Cardio training: Hit it before or after weights?

Watercooler talk, demystified.

Cardio training: Hit it before or after weights?
Three fitness professionals weigh in on the big question

Andrew Lauterstein, Beijing Olympic Swimming medallist, Crossfit Games Champion, and trainer at Ninja Camp Bali

I find that doing heavy lifting prior to cardio training allows for greater strength gains, fat loss, and better motivation. The main reason for this approach is that it allows you to move heavier weights with better technique since you're not too tired from an aerobic workout. The science behind it is that the glycogen stores can be depleted during a cardio workout, making it harder for you to apply the same force during the weight session. Our brain agrees. The "perceived exertion" rates (how hard the exercise feels) is usually higher when you do cardio before strength training. This simply means that if you execute the same weights routine, but do cardio first, it feels much harder than doing the same exact workout. 

Rather than only focusing on structuring your fitness routine around weights and cardio, you shouldn't forget about the mobility portion of the training. My typical routine would consist of strength building (back squats, strict pull-ups, seated overhead dumbbell presses, and lunges with dumbbells), followed by 20-minute rowing intervals. Add to this eight minutes of mobility to finish — alternating four x one-minute rounds of hanging from a pull-up bar, and sitting at the bottom of a squat. Finally, schedule some activities to diversify your overall range of movement. Try various yoga styles to suit you. Yin yoga is practiced daily at Ninja Camp Bali for its restorative benefits. On top of that, incorporating some active fun and adventure like surfing and rock climbing into your social life will help make your fitness programme a lifestyle, not a routine.

Shaik, Fitness Professional, Virgin Active Fitness Clubs  

The decision to hit cardio training before or after weights depends on your fitness goals. Are you looking to build muscle mass or lose weight? Due to the process of protein synthesis during each workout, there are several schools of thought surrounding this question. Cardio training is a catabolism workout (protein breakdown) while weight training is an anabolic workout (protein synthesis). The two conflicting stimuli in these workouts eventually 'cancel' out the impact each has on your body. To maximise your workout, consider your fitness goals and focus on what you want to achieve.

If you want to lose weight, start with cardio. Doing cardio first helps to consume most of your glycogen (the body's primary source of fuel) stores. By kicking start the consumption, the body will then start burning fats once the glycogen stores are depleted. Do note that long durations of cardio may have a negative impact on muscle growth.

Cardio vs weights

Conversely, hit the weights first if you want to build muscle mass. Building muscle mass can only be achieved through weight training. Engaging in cardio exercise may cause muscle fatigue and you may not be able to complete intensive weight training thereafter, compromising on your key workout.

To make the best out of your workout, try to schedule your sessions for cardio and weights separately, at least 8 to 12 hours apart. However, if you have to combine your workouts due to time constraints, I would recommend starting off with weights before proceeding with cardio. Always give yourself ample time to recover and replenish your glycogen stores after each workout. Load yourself with proper nutrition to prevent protein breakdown and increase muscle synthesis.


Alexander Salihin, Managing Partner and Trainer at Level

I believe in efficient training that "fits in" and allows time for other important matters. By efficient, I mean demanding, quality workouts that create the proper stimulus with measurable results. Why not compress your training sessions and get your cardio during your strength session, instead of the usual "cardio before or after" mindset? As an example, you can do your weight training set, say a set of 8 - 12 reps of barbell squats, then ​jump rope for a ​brief and intense 30-60 seconds before going back to the next weight training set. Repeat this for six sets.

​Combine a hard workout and​ challenge yourself with the heaviest weight you can lift with clean form. As multiple muscle groups are activated simultaneously during the strength movements, pairing this off with a HIIT exercise per group helps to burn calories at a very high rate. At the end of the day, your training routine need not be overly complicated. It should be simple yet effective and should not eat into your time to get other more significant things in life done. 

Text: Denise Kok

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