What Comes First: Cardio or Weight Lifting?

READ TIME:9 min.

You arrive at the gym ready to go. The treadmill and the weight wall stand before you. Which one do you choose?

First of all, kudos for committing to both cardio and weight lifting exercises. Both are essential to creating a well-rounded exercise plan. While cardio (or aerobic exercise) helps support cardiorespiratory function, weight lifting exercises (or resistance exercises) promote musculoskeletal function. Cardio workouts can also assist in energy and fat use. Weight lifting workouts activate the musculoskeletal system to help with gains in muscle size, strength, endurance, and power.

If both of those sound equally important, you’re right. That’s why virtually every workout plan should include a mix of weight-lifting classes and cardio classes (or weight lifting app classes and cardio app classes, for the technically inclined). Making equal time for both is called concurrent training. For anyone who is committed to maintaining a peak physique, concurrent training is essential. That being said, it begs the question: What type of exercise should you put first—weight lifting or cardio?

The decision about which exercise to do first ultimately comes down to personal goals. This is because there is currently no consensus as to which exercise sequence is more effective. There are unique benefits that can come from executing either first.

To help you decide whether you should do weight lifting exercises or cardio exercises first, let’s first define both cardio and strength training.

What comes first: cardio or weight lifting?

What are weight lifting exercises?

Weight lifting, which also goes by the names strength training or resistance training, is the key to flexibility and mobility. Doing weight-lifting workouts can lead to you developing more muscle. They can also increase your calorie burn and assist with building stronger bones, joints, and increasing your endurance. It also helps with improved exercise performance, as well as everyday movements and tasks. More mobile joints and stronger muscles can also lower injury risk.

General guidelines suggest that you should strength train two times a week at moderate to high intensity. If that sounds like a lot of time to dedicate to weight lifting classes or a weight lifting app, consider that not all strength training requires that you use weights. In fact, a good amount of strength training requires no dumbbells at all! Rather than weights, you can use resistance bands or your bodyweight. Use these tools when doing moves that are typically performed with weights, such as lunges or squats.  

What are cardio exercises?

Cardio is shorthand for “cardiovascular exercise.” Cardio exercise consists of any workout that increases your heart rate. More specifically, cardio is any rhythmic activity that raises your heart rate into your target heart rate zone. Your target heart rate is a percentage of your maximum safe heart rate. Typically, your target heart rate zone is between 50 percent and 85 percent of your maximum safe heart rate. Since you’re burning fat and calories when you’re actively exercising within your target heart rate, cardio workouts are often used for weight loss.

Some examples of cardio exercises include jumping rope, swimming, stair climbing, running, or jogging, as well as machine training like walking on an elliptical, cycling, or rowing. The benefits of cardio include things like burning fat and improving your lung capacity. Weight-bearing cardio workouts like swimming or hiking can also lower your chance of having a heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

Cardio relies on your body’s ability to use oxygen during the workout session. While performing cardio exercises, you breathe deeper and faster than when you’re standing still. This means that you’re maximizing the amount of oxygen in your blood. As your rate elevates, you’re also increasing the blood flow to your muscles and lungs.

So which comes first—cardio or weight lifting?

As we mentioned above, there is no agreed-upon sequence for how to do cardio exercises and weight lifting exercises. The order you do them in depends on your specific needs and desires. For instance, if you’re interested in running a marathon, it may be best to do cardio classes first. On the contrary, if you’re planning to enter a weight competition, you may want to prioritize weight lifting classes. To help you make the call, we’ll dive more into the unique benefits of doing cardio workouts first versus weight lifting workouts first. 

Why do cardio workouts first?

There are many reasons for doing cardio workouts first, many of which we will delve into here. It’s important to remember, especially if you plan on engaging in cardio classes and weight lifting classes in the same session, that cardio exercises can really deplete your energy. With this in mind, you may want to avoid high-intensity cardio if you’re ending with a weight lifting session. High-intensity cardio can include HIIT or Tabata.

Lastly, not all fatigue is bad. In fact, it’s believed that residual fatigue derived from engaging in cardio classes can reduce tension developed during weight lifting!

Woman completes an iFIT cardio workout

1. Warm up

Doing cardio as a warmup is a personal trainer stand-by, and for good reason. Cardio warm-up exercises get the blood flowing and adequately prepare the body for the challenges of both cardio and strength exercises. Try engaging in at least five or 10 minutes of light cardio—think jumping jacks and jogging in place—when you kick off any workout, even if it’s a session that starts with weight lifting. It’s important to remember that if weight lifting is your primary focus, you’ll want to avoid anything too high intensity (i.e., no need to break out the burpees).

2. Build endurance

Beyond warmups, doing cardio first can assist with building better endurance. Especially if you’re training for an event like a marathon, you’ll want to apply most of your energy to cardio exercises. Therefore, it’s usually best to do them first before you’ve become fatigued by weight lifting exercises or other strength training activities. One study reports that completing cardio exercises before weight lifting could potentially improve running performance and your VO2 max (i.e., the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise) to a greater extent than the reverse order.

