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Which Comes First - Cardio or Weights?

Muscle, ounce for ounce, burns three times more calories than fat.
Muscle burns about 3x
more calories than fat.

"What should I do first, cardio or weights?" It's one of the questions I get asked more often than almost any other. Both forms of exercise are beneficial, so it would seem logical that doing them in some sort of sequence would provide optimum results.

There's just one problem.

As of April 2007, there are NO studies that looked at the long-term effects of exercise sequencing (cardio or weight training first) on body fat, muscle mass or strength.

Don't get me wrong; dozens of studies that show adding a weight training program to a strictly cardio workout are beneficial. That's been a well-established medical fact for over 20 years now. Weight training and cardio are both essential for a healthy body. What those studies failed to look at is if you have a limited amount of time, which one should come first?

While there were no long-term studies, there was a short one performed on ten subjects over the course of a few days. It's certainly not definitive, but at least it's a starting point. It was led by Micah Drummond at the Human Performance Research Center in Brigham Young University. The researchers were looking at post-exercise metabolism.

They tested subjects in three ways: Resistance training only, resistance training before cardio and cardio before resistance training. After exercising, the metabolism of the subjects who did cardio first and weight training afterward was highest. So, for maximum caloric expenditure, the researchers "recommend performing aerobic exercise before resistance exercise when combining them into 1 exercise session."

Simple right? For the highest level of metabolic burn after a workout, the single, short-term study says do cardio first. But there are problems with that recommendation and it all boils down to muscle.

Most people burn calories at an elevated level for approximately 2 hours after a workout. Once the elevated metabolic effect of the workout is over, your metabolism returns to normal. However, the people who have more muscle continue to burn more calories all the other hours of the day.

With that in mind, I searched for studies that looked to see which combination produced the greatest muscle growth.

Drs. Zeljka Sporer and Howard Wenger at the School of Physical Education in the University of Victoria tested subjects to see if the "type and intensity of aerobic training affects performance in a subsequent strength-training session after varying periods of recovery." In a nutshell, they wanted to find out IF cardio was done first, would it diminish a weight-training program that followed? And if it did, for how long?

They tested 16 subjects and the results were simple. "...when aerobic training precedes strength training, the volume of work that can be performed is diminished for up to 8 hours. This impairment appears to be localized to the muscle groups involved in the aerobic training." What that means is if you do cardio first, the muscles you use for the cardio workout won't be able to work as hard during the weight training part of your workout. That's a problem.

If the weight-training portion of your workout suffers, your muscle growth is going to suffer. If your muscle growth suffers, leaving you with smaller muscles, your daily average metabolism won't be as high. With a lower metabolism, it's harder to drop the excess fat and get in shape because you burn fewer calories all day long.

What Drs. Sporer and Wenger also showed in their study is that strength returned to near normal if there were eight or more hours between the cardio and strength training programs.

So what's the bottom line?

  • In an ideal world, if you had the time, you should do one type of exercise (cardio or weights) first thing in the morning. Then, after your body has had time to recover (8 hours or more), go back and do the other type of exercise. Another variation of this would be to alternate the days you train with weights and the days you do your aerobic workouts.

  • If you can only workout once each day, and you need to get both strength and aerobic workouts in together, you should base the exercise sequence on your goals. If you're training for endurance capacity and are less interested in muscle gains, do cardio first. If you want optimum strength and muscle mass, put the weight training first.

  • If you're training for a specific event or test, such as the fitness test given to firefighters or a triathlon competition, sequence your exercises in the order the event or test will occur.

  • Finally, if you're trying to lose fat and maximize muscle growth, do the weight training first and follow it up with cardio afterward. The weight workout first will build more muscle mass, and that extra muscle will burn more calories (and fat) for an entire day.

NOTE: Warming Up before a weight training session is not the same as a cardio workout. You should always warm-up, anywhere from 8-15 minutes before you start working out to get the most out of any weight training session.

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