One of the most persistent arguments surrounding fitness and strength training is the matter of doing cardio before or after weights. That’s right, people actually argue about whether they should put their running or cycling ahead of their weight lifting of if they should do it after.
Which one should take priority over the other? What are the factors that would entice you to do cardio before and the ones that would entice you to do cardio after? Before we dive in, let’s first review a few terms for context.
What is Cardio?
Cardio, in the most technical definition, is a kind of exercise that is meant to increase your heart rate for prolonged periods through consistent movement of moderate intensity. In short, cardio is when you just do a simple and relatively easy exercise, but for a hell of a long time. It can be in the form of cycling, rowing, swimming, jumping jacks, brisk walking, using cardio equipment, and of course everyone’s favorite: Running.
As mentioned, the one goal of doing cardio is to get your heart rate up as well as make you use those pair of lungs of yours. Since you can’t exactly lift using your heart and lungs, cardio is literally the only way to train and get them stronger.
A cardio session can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. It can be something as quick as two laps (back and forth) across a few hundred meters or something as challenging and mentally draining as running past the point of side stitch (ouch!). Regardless of duration or type of exercise done, cardio will lead to a stronger heart and lungs which will give you better stamina.
Should you do cardio?
I’ve met many, many arrogant gym rats who spit on cardio like it’s a protein shake that tastes like balls. You might as well have insulted their moms from the way they react to it. Thing is, cardio is our ancestor’s first every way of getting stronger. Cardio is the first way to get fit.
A look at history (as in caveman history) will tell you that the first humans didn’t lift rocks or do push ups to get stronger. You know what they did? They walked and ran a lot. They lived nomadic lifestyles which can also sometimes mean swimming and climbing mountains and trees.
When they hunted prey, they ran and jumped. When it was their turn to be hunted, they ran and jumped too. Doing cardio thousands of years ago was a matter of life and death, and let’s just say we’re all here right now thanks to humans who actually outran and outlasted sabretooth tigers and other predators.
History and evolution aside, cardio has always been at the helm of medical science. Every doctor in the industry will tell you cardio is the best form of exercise ever. And while I myself have some reservations around that notion, it’s hard to say they don’t have the papers to back it up.
Studies have shown the health benefits of cardiovascular exercises regardless of gender, age, or level of physical fitness. Cardio has been shown to improve bone density, heart health, lower blood markers of cardiovascular diseases, improve stamina, develop leg muscles, help lose weight, and improve posture and balance.
There’s also this mental phenomenon called the “Runner’s High” which science says is when the brain releases endorphins that help you ignore just the pain you experience when you run 10 km or 6.2 miles without stopping.
On top of those amazing health benefits, cardio has also been linked to longevity. So, should you do cardio? Hell yeah!
What is weight lifting?
If you’re reading this, chances are you actually already lift weights and you’re probably just waiting for the opportunity to correct me on anything. Just humor me for a little bit, okay?
Weight lifting is defined by its name. The big brains in the research labs call it resistance exercise, but weight lifting sounds so much better. I mean…
“What kind of training do you do?”
“I’m a resistance exerciser, bro!”
See what I mean? Anyway, to weight lift you need three things:
- A body capable of lifting stuff
- Stuff to lift
- A place to lift and drop the stuff
Stuff you can lift can be anything from the typical barbell, kettlebell, and any-other-bell to a real log in some creepy forest or your hot girlfriend for Instagram pictures. The exercises you can do with them vary per tool, but the basics will always be the squats, presses, deadlifts, snatches, and their many variations.
Should I lift weights?
The answer will always be yes. Granted you can live a healthy and happy life without having to pick up something heavier than the newspaper (if you do cardio), but it would be a shame to not know what your body’s full potential is when you clearly have the opportunity to find out>
Some of the benefits of weight lifting are increased endurance, raw power, grip, posture, bone density, super fast metabolism, and a way, way better looking body. Even people who do cardio regularly want to look good, and the best way to sculpt your body into its best and most efficient form is by lifting weights.
Should I do cardio before or after weights?
Should I do cardio before or after weights? We can answer that question now that we’ve established the two forms of training. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of doing cardio ahead of weight lifting and vice versa.
Pros of doing cardio before weight lifting
- You get ready to do harder exercises. The one thing cardio before weight lifting does is prepare your body to do tougher, more complex exercises.
- You condition your heart to pump more blood. When it comes to lifting 200 lbs overhead, you really need a lot of heart power.
- You can boost mental toughness. Those Ironman competitions aren’t all about lifting and running as much as they are about just having a really strong mindset.
Cons of doing cardio before weight lifting
- You might run out of energy. Cardio is pretty tough on your lungs, bro. You could end up missing a few reps or sets.
- You could get injured. If you ran for an hour straight, don’t expect your legs to be capable of squatting 350 lbs.
- You might need a long rest. Some lifters don’t like sitting around when they only have an hour or two a day to train.
Pros of doing cardio after weight lifting
- You get your max reps and sets. Doing cardio after means you get to use most of your energy for lifting iron. More reps and sets translate to stronger muscles and better fat loss.
- You lift better without breaking form. When you have 100% of your energy dedicated to lifting weights, you don’t have to worry about your legs wobbling or your arms trembling with each lift.
- You can use cardio as a cool down. After a hard day’s lift, you can run or cycle around to cool down and relax. I mean, cycling is definitely more relaxing than bench presses.
Cons of doing cardio after weight lifting
- You might not be in the mood for it. Seriously, after a heavy dose of squats and deadlifts, who wants to run or ride a bicycle?
- You might overwork yourself. If you do lifting like most people do, there’s a good chance that you’ve exhausted yourself and doing cardio after might be more harmful than good.
- You could feel disappointed afterwards. Imagine hitting all your max PRs and supersets flawlessly, but you end up huffing and puffing and struggling to run for five minutes afterwards. It might ruin your buzz.
Now that you know the pros and cons, what have you decided? Personally, I’d rather do cardio after weight lifting but the kind of cardio will have to be something meant to relax, not compete with my own records.
Can you do weights and cardio on the same day?
The answer to this question will depend on your goals and of course time. I personally wouldn’t recommend this approach since doing both runs the risk of overtraining. Overtraining can lead to injury. Injuries can lead to down time and just demotivates you altogether. Not to mention the thought of doing both in one session can feel so tiring even before you put your gym clothes on.
If you can afford to train four times a week, insert cardio at least once. That way, you can maximize your muscle gains while also giving your cardiovascular system the training it needs to keep up. If you can’t afford four times a week, then at least be mindful of your limits. If you think you can go for it, then go for cardio. If you can’t, then go home and try another day.
The most basic rule of fitness is to be consistent and to train regularly. It doesn’t matter how heavy you lift, how many reps you can do, how many laps you can cover, or how long you can cycle. What’s important is you exercise as consistently as possible. It can be every day, every other day, or three times a week. So long as you have a routine going, and you adhere to it at least 8 out of 10 times, you’re set for life.
- Hong AR, Kim SW. Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health. Endocrinol Metab (Seoul). 2018;33(4):435–444. doi:10.3803/EnM.2018.33.4.435
- Hunter GR, Mccarthy JP, Bamman MM. Effects of resistance training on older adults. Sports Med. 2004;34(5):329-48.
- Skelton DA, Young A, Greig CA, Malbut KE. Effects of resistance training on strength, power, and selected functional abilities of women aged 75 and older. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1995;43(10):1081-7.
- Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018;5:135. Published 2018 Sep 28. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135
- Pedersen BK. Which type of exercise keeps you young?. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2019;22(2):167-173.