Should Cardio Come Before Or After Lifting?

Within the health and fitness world, the cardio and lifting camps have long been at odds. Occasionally, you’ll encounter the hardliners who strictly shun one of these methods out of fear that it will impede their progress in the other. Most of the time, though, people are much more moderate, trying their best to make these conflicting modalities coexist peacefully.

This balance, however, can be a real challenge. Even if you’ve decided that you’re going to include both cardio and lifting in each of your workouts, you’re going to have some decisions to make. There is, for example, a fairly heated debate around the topic of order. Should cardio come before or after lifting?

The Confusing and Contradicting Evidence

By far, the factor that makes this debate so difficult to sort through is the research. Which really isn’t how it’s supposed to be. These studies are supposed to answer the questions. Instead, people are generally able to find a study to support their particular point of view – whatever that is.

For example, a 2014 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) looked at the impact of exercise order on workout efficacy. Specifically, this study messed with the order in which subjects performed cardio, strength, flexibility, and neuromotor training, and then compared their progress.

At the end, it was concluded that performing strength and then cardio sped up the participants heart rate by about 12 bpm without any changes in duration or intensity. (The order of the other training styles didn’t matter. And they don’t factor into this discussion anyway. So that’s convenient.)

So, that seems pretty clear, right? According to the study’s authors, these findings suggest that cardio should be done first since the increase in heart rate could make the entire workout seem more challenging and would therefore make it difficult to accomplish as much.

Of course, those findings could easily be spun in the other direction. One could read that and view it as an argument for strength first, since this order would make you work harder and therefore burn more calories.

And the authors of the this study acknowledge exactly that. According to the researchers, exercise order will depend entirely on your needs and goals.

Supporting Your Goals

So, how can you order your workouts to complement your goals? Here are a few guidelines to help you decide.

Goal Order
Improve cardio performance Cardio first
Increase strength Lift first
Lose weight Lift first
General fitness Your choice

It’s also important to think about what you’ll be doing in a given workout. For example, if you’ll be working your lower body, it’s better to do strength before cardio on that day. In fact, you will see the greatest gains if you skip cardio completely and allow your legs to rest.

On upper-body days, you could technically do either strength or cardio first since you (presumably) won’t be running on your hands.

Really, there is no clear answer to the question of whether cardio or strength training should come first. The order will depend entirely on your goals and even the design of a particular workout.