the time to enjoy the activity. Maybe even do several different activities in any given week. The goal is to get the body moving and it doesn’t matter how or when you do it, just do it often.

Weight Loss

The other most common reason I hear of people starting their fitness journey is to lose weight. While I don’t think this should ever be your primary focus I do understand the reasoning behind the desire to lose weight. This particular topic is a whole other post we’ll get into later. So, without digressing let’s discuss when the most important time to do cardio is for the purpose of weight loss.

The straightforward answer to this is anytime. It really doesn’t matter if you take part in cardio before or after your strength training with this particular goal. Here’s why. You should be aiming for reaching a heart rate of approximately 30% to 55% of your max heart rate in order to reach those fat stores. Since we are working with a respiration rate, it doesn’t matter if you reach those rates when you are fresh or when you’re tired. This is a comfortable walking pace or any activity that gets you breathing heavier than you normally would. At this level you should still be able to hold a conversation, just not as easily as if you were on a leisure walk.

You can complete your cardio before strength training, after strength training, or at anytime throughout the day with the same benefit of hitting the fat stores. I recommend this method for weight loss because it’s more sustainable. I’ve had colleagues that recommend high intensity interval training (HIIT) for weight loss, but this can get very risky when done unmonitored. If HIIT is done incorrectly there’s a high risk of burning muscle rather than fat stores. This increases the risk of injury and also decreases the metabolic output.

Stress Relief

Going for a long walk or a run is a great way to decrease stress levels and improve mood. Just like in the example of when to to cardio for longevity and heart health, you can gain the benefits of the exercise no matter when you do it.

I recommend picking an activity, a time, or a tigger that presses you to become consistent to maintain stress relief. Some people prefer a cardiovascular activity every morning or evening. Some prefer a specific activity and other prefer a trigger. When I say trigger, I mean something that happens which you immediately follow with cardio activity. Such as answering emails. If answering emails triggers stress, switch it into your trigger for stress relief. Reward yourself with a cardio activity of your choice after answering your emails.

The trick here is consistency. Much like training a dog, consistency is the only thing that is going to help you maintain a stress free environment. I’m not saying do the same thing every day, although, for some people this is what is needed. I’m talking about consistency in your response. I have a timer consistency. When I sit at the computer, I set an alarm for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes I have to stand up and do something active for at least 10 minutes. This allows me to maintain a stress free posture whenever I sit down to write or research. What does consistency in your trigger responses look like for you?

Athletic Endurance Training

As you’ve probably noticed by now, in most cases it doesn’t matter when you do your cardio activity. There are a few instances where it does matter. One of those is when you’re working on athletic endurance training. I’m not going to discuss specifics here, because we’d be here all day, but depending on the activity you’re training for, timing of cardio training does matter.

If you would like to discuss your specific goal, feel free to contact me. Whether you’re training for a marathon or a triathlon your training regiment is going to differ drastically. This cardiovascular routine needs to be tailored around the type of race you’re training for and also where you’re starting from today. So, while this is a specific protocol, it is dependent on the type of training and your starting point.

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is the one area that I recommend doing cardio activity at a particular time. The goal in body building is to build as large amounts of muscle mass and reduce fat stores. While most if this is achieved though diet, there is a specific cardiovascular regiment I’ve found works best for this purpose.

Before doing any weight lifting regiment I recommend warming the blood first. A great way to do this is by achieving a heart rate of 30% to 40% of your max heart heart rate. This should feel like an easy walk that you could hold a steady conversation in. If you need help calculating this you can check out my article The Benefit of Aerobic Exercise. This can be done by doing any activity you love. Sty in this zone for about 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, increase your intensity to 40% to 55% of your max heart rate. This is where you will cain a bit of cardiovascular benefit and decrease those fat stores. You want to stay in this zone for no more than 10 minutes. The reason for this is that your ultimate goal is to save your energy for weightlifting. Why you want to be in your cardiovascular zone at all is because of the chemical process which is activated why your increased respiration rate. This chemical process will help your weightlifting energy output. Think of your cardio exercise as your cup of coffee before weightlifting.

After you’ve completed your weightlifting regiment you are going to want to reverse the process above. Start your cardio activity at 40% to 50% of your max heart rate and stay there for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes decrease your intensity to between 30% and 40%. This is your time to hit additional fat stores and also ease your tired body off the weightlifting regiment. You can stay here in this final zone longer, and if you’re carrying a bit of extra padding around I recommend you do. Just remember, lean chiseled body builders bodies are made in the kitchen. Don’t forget to stretch after you’re completely done!

Finally

Whatever your fitness goal, a good rule of thumb is to get your body moving and doing any activity you love. The reality is, the best time to do this is anytime. We live in a world where most of the activities we partake in are sedentary. Whether it’s work, school, or relaxing we need to shift our habits to evolve these activities to ones that include body movement or take breaks often to get the blood pumping. This is the best way to achieve a healthy lifestyle.


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