Cardio or Strength: Which Comes First?
Our expert sheds new light on this age-old, workout-stacking debate.
Whether an order of importance applies to your workout has long been a source of controversy and confusion. To see the desired end, where to start—cardio or strength?
One common theory has been that what you complete first is where you see the most gains, because you’re coming into it fresh, with more energy, and are able to push yourself harder during that segment. However, new science shows the opposite could be true as well.
“While starting fresh can improve your performance in the session itself, it does not speak to your ability to adapt and grow as a result of that workout,” says Matt Berenc, director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. “In one recent study, researchers found that when cardio was followed by strength, the strength molecular response was much stronger, and the body was left with the signal to build muscle, but when endurance training was at the end of the session, the endurance molecular signal was stronger and strength adaptations were reduced.”
In other words, you might be better served if the quality (or adaptations) that you’re looking to accomplish most are done last.
“After resistance training your body activates a specific pathway that stimulates protein synthesis, which signals the body to build more muscle, and post-endurance training, that pathway is shut down, so stacking workouts in that order could limit your potential for recovery and muscle growth,” says Berenc.
Ultimately, the way you choose to structure your training really depends on your personal goals and schedule, and you shouldn’t get too caught up on following the “correct” sequencing of things. In fact, another recent study (out of Finland) showed that the loading order actually played no role in exercisers’ end results anyway. But no matter how you lay things out, you do need a plan going in. “If you’re doing back-to-back workouts, don’t go to the gym and just try to figure it out,” notes Berenc. “You’re putting an increased amount of stress on your body, and you want to make sure you’re structuring it so that you can progress and you’re not doing too much or overtraining.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules, but here are some ways to maximize a back-to-back session:
Separate (instead of stacking) lengthy sessions.
“If you’re doing more than 90 minutes of cardio, you should consider splitting your workouts and waiting a little bit before starting your strength session (unless you’re training for something that requires you do them back-to-back),” says Berenc. “There are definitely going to be some benefits to completing your workouts on different days, or separating them as long as possible from each other.”
Consider refueling mid-workout.
Whether you’re doing your strength and cardio in one fell swoop or separately, be sure to eat something—ideally containing 20 to 30 grams of protein with a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1, carbs to protein—within 90 minutes of your first session. “Replenishing your glycogen stores is essential to create a positive environment for building muscle,” he says. And if you’re exercising for an extended period of time, remember to refuel as you go.
Speed your recovery with sleep.
“Your body is going to respond better to your training if you allow time between workouts to properly recover,” notes Berenc. When working back-to-back sessions, make sleep a priority. “Your muscles rebuild themselves twice as fast when you’re sleeping than when you’re awake, and the average adult needs roughly 7.5 hours of shut-eye per night,” he says.
Once you have something written up, give it time to actually work, recommends Berenc. “If you really want to see results (endurance and/or strength), you need to give your program at least six weeks to get the job done.”