Cardio before or after a workout? That is the question and the subject of an ongoing debate in the fitness and health world.
Personal trainers, fitness experts and even those in scientific fields have been asked the question of whether one should do cardio before or after a workout. Just take a look at these screenshots from fitness Reddit threads, for example:
Our recommendation (also the general rule backed by this study and this study) is that cardio should always be left to after your training.
That said, the choice is still yours, depending on what your goals are.
How do I know whether to do cardio before or after a workout?
If you’re still undecided about whether to go with the general recommendation or even about your goals for that matter, here’s a handy guide courtesy of the American Council of Exercise:
Is better endurance (shorter times, better running or triathlon times) your goal? Cardio first.
Is your main goal to get leaner or lose weight? Strength first.
Are you mostly concerned with improving strength? Strength first.
Are you doing only upper-body strength training today? Either one first.
Are you doing lower-body strength training today? Strength first.
Do you have general fitness goals with no emphasis on strength or endurance? Your choice. Do the one you least enjoy first.
We know that you might have further questions about this (which we’ll happily answer) so do read on.
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But is it bad to do cardio before a workout?
Not at all. As mentioned earlier, if your goal is endurance, then absolutely go ahead with cardio first.
The reason cardio is generally recommended following strenuous workouts is that you’ll be able to concentrate fully on doing your strength reps, proper lifts and anything else that requires brain power AND energy.
Just imagine giving it your all during cardio and before your strength training. Would you still be able to dedicate enough effort, energy and enthusiasm to your lifting?
Chances are you’ll be an out-of-breath, sweaty mess and just want to get it done and over with — unless you’re a superhuman that can do both with no problems at all!
Does cardio after a workout burn more fat?
Yes, a well-cited study by the University of Tokyo found that doing cardio after strength training does burn more fat during the first 15 minutes of the cardio session than doing cardio before lifting.
In short, workout + cardio = increase muscle + reduce body fat.
Can I skip cardio and just lift weights?
While lifting weights will certainly give you the muscles that you’ve always wanted and burn more calories (and for far longer), you might not want to skip cardio.
Participating in strength or resistance training will make you strong, but without cardio, you won’t have the stamina to match.
So while it’s not necessary to do cardio all the time, it doesn’t mean that you should skip it altogether. Three times a week is a good number to go with when it comes to cardio, as recommended by the American Heart Association.
Cardio is crucial in keeping your heart healthy and works best if you’re training for marathons or endurance-based sports.
Plus, if you’re looking for optimum results (weight loss and improved strength) cardio should be incorporated into your routine.
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Examples of an effective workout routine
When it comes to workouts, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This is why it’s important to experiment and see what works best for you.
So, now that’s out of the way, below are some samples of workouts that will suit those on a beginner, intermediate and advanced level.
If you’re planning on starting your fitness journey, remember to take it easy and not be so quick to push yourself too much.
This might lead to injury or burnout, which will minimize your chances of staying consistent.
Here’s an example of a beginner-friendly workout routine:
Monday: Cardio for 10 to 30 minutes. You can cycle, walk or get on the elliptical machine for this.
Tuesday: Body strength and core training. Bodyweight workouts and planks are some beginner-level workouts you can do.
Wednesday: Active recovery day, during which you can partake in yoga or gentle stretching. You can also take this time to treat your muscles to a good massage, get rid of DOMS (if any) and prep them for training the next day.
Thursday: Cardio for 10 to 30 minutes. Feel free to do the same routine as Monday, or try a new one if you prefer.
Friday: Another round of body strength and core training. It’s better to do the same routine as Tuesday’s, as it will help you practice and build strength and endurance.
Saturday: Active recovery day, or cardio. Choose to do something you enjoy, especially one that burns fat as well.
If you’ve been working out consistently for at least three months, it might be time to take it up a notch and start challenging yourself.
If your goal is to lose weight, this is where you’ll be thinking about whether to do cardio before or after a workout.
The CDC’s suggestion is to perform 20 to 60 minutes of cardio five or more times a week, but it can sound like a lot of work in theory.
To counter this, you can switch up your routine by giving interval or strength training a go and even do cardio and weight training on the same day.
Don’t forget to give your muscles a break by massaging them after working out, too.
Here’s an example:
Monday: 30 minutes of cardio, upper body training and stretching.
Tuesday: 45 minutes of interval training, core training and stretching.
Wednesday: 30-minute low impact cardio, lower body training and stretching.
Thursday: Active recovery day.
Friday: Total body strength or circuit training.
Saturday: Cardio endurance workout.
Sunday: Rest and recovery.
You can be considered to be at an advanced level if you’ve been working out for months and doing a variety of exercises and activities.
Feel free to switch up your routine to keep things interesting, motivate you to stick to your goals, and make your cardio sessions even longer and harder.
However, it is important that you also focus on effective cooldown exercises after workouts so you can minimize the risk of injuries, DOMS and train better and harder the next day.
Here’s an example of what an advanced-level workout would look like:
Monday: Chest, shoulders and tricep workouts, coupled with HIIT cardio.
Tuesday: Lower body and core training.
Wednesday: Back and bicep workout and cardio.
Thursday: Active recovery day.
Friday: Total body workout.
Saturday: HIIT cardio workout.
Watch the video below to see how important rest and recovery is, as stressed by fitness enthusiast, Brandon Harding:
Cardio before or after a workout: does it really matter?
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to exercising, let alone in what order your routine should be.
Though the general rule is to focus on strength and leave cardio to the end of your session, you can also switch things up every now and then to keep things interesting.
Just don’t skip cardio or strength training entirely and keep going, because consistency is key!