by Doug Dupont
It may be the most common question any trainer gets: “If I’m doing cardio and weights in the same workout, which do I do first?” The answer depends on your goals. However, as nice and tidy as that sounds, we still wonder what science says about the effects of exercise order on strength, VO2 max, and other performance markers. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research weighed in on this topic.
There are good arguments on both sides of the fence. Doing cardio first, especially if it’s aerobically based, will help to warm you up for weight lifting and could actually make you stronger. Also, if calorie burning or cardio performance are your goals, then prioritizing them might be the right choice.
When we lift weights, however, there is generally a logical exercise order. You do your heaviest and most technical lifts first when you are the freshest. If this is true, then it stands to reason you should do these lifts before your cardio as well, especially if your cardio is intense. Many would argue that your cardio would suffer less by having weight lifting first than your weight session would if you did your cardio first.
Most people, however, just play it by feel. The majority of athletes I speak with simply do the one they like more first, or do them in the order they feel is right. While playing it by feel can be a great option, there is often a scientifically correct answer to these matters. For example, you’ll get better results if you train in the evening than you will in the morning. Though that may not be either practical or preferable for some people, there still may be a fact of the matter regarding performance.
In this study, the participants were given a workout to do for four days per week for two months. Some of them did cardio training first, consisting of thirty minutes at a steady, moderate pace. They then did a weight training session which was a standard five or six lifts each with three sets of eight to twelve reps. The other group did the same workout, but the weight training came first and the cardio second.
Although the eight-week regimen yielded improvements in strength, cardio, and lean mass for everyone, it wasn’t enough for a statistically significant difference between the groups. Interestingly, there did seem to be a trend toward greater strength in the group that did cardio first.
The bummer with this study’s design is that the participants were all beginners. As we all know, beginner’s make gains just by looking at a power rack, and that could have had a serious impact on the results of this study. While the researchers acknowledged that other studies in this area may not have used sufficient intensity, they also admitted that those studies found better results in either strength or cardio for whichever of those two was performed first.
So although there was a lack of conclusive evidence in this particular study, it seems that for beginners, there’s a trend that cardio first could be better. This might be more conclusive with a larger study, but then again, maybe not. For the rest of us, our intuitions were probably true: do the exercise that’s most important to your goals first.