Does Exercise Order Matter?

Which should you do first, cardio or strength training?

You just walked into the gym. You locked up your bag, pulled up your playlist, plugged in your headphones, and you’re ready to go. Only, you’re not sure which section of the gym to hit first. Should you start off with a quick bit of cardio; work up a sweat on the stair master, pound out a mile or two on the treadmill? Or hit up the weights for a strength training session before you pump up your heart rate?

The short answer to this question: it depends on your goals.

For those simply aiming to improve their overall fitness, exercise order may not matter at all. A recent study published in the journal “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” determined that over the course of 24 weeks participants gained the same increases in both muscle mass and aerobic capacity whether they began their workouts with strength training or cardio.

The study, which examined two groups of physically active young men, involved two to three weekly workouts comprised of a stationary bike cardio session and a leg press strength training session. At the end of the 24-week period, researchers concluded that both groups had significantly increased their aerobic power and lean muscle mass, but that there were no differences between the two groups.

“These results indicate that loading order does not seem to affect training adaptations of healthy moderately active young men,” the study’s publishers wrote.

However, aside from this small study the topic hasn’t been thoroughly researched, and many trainers and fitness experts continue to tout the benefits of making strength training priority number one, especially for the sake of weight-lifting safety and injury prevention.

Russell Wynter and Crystal Reeves, NASM certified Master Trainers and co-owners of MadSweat personal training services weigh in: “Your body uses energy stored in your muscles called glycogen for fuel. If your glycogen stores are low, as they are after cardio, this can affect your energy levels and cause fatigue during heavy lifting,” they shared. “You want to have as much available fuel in the tank as possible for pushing those heavy weights around the gym.”

Wynter and Reeves, who together have over 18 years of industry experience, also recommend this strategy because it can increase excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the “after burn effect”; an added bonus that can be especially beneficial for exercisers who are aiming to lose weight.

“By doing your workouts in this order you’ll not only burn calories during your workout, but for as long as up to 48 hours afterwards,” they said.

But say you’ve just signed up for your first 5k that’s a month or two down the road and your current short term goal is to cross the finish line on race day; in a situation like this you’ll probably want to place a slightly greater emphasis on your cardio workouts.

“Weight training can help strengthen your running but your main focus is running so the depletion of glycogen doesn’t become as great of a factor when you’re not lifting heavy,” the two trainers said.

At the end of the day, effective exercise is all about assessing your goals and implementing a plan that emphasizes your priorities. And most of all, as Wynter says, “Whichever order gets you off the couch and moving is going to be the best order for you.”