The Best Cardio with Weights Workout Session

Burn Fat, Maintain Muscle: Do Cardio First

cardio and weight equipment in gym
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If you're pressed for time, it's not uncommon to squeeze cardio or aerobic training into the same workout session as your weight training. However, the perennial question arises: Which should you do first for the best training effect?

In an earlier article, I summarized the benefits and disadvantages of either cardio before weights or weights before cardio. The primary drawback of doing cardio after your weight session is the risk of degrading the anabolic (muscle building) response that you get immediately after weight training when you refuel and rest.

Cardio Vs. Weights, and "Interference"

When you combine weights with longer endurance training, the effect of each can be canceled out. This is called training "interference." The changes in muscle due to strength and endurance training are different and sometimes contradictory.

For example, strength training produces increases in explosive force output and muscle fiber size (hypertrophy). Endurance training like running and cycling produces adaptive changes in muscles that increases their ability to use oxygen. Such changes, at the more specialized limits, are not very compatible.

Concurrent Strength and Endurance Workouts and Hormones

Now, a new study has confirmed the logic of doing cardio before weights in the same session. The study is called Hormonal Responses to Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training with Different Exercise Orders.

In the study, the authors examined the order of concurrent strength and aerobic training on the release of testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone is the hormone that produces muscle building in men and women, though more so in men. Cortisol is a stress hormone that breaks down muscle.

Ten young, recreationally strength-trained men, averaging 24 years old, performed two exercise workouts in alternate orders: aerobic-strength and strength-aerobic. Each included 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on a stationary cycle at 75% of maximal heart rate, and three sets of eight repetitions at 75% of one repetition maximum for four strength exercises.

Study Results

There were significant increases in testosterone after the first exercise bout in both exercise orders. However, the testosterone level remained significantly higher than non-exercise levels after the second exercise bout only in the aerobic-strength order, which resulted in significantly higher levels compared with training in the strength then aerobics sequence.

The authors state:

"The present results suggest that the testosterone response is optimized after the aerobic-strength order . . . However, it is important to state that the present results should be applied only when short duration and moderate intensity aerobic training is performed."

What This Means for Your Workout

Even though a study of 10 men is relatively small—larger studies would be needed to back up the results—the indicators were clear: Doing weight training after cardio in the same workout session seemed to produce a stronger testosterone response than the reverse, which is a desired outcome for increasing muscle mass and strength, especially in conjunction with appropriate protein and carbohydrate refueling after the workout.

Even if weight loss is your goal (not necessarily muscle and strength), maintaining muscle while losing fat is still the best approach to weight loss. The aerobics-strength order is more likely to achieve this.

Finally, to minimize muscle breakdown (catabolism) and fatigue, the cardio session should be no longer than 30 to 40 minutes and no higher than moderate intensity (75% maximum heart rate).

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View Article Sources
  • Cadore EL, Izquierdo M, Gonçalves et al. Hormonal Responses to Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training with Different Exercise Orders.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan 3.
  • Sale DG, MacDougal JD, Jacobs I, and Garner S. Interaction Between Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training. 1990. Journal of Applied Physiology 68:260-270.