Should you do cardio before or after weights? This question must first be qualified by figuring out what goal is the most important to you.
Most everyone wants to be as lean as possible (low body fat percentage), yet at the same time, have a good amount of muscle packed onto their frame.
Some individuals pack muscle on fairly easily (mesomorphs), while others struggle dearly (ectomorphs).
Some lose fat easily with diet and exercise (mesomorphs); some even wonder if their body has any fat (ectomorphs); and some struggle to lose excess fat (endomorphs).
The answer to “cardio or weights first” is different for different trainees.
The confusion over cardio before weights or after assumes that the trainee, for whatever reasons, cannot separate cardio days from weightlifting days.
With that in mind, here is what the trainee should do, depending on fitness goals.
Maximal Muscle Building
The scheme should be cardio after weights. The reason is obvious; you want your muscles to be as “fresh” as can be, prior to heavy training.
No prior aerobics means that muscle fibers will be able to gorge on a hefty supply of glycogen—stored sugar in muscle cells—to subsidize a workout for optimal hypertrophy.
Cardio before weights would thwart this game plan, as the aerobic exercise would suck up a lot of the glycogen.
There’s a psychological component involved too. One can mentally deal with the idea of running on a treadmill or pedaling the elliptical following heavy bench presses, squats, deadlifts and T-bar rows.
However, try feeling good imagining yourself sinking your teeth into heavy barbell squats, deadlifts, bench presses and T-bar rows after wearing yourself out on a treadmill.
Maximal Fat Loss
The scenario gets very interesting with this goal.
The ideal scheme isn’t cardio after weights.
It isn’t weights before cardio, either.
It’s inserting bits and pieces of cardio in between weightlifting sets!
This can be referred to as integrated concurrent exercise.
How Is This Done?
An example would be to stick in a 30-60 second sprint on your favorite cardio equipment between every weightlifting set. Thus, after the bench press, hop on the treadmill and run 10 mph for a minute.
Do another bench press set, then hop on the treadmill and repeat; or, get on the revolving staircase and put the speed at high to force yourself to run the steps for 30 seconds, then return to the bench press (or dumbbell row, chin-up, leg press, etc.).
The entire workout consists of this pattern. It will burn more fat than if you lift before cardio or lift after the aerobics. Research from the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of California at Berkley showed this.
This protocol resulted in a greater after-burn (accelerated metabolism) than did the other two protocols. In fact, the integrated concurrent exercise group burned about 10 times more fat over the 11-week study period.
Did They Gain Muscle?
They had an 82 percent greater increase in muscle mass than did the other two groups! How could this be? The researchers believe that the integrated approach enhanced recovery time, leading to a perception of less soreness.
What often occurs after strength training is a phenomenon called DOMS: delayed onset muscle soreness, believed to be caused by microscopic tears in the connective tissue.
If the repair process is sped up, then trainees will go into each workout feeling more recovered, and thus, able to work harder and lose more fat and gain more muscle.
What if the goal is equal between fat loss and muscle building? Or what if an already very lean person wants to gain only a moderate degree of muscle rather than get huge?
The weights or cardio first factor may boil down to personal preference.
If you feel better, including psychologically, pedaling hard on a stationary bike before lifting barbells and dumbbells, then this will probably work better for you simply because, psychologically, it’s more inviting.
If your mindset is to attack the squat rack and dumbbell presses with “fresh” muscles, and then conclude with a hard run, then that’s probably your best approach.
In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all answer in many cases. There is a bell curve of training goals. Most people want to build muscle and lose fat without looking hulked up.
The fringes want to build gigantic muscles, or just tone and firm up. Both those fringe groups, however, want to have a low body fat percentage as well.
Even if slashing body fat isn’t a priority, a trainee seeking only moderate hypertrophy may simply prefer the environment of integrated concurrent exercise, finding it mentally easier to handle.
To find out what kind of program will work best for you, whether your primary goal is busting fat or building lots of lean muscle mass, you’ll want to read No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program by Vince DelMonte.
No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program provides 29 training programs that change from week to week, and covers all sorts of hypertrophy and fat burning approaches, plus includes meal plans to support your training.