Should You Do Cardio Before or After You Lift Weights?
Ahh, the chicken and egg debate of gym rats. Is it cardio before weights or weights before cardio?
The answer is never simple, and everyone is right…..or are they?
To get to the bottom of it, we should start with something we here at MaxQ love……SCIENCE. Mmmmm, science.
The science of working out doesn’t always align with the desire to simply look better naked, but when you do begin looking better naked, don’t you want to give a nod to the science that got you there? Yes, yes you do.
The goal of working out is usually to improve health, burn calories and build muscle.
Calories are burned off from stored carbs and fat, but how much fat and carbs you burn depends on the level of intensity and the duration of training. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises burn fat, but they burn it at different rates and in different ways.
To burn fat, we must use up all our stored glycogen in our muscles to begin using fat as our new energy source. To lose weight we must have a calorie deficit. So we should talk about how we get the best results: Aerobic or anaerobic workouts?
Lifting Weights Uses the Anaerobic System
Anaerobic simply means oxygen is not the main source of energy for exercise.
Faster more explosive training like HIIT and weight lifting requires movements that require immediate energy reserves. As such, the anaerobic system burns more calories from carbs, while aerobic workouts burns calories from fat.
Anaerobic exercise like HIIT is fueled by stored ATP, creatine phosphate, and the glycolysis of muscle glycogen. ATP (in case you don’t have total recall from high school) is adenosine triphosphate, and it stores and provides cells with energy when needed. During this process the body uses chemicals to break down glycogen into ATP.
During anaerobic exercises, lactic acid is left behind after the glycogen is broken down into ATP.
Yeah, you know all about lactic acid don’t you? It’s that burning you feel in your muscles when you’re working out. It’s why you’re sore after a good workout. Thanks lactic acid.
Cardio Uses the Aerobic System
Now, if you’re an 80’s child, you probably remember your mom doing aerobic exercises off VHS tapes in the living room. Maybe you remember her huffing and puffing through the exercises? That’s because aerobics needs oxygen to fuel your exercise and trigger the aerobic chemical process of breaking down glycogen.
Yep, aerobics also uses a chemical reaction to break down glycogen into ATP, and is triggered around 10 minutes after you begin your cardio. Ever thought to yourself the elliptical or running is easier after the first mile in? That’s because the chemical process of aerobics is kicking in. Oh yeah.
The body begins using glycogen and fat as fuel. As you begin huffing and puffing, carbon dioxide is released from your body and lactic acid does not build up as it does with anaerobic exercise. Thanks, cardio.
So…..Cardio Before or After Weights?
When You Complete Cardio First
A lot of people will do cardio first because they don’t really look forward to it. It can be a real eye-roller for those who don’t enjoy it.
As described above, cardio uses energy from fat reserves but that is a slow burning fuel. It takes longer to burn more. However, cardio does prep your body for more burning because it increases your temperature and boosts your metabolic responses.
But…..the big challenge some face is having enough energy left over for lifting weights after completing cardio.
When You Complete Cardio Last
If you can get through a lift session and end it with cardio—good on you, my fit friend. You’re on the right path if you want to lose weight and gain muscle. Remember that muscle burns calories, too. The more you have, the more calories you burn.
Weight training’s use of fuel through stored energy in carbs and glycogen opens the door for your cardio to tap into fat reserves more quickly when you complete weight training first. However, because both anaerobic and aerobic use different sources of fuel and are dependent on intensity and duration, the end results of weight loss are really on you.
Me? Why me? Because you are what you eat.
Results Are Made in The Kitchen
You can run for 3 hours a day or lift weights for 3 hours a day and you won’t lose a pound without a caloric deficit. If you’re scarfing down 3 double cheese b’s a day, you’ll never see that muffin top go away.
We all know abs are made in the kitchen, right? Eighty percent of your results come from your diet. Knowing that we need to get through stored glycogen to start burning fat reserves is a key factor is choosing what to eat. If you have excess carbs or fat, that turns into glycogen! You’ll never get through that storage if you keep adding to the reserves!
If you’re on a lower carb diet, your body will tear through stored glycogen more quickly and start feasting on fat faster.
If you eat high carbs prior to working out, you’re providing your body with more glycogen to use as energy during your workout and keeping your stored reserves—on reserve. That’s OK, too if your goal is to build muscle.
The Cardio First or Last Verdict?
Although it is true that aerobic training burns fat while anaerobic burns carbs, anaerobic exercises burn more total calories from both sources while providing an ‘afterburn.’ This is a state where your body continues to burn calories after you finish training. How many depends on the intensity and duration of your training.
Both sides have supporting studies to back their claims of what to do first.You can find scholarly articles that will support cardio first, cardio last, and some that say don’t do them together at all because they reduce the benefits of both when done in the same session.
One study attempted to settle it by stating “you’re both right!”
It proved both groups (cardio first, and cardio last) lost about the same percentage of body fat, but the benefits for doing cardio after resistance training were for the cardiovascular system, in particular, it produced more ‘elastic’ arteries and improved vascular function.
The end result is this *drum roll please*
If you’re doing cardio and weights on the same day our recommendation is this–do what you’ll skimp on first. If you know you’ll have a hard time getting on a treadmill after heavy lifting–do cardio first. If you know you’ll skimp on reps or sets because cardio drains you–lift first. That will set you up for success and results.
How you set up your cardio and resistance training will depend on your personal goals. Some want to maintain their body, some want to lose weight, some want to grow and some, right now, are taking it to the next level.
Most importantly–eat right, supplement, and if you get a grip on a good diet and fuel your body with the BCAAs and aminos it needs so you can train at high intensities, endure cardio and stay motivated at the gym. The rest is cake. Like what you’re not going to eat tonight, right?