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Cardio before or after weight lifting: Which one is better for weight loss?

The answer isn't as simple as you might think.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
4 min read
what comes first cardio or weights

Cardio and strength training are both great forms of exercise -- but which one should you do first?

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Love it or hate it --- cardio and weight training are the foundation of most workout programs. And if you workout at a gym regularly, chances are you have a preference on whether you like to hit the cardio machines or the weight room first. For me, the order usually depends on what I'm in the mood for, but I gravitate towards cardio first since I'm kinda an endorphins-rush addict. But is there a real case for doing one over the other first? And what does science have to say?

As with many controversial topics in wellness and fitness , it all comes down to goals. Lots of people split their workout sessions at the gym between cardio and strength training, and the order that you do the exercises can have an impact on your results. The science is actually inconclusive about if one is better than the other to do first -- it all depends on whether you want to lose weight, gain muscle or improve overall health. So, it can help to first evaluate your goals and then decide which order may be best for you.

Keep reading to find out why you may want to do cardio or weights first, and how to tell which best fits your goals. Oh and don't forget to properly warm up, no matter which workout you pick.

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What are your goals?

When it comes to deciding whether to do cardio or weights first during your workouts, it's a good idea to start with your goals. Do you want to lose weight or gain muscle tone? Maybe you want to improve your endurance or build bigger muscles. 

One common misconception is that cardio is the most important exercise for losing weight, but both cardio and strength training are important for this.

The case for doing cardio first

cardio vs weights

Cardio exercise, like running, is effective for increasing your heart rate and burning calories.

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Cardio is well-documented to be effective at burning calories. If you lift weights for 30 minutes versus doing any other cardio activity for the same amount of time, cardio will burn more calories. With that in mind, you may want to start your workouts with cardio at a steady intensity to get into the heart rate zone you need for burning fat. You can then transition into weight lifting, which will create an "afterburn," that helps burns calories after you're done exercising.

You don't even necessarily need to work your body hard to reap the benefits of a cardio workout. "Cardiovascular exercise at a lower intensity (in the fat burning zone/aerobic training zone) will help you to lose weight. [But] it needs to be sustained for longer periods of time," said Mollie Millington, a personal trainer based in London. 

Lifting weights first, especially if you are lifting heavy using your entire body, will tire you out before you make it to the cardio portion of your workout. That means you might cut your workout short and not reap the calorie-burning benefit of cardio -- especially if you want to burn as many calories you can in a set amount of time. That said, try both starting with cardio and starting with weight lifting to get a sense of what works best for you. If you are performing exercises with light weights, that can help get your heart rate up and get your body ready for running, biking or another cardio activity.

Lastly, if you like to run, bike or swim and want to improve your speed or overall endurance, then choosing cardio first is smart because you're going into those workouts fresh. This way you are starting with the most important exercise for your long-term goals and will make progress more quickly.

The case for doing weights first 

cardio vs weights

Lifting weights and performing strength training exercises is the most effective way to build muscle.

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If your main goal is to improve your strength, be able to lift heavy things or build more muscle, then lifting weights first is best. Don't tire out your body by doing cardio first. The less tired you are, the more repetitions you'll be able to do with correct form -- and good form is crucial for performing strength training exercises safely and effectively. 

Doing weights first may also be helpful for fat loss when combined with cardio, according to Millington. "In theory, doing weights first would put your body into aerobic mode [so] by the time you to get to running, you will already be in aerobic/fat burning state. So you may maintain [that aerobic state] longer while running and thus use fat as an energy source," Millington said. Like I said above, this is best when you are lifting lighter weights that don't fatigue your entire body.

Finally, even though science is pretty inconclusive about if one if doing cardio or weights first is best, one thing that's very clear is that doing both is beneficial. Studies show that doing a combination of the two is best for overall health, increasing muscle and reducing body fat. 

If you want to do both cardio and weight training at 100% effort, then you can try doing them on separate days, allowing your body to recover in between. If you prefer to do both at once, see what feels and works best for you.

"I am a firm believer in doing what you love. Exercise can be fun," Millington said. "If you are in the groove during your warm up on the treadmill and having fun, don't stop to do weights. Keep going until you are ready to change to weights. Or if you prefer weights to running, start off with a shorter run and then 'treat' yourself to weights," Millington said.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.