3. Lose weight

Doing a cardio workout first, whether done at the gym with a cardio app or in your home gym through an online cardio class, is sometimes viewed as the better way to lose weight. One study shows that cardio was more effective than resistance training for the reduction of fat and body mass in previously sedentary, nondiabetic, overweight or obese adults. This could suggest that doing cardio first when you are not tired from weight lifting (and therefore you run no risk of not giving it your all) could be your best bet. Likewise, in putting cardio first, another study found that the aerobic-first sequence was more effective in amplifying excess postexercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC stands for excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Less formally, it is known as the “afterburn.” It aids calorie loss even after your workout has ended. In effect, because cardio-first creates more EPOC it could be said that that’s the best sequence of events.

Why do weight lifting workouts first? 

Again, the most common reason for doing strength before cardio is that cardio exercises use up most of your energy. Which is to say, if you do cardio first, you won’t have enough energy left for an effective strength workout. Generally, weight lifting exercises will be more strenuous than cardio exercises. Here are a few additional reasons you may want to engage in weight lifting workouts first.

Woman completes an iFIT weight lifting workout

1. Build athletic power

Weight lifting first may be perfect for athletes whose chosen sports require a high degree of strength and power. In one study, putting weight lifting sessions before cardio sessions allowed highly trained athletes to achieve significant improvements in muscle strength and power as well as aerobic capacity.

2. Lose weight

Yes, just like we stated above, there is no universally agreed-upon method for what sequence is best for losing weight. Just like doing cardio exercises before weight lifting exercises are considered to be effective for those wanting to lose weight, so is engaging in weight lifting before cardio. One study found that doing cardio exercise after weight lifting created an elevated heart-rate response. Specifically, the response was 12 beats per minute higher when doing the exact same workout intensity and duration. This would appear to encourage doing cardio first. These were also the general conclusions of the study.

3. More effective strength training

Imagine that your muscles are a lot like rubber bands. It’s easy to visualize that the more you work them, the more stretched out they become. The most effective weight lifting workout is done when your muscles are taut. For this reason, there is some merit to the idea that doing weight lifting exercises first, before you’ve stretched out your muscles with cardio work, is best.

What should you do if your goal is general fitness?

Remember: There is no consensus as to what type of exercise it’s best to do first. This means the best sequence for general fitness is up to you. Do the one you enjoy the least first to get it out of the way. Alternatively, you can do the one you love first when you have maximum energy to give it your all.  Since both have an impact on your body, you may want to rotate between which one you do first. Think of it as similar to how you rotate wheels on a car or a bike, so the wear is evenly distributed.

Even when you are routinely rotating between performing cardio and weight lifting exercises first, it’s important to make sure that you don’t over-exhaust any one muscle group. For instance, if you’re rowing for cardio, you may want to avoid upper chest work during your strength training session. The same logic applies if you’re cycling on a stationary bike to complete your cardio workout—you may want to put your leg strength training exercises on hold for a day. According to a study, engaging in similar cardio and weight lifting classes back to back doesn’t allow for adequate recovery. This could lead to both exhaustion and poor performance and, as a result, injury.

Do I always need to do cardio and weight lifting in the same session?

In a word, no. There is no rule that says concurrent training needs to be carried out in the same workout session or even on the same day. You can complete a cardio class one day and an at-home weight lifting workout the next day. Leg day or ab day may be more common in our vernacular, but scheduling a cardio day and weight lifting day is just as effective.

Man does an iFIT cardio workout

Discover iFIT cardio and weight lifting workouts

iFIT’s ever-growing Library of cardio exercises and weight lifting classes makes it simple to find a workout that’s aligned with your goals. If you’re focused on cardio, join soccer pro Alex Morgan in the 6-part Train Like a Pro: Alex Morgan Cardio Series. Need a goal to motivate your cardio? Join iFIT Trainer John Peel in the 5K Training Series Part 2: Romania that’s bound to get your heart pumping. Tour medieval citadels, astonishing castles, and haunted forests while you build your aerobic aptitude.

Would you like to prioritize weight lifting? Sweat it out with iFIT Trainer Paulo Barreto in a 4-part Kettlebell Progression Series. You’ll get a dynamic weight lifting workout that’s focused on increasing your familiarity with kettlebells while learning how to maintain great form, build body awareness, and increase your strength. Prefer working out with a classic set of dumbbells? Join iFIT Trainer Cody Beyster for his 15-class Total-Body Strength Series. These workouts will improve your muscular strength through hypertrophy training. All you need is a medium set of dumbbells and your bodyweight.

Sign up for your free iFIT 30-day trial to start a cardio or weight lifting workout today!

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. iFIT assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article. Always follow the safety precautions included in the owner’s manual of your fitness equipment.

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