There is no simple answer to this question, as it depends greatly on what you want to achieve in your workout, personal preference and even on the time you have to exercise.
For most of the population, it is challenge enough simply to find time to fit in both cardio and strength training, and doing them in a specific order may make it more difficult to achieve this.
However, if you do have specific goals in terms of your fitness, exercise regime and weight loss, there may be some benefit in doing the different parts of your workout in a particular order.
If you want overall better health
The main thing to remember is that exercise, especially made up of both cardio and weight training components, will benefit your health. Both cardio and weight training play a major part in losing or maintaining a healthy body weight, as well as reducing risks of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes or heart disease.
For this reason, the most important thing is that you get to the gym and do your workout, and the order does not really matter too much and can be adjusted to personal preference.
You may find that doing cardio and weight training on different days is a good option, as it prevents fatigue from doing the other type of exercise first from affecting your workout. For example, if you do cardio first, your technique may suffer during weight training due to fatigue, and similarly lifting weights first may tire you out and mean you cannot complete such an intensive cardio session. Technique is particularly important when lifting weights to avoid injury.
Another option is to choose a workout method such as interval or circuit training, which offers a combination of cardio and strengthening exercises interspersed throughout the workout.
If you want to burn fat
If you are looking to burn as many calories as possible in order to lose fat, you may be better off doing cardio first. Although weight training does aid fat loss, cardio burns more calories than resistance training, if only because you can do it for longer.
If you lift weights first, you may be unable to complete such as long cardio session due to fatigue, so it may be better to leave weights until after or do them on a different day.
It is also essential to remember that whilst both cardio and weights will help to lose fat, a healthy diet must also be followed in order to get optimum results.
If you want to increase muscle strength and size
If bulking up is your primary goal, then it stands to reason that lifting weights preferentially is the best way to achieve this. Muscle contraction requires glycogen, a readily available stored form of energy, and if this is depleted by doing cardio training first, your weights may be less effective.
Although some cardio is good for your overall health, a lot of this may make it difficult to build muscle as some muscle may be broken down as a fuel source for cardio based activities if enough energy is not readily available. For this reason, if muscle building is your goal, moderate your cardio to a level where you feel the fitness benefits, but are not burning excess energy. (see also: Top 10 foods for building muscle)
If you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness
If improving your fitness is your goal, it makes sense to do the cardio part of your workout first when you are fresh and have maximum energy to build your endurance levels.
Whether your goal is to run a marathon or simply increase the distance you are capable of running, it is not advisable to do weight exercises before as this may cause injury due to fatigue.
One New Zealand study suggested that running economy was impaired for up to eight hours after a short duration, high intensity period of resistance training.
This may be especially important for those training for an endurance event such as a long run where a training run may be less effective if a resistance workout is carried out beforehand.
For best results add strengthening activities or different days to your cardio workouts, or at the very least do the cardio before the resistance training.
Consistency and duration is the key for maximum benefits
Remember that the key to getting the maximum benefits from your workout is to be consistent and stick with it in the long term. For this reason, it is necessary to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible to complete your training program.
Some people prefer to do different types of exercise at different times of day, for example a morning run, so if you have these preferences try to stick with them as it will make it easier to maintain in the long term.
If you don’t really enjoy part of your routine, try joining a group class to increase motivation, such as a spin class for cardio or a Pilates or strength training group if weights are not your cup of tea.
It is not necessary to lift heavy weights to get results in term of health and weight loss, so incorporate resistance bands and body weight exercises into your routine for a bit of variety. See also how to lose body fat without losing muscle
References used in this article