Cardio Or Strength First? How To Sequence Workouts For Success

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Health and fitness experts recommend engaging in a well-rounded exercise routine that includes both cardio exercise and strength training. In fact, even the guidelines for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involve performing both aerobic and total-body strength training workouts every week.

Therefore, depending on your availability to train and your overall fitness goals, you might want to do cardio and strength in the same workout session, which then begs the question: should you do cardio or strength training first?

Are there benefits of doing cardio before strength training, or should you do strength before cardio?

In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of doing cardio or strength first when you are sequencing both workouts back to back in the same exercise session to help you get the most out of your workouts and achieve whatever fitness goals you may have.

We will cover: 

  • Should You Do Cardio Or Strength First?

Let’s jump in!

People doing cardio, running on treadmills.

Should You Do Cardio Or Strength First?

When you are planning your workouts for the week, or even trying to decide how to structure your gym session on a given day, if you don’t tend to pre-plan in advance, one of the most important considerations is what type of exercise you will do that day.

Will it be a cardio workout like a run, HIIT workout, or spin class? Or is it going to be a strength training workout like lifting weights at the gym or doing bodyweight circuit training at home?

Of course, any of these types of exercise can be great, but if you have the time and motivation, you may want to do a cardio and strength training workout in the same session.

Doubling up with cardio and strength can be a great way to challenge several important components of health-related fitness (aerobic endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and body composition), burn more calories, make more efficient use of your time, and train your body to be more economical from an energy standpoint.

Doing both cardio and strength in the same workout session is challenging because if you do cardio first, your muscles will be fatigued, and your glycogen stores may be somewhat depleted before you start lifting weights, depending on the type of cardio exercise you did, the intensity and duration of your cardio workout, and your fueling strategy. 

A class at the gym doing strength first, with the renegade row exercise.

But now the question is, cardio or strength first?

For example, if you do a HIIT indoor cycling workout or spin class at the gym and then try to hit the weights for squats, deadlifts, and other lower-body resistance training exercises, your legs might feel like Jell-O. This can make it difficult, if not impossible, to get the most out of your strength training workout.

If you do strength before cardio, a similar thing can occur. For example, if you do a hard leg workout and then try to go running, your legs might be spent and feel either heavy and “dead” or like wobbly noodles.

Given the physiological demands from both a muscular endurance and standpoint, dual strength and cardio in the same workout is often not advisable for beginners unless both portions of your workout are relatively short and within your means.

For example, a beginner might be able to do 15 to 20 minutes of low- or moderate-intensity steady-state cardio, such as cycling or swimming, and then hit the weights for some light resistance training or even bodyweight exercises, sticking with just a set or two of a handful of exercises to cap off the workout.

Two people on assault bikes.

The entire session might be just 25-30 minutes and be varied enough that no single muscle group gets totally worked to exhaustion.

Overall, whether you should do cardio or strength training first depends on numerous factors, so there isn’t a single “right“ answer that will apply to everyone. Either scenario has the potential to be “better“ than the other, depending on your fitness goals, fitness level, and the workouts you are doing.

Let’s delve deeper into the factors to consider when deciding whether to do strength training or cardio first:

#1: Your Overall Fitness Goals

Ultimately, the single most important factor to consider when deciding if you should do strength training before cardio or your cardio before strength training is your primary fitness goal. 

The workout that you do first should best align with your training goals and priorities.

For example, if you are a runner and are trying to decide if you should run before or after lifting weights, in most cases, you should do your run before strength training so that your body is fresh and ready to perform optimally for the running workout.

A person doing a single kettlebell swing.

Although strength training is an important component of your overall fitness routine, it is supplemental and supportive to your running training, which is the bread and butter of your workout program.

On the other hand, if you are trying to build muscle and make significant improvements in your strength with heavy resistance training workouts, but you know that you should also be including cardio exercise for your overall health and to help you achieve your body composition goals, you should sequence your strength before cardio.

This will ensure that your cardio workout does not detract from your ability to perform high-intensity, maximal-effort resistance training exercises.

Running, cycling, rowing, stair climbing, or using an elliptical machine before hitting the weights and then planning to do an intensive hypertrophy-focused workout will leave you in a partially depleted and fatigued state before you even get started on your first set. 

This may compromise the total training value you can do in your strength exercises, and more importantly, it will compromise your ability to execute the movements with proper form and technique.

A person smiling on a row machine.

For example, if you do an interval workout on the rower, which is a full-body exercise, and then you hit the weights for a push/pull workout routine, your lats, shoulders, biceps, and triceps may still be quaking from your rowing workout.

Therefore, in general, you should always start with the type of workout that is most in line with your primary fitness goal, be it training for a specific sport, increasing strength or building muscle, or improving aerobic endurance.

The only real caveat here is cases where the cardio workout and strength training workout focus on very different muscle groups, and neither workout is particularly long.

For example, if you are training for a triathlon and have a cycling workout you end up doing on your smart trainer at home and then plan to do an upper body strength circuit with your adjustable dumbbells, you can theoretically do your weightlifting before you hop on the trainer if that’s more appealing to you for one reason or another.

Because cycling predominantly works just the lower body and your strength training circuit for the day is targeting just the upper body, there won’t be much overlap in the muscles used and resultant carryover fatigue.

If you aren’t training for a specific sport and your goal is just to be fit overall, it doesn’t really matter whether you do strength or cardio first if you plan to do both in the same workout.

Varying your routine at the gym by sometimes heading to the cardio machines first and then hitting the weights and then vice versa is ideal. That way, neither type of training is always the one relegated to play second fiddle.

People doing kettlebell squats in a gym class.

#2: Your Fitness Level

In general, if you are a beginner who is trying to engage in a well-rounded fitness program that includes both strength and cardio exercise, it is often best to do your strength training first. 

Strength training exercises need to be performed with proper form to reduce the risk of injury. If you do your cardio first and “pre-exhaust“ your muscles, it might be harder to maintain neuromuscular control, focus, and strength to employ optimal execution with your strength exercises.

Of course, using proper form is also to coordinate with cardio, but most types of aerobic exercise are a little more intuitive and take less mental focus to ensure you are using the right technique. Plus, you don’t have an external load on your body, which can further increase the risk of injury.

Lastly, if you are facing the conundrum of whether you should do strength or cardio first, kudos to you! This indicates that you are clearly dedicated to your training program, and doubling up is no easy feat.

If you are just getting started on your fitness journey, we have a long list of cardio workout ideas to keep your training interesting: 16 Fun Cardio Ideas.

People dancing in a zumba class.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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