Every day thousands of people walk into the gym pumped up and ready to do some healthy exercise, and they stop between the rows of elliptical machines and free weight and ask themselves- where do I start? Should I do the weightlifting before the cardio?
So is it better to weightlift before cardio? The short answer is Yes. Although cardio burns more calories than weightlifting, studies have shown that strength training before cardio results in an average increase of heart rate of 12 BPM (beats per minute) over a cardio first routine. Source
Additionally, cardio first workouts have been shown to drain the muscles of strength and endurance, so they perform poorly during the strength training aspect of the workout. The cause of this decrease in energy and endurance when cardio is performed first is the depletion of glycogen, the body’s primary source of fuel for workouts.
Every person is built differently and therefore we respond differently to exercise, but some generalities may be followed to get some very universally attainable results.
Just as there are three or four accepted learning styles, each very different from the next but sometimes used in conjunction with each other, exercise rules are not meant to box you into one set of guidelines or another rather give you options and variation. Your routine should be consistent with your final goal, whether that is to get lean and toned or jacked and musclebound.
Why it is Better to do Cardio Last
It takes the body time to restore the supply of glycogen once it is depleted; therefore, the most effective strategy is to use the available glycogen for strength training and weightlifting and use the remaining energy to power through a cardio exercise for increased calorie burn.
Muscles are permanently small motors that burn energy so logically the larger you make these motors, the more energy they will burn. By increasing overall muscle size and efficacy the subject will burn more calories during both weight training and cardio.
Each person must consider their end goal and decide for themselves based on the results they are looking to achieve. There are a lot of other factors that will quietly rob you of hard-earned gains in the gym.
Things like an irregularity in the frequency of your workouts, poor nutritional choices, and not to be confused with the first point, not changing your workout from time to time.
To muddy the waters further, there is an endless stream of pseudo-science and malarkey telling us that everything we thought we knew is wrong.
Ultra-performance athletes are always looking for that one small difference that will give them the competitive advantage over their opponents, but regular folks like you and I can find a system that works for and stick to it. Follow along as I explain why it is better to do the weightlifting before the cardio portion of your workout.
Cardio or Weights: What Should I do First?
What you previously read that weight training should be done before cardio, but it helps to understand the reasons. When your workout plan consists of weightlifting and cardio, you have to consider that there are two jobs to be done: one hard and one easy.
Not that one is harder than the other, but one certainly requires more energy than the other. Weightlifting requires the greatest amount of the available glycogen in the body to fuel the large muscle movements.
Assuming that you continue to work out consistently the benefits will begin to grow exponentially at this point because you will be growing more lean muscle mass, thereby requiring more calories to fuel them.
These muscles will continue to consume an above average number of calories long after the weight training session is over and you have moved on to the cardio side. In addition to the larger muscles and the increased calorie burning potential, recent studies have shown that strength training before cardio results in an increased heart rate for the same amount of work.
This fact means that for approximately the next 38 hours the body is in a heightened state of caloric consumption. So long after your workout, while you sit on the couch watching TV, you are still burning calories!
On the flip side, should you do the cardio aspect of the workout first you will consume the majority of the available energy stored in the body?
The weight training portion, which requires a lot more glycogen, will be a short, unproductive waste of time in which you will only have the energy stores to do a few repetitions at a fraction of your usual weights and intensity.
Considering that lean muscles are a source of constant calorie burn, the focus should be on improving their ability rather than burning a few calories right now doing a light jog on the treadmill. As an example imagine you have a bicycle race this weekend.
At some point during the race, you will have to climb the big hill obstacle course, and you get to choose when you do it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to do it in the beginning when you have all of your energy rather than at the end of the race when you are exhausted from the day’s work?
Weightlifting is the big hill in this analogy, and it is best to get it out of the way, then it’s all downhill from there.
Does My Diet Matter?
Absolutely! The food you eat becomes the source of the energy you expend during a workout. If you intend to put in a good set which includes a rigorous weight training session followed by a good bit of cardio, you will need the energy from the food you consumed that day.
Also, why go through the grueling activity of working out if you are going to consume the calories you just burned? Remember that weight loss, which is the primary goal for most exercises, happens when you burn more calories than you consume. This must be done in a safe and controlled manner, but the principle applies.
Can I Alternate Doing Cardio Before Weightlifting?
Of course, you can alternate your workouts, and it is even recommended to avoid the dreaded plateau effect. This can happen when the body becomes accustomed to the exercises you do and the order in which you do them.
Muscle memory kicks in when you do the same routine every time and growth becomes stagnant: you have plateaued. To keep your muscles from getting bored, you must change the types of muscle exercises you do.
So instead of putting cardio first and doing the same weightlifting routine afterward find new movements to make with weights or change the order in which you do them to confuse the muscles and make them grow again.
What if I Don’t Want Big Muscles?
Contrary to popular belief weightlifting isn’t only for Mr. Universe hopefuls and professional bodybuilders. Weights are used to tone muscles and increase the ratio of fat to muscle.
By using lesser weights, you can shape your muscles and define them rather than bulk up. The recipe for toning with weights is low weight and high repetitions while the opposite is true for muscle building. Because you are using low weights during a toning exercise, you can perform more reps before fatigue sets in.
Alternately, during the growing exercises, you will use very heavy weights and will only be able to repeat the movement a four or five times before the muscles fatigue. Regardless of the objective and the type of weightlifting you do, it should come before the cardio aspect to give you the most effective and longest lasting results possible for the effort.
The Question: Run or Not to Run
A lot of people dislike the act of jogging, and many sports medicine professionals would recommend an exercise with less friction to the hips and knees. Such alternatives can produce much better results and include exercises like the elliptical machines, rowing stations or cross-country skiing bikes.
These can work in different areas of the muscular system while giving you the increased heart rate which you look for in cardio. Running and jogging outdoors has the benefit of changing scenery and the advantages of running on uneven and varying surfaces, while an exercise bike can become monotonous and boring.
It depends on the person and the way each exercise feels to them. If there is discomfort in jogging, you should give something else a try as exercise is about to find out a system that works for your body.
Making the Most of your Workout
To achieve the results you are working very hard for it is essential to stay focused on your goals and make milestones that you can measure and reach with some effort.
Start your exercise with the tough stuff like weight training and muscle conditioning so that you have the energy to get in a decent cardio session before fatigue sets in.
By keeping the order of weights before cardio consistent but varying the types of exercises, you do you will promote healthy, lean muscle growth and send your body into a calorie burning overdrive.
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