Sadly, there's not a cut-and-dry answer: Your priority in the gym depends on your personal goals, experts say. Someone aiming to lose weight, for instance, should take a different approach than someone training for a marathon. (The good news: No matter how you structure your workout, simply going to the gym is better than nothing!) To figure out whether you should hit the weights or the treadmill first, read the following list of common workout goals and accompanying recommendations.
To Maintain General Fitness
When it comes to just staying fit, it might not make a difference which comes first. In one study, two groups of men performed either strength training or cardio first for 24 weeks. The order effect of combined endurance and strength loadings on force and hormone responses: effects of prolonged training. Schumann M, Walker S, Izquierdo M. European journal of applied physiology, 2014, Jan.;114(4):1439-6327. At the end of the study, all of the men increased physical performance and muscular strength to about the same extent. However, in the short term, those that did cardio first had a harder time recovering. In the two days following a workout, the cardio-first group showed reduced concentrations of serum testosterone, which may be detrimental if you’re looking to gain muscle strength.
But in general, “Do whatever you want—whatever you’re going to adhere to, whatever will fit into your schedule,” says Tony Musto, Ph.D., a fitness and exercise physiologist at the University of Miami. As Musto says, our ancestors' “workouts” obviously weren’t as regimented as ours are today. “They did a mix: You’d run and climb and then walk and then pick up something,” he says.
To Simply Move More
Similarly, if you're new to working out or just trying to be more active, do what you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to shake up the order. In Which Comes First: Cardio or Weights?, physicist Alex Hutchinson suggests mixing up the order of your workout or the type of workout you're doing on different days. He writes that muscle and endurance gains are controlled in part by the same "master switch" (a.k.a. AMP kinase). The "switch" gets set at the beginning of your workout—with whatever you do first—and can't instantly change. Since you're either setting up your body to improve endurance or to increase strength in a single session, it's a good idea to switch things up.
Not sure where to start? Some of today's popular commercial routines, like P90X or Insanity, combine strength and cardio into one workout so you don't have to choose, Musto says. (You can also find similar classes a local gym.) Combining your strength and cardio training has other positive metabolic benefits too, so if you're short on time, these programs are worth looking into. The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trial. Ho SS, Dhaliwal SS, Hills AP. BMC public health, 2012, Aug.;12():1471-2458.
To Train for a Specific Event
Planning to run a marathon? Aiming for an Olympic-style weight lifting event? It may be obvious, but you've got to focus on your sport-specific requirements first, says Liz Barnet, certified trainer and head strength instructor at Uplift Studios. For runners, that means doing sprints or drills that require the most focus first, Barnet says.
Want to up your bench press weight? The same principle applies. “Front load your workout with the hardest stuff,” says Noam Tamir, certified trainer and owner of TS Fitness. When it comes to lifting heavy, Tamir adds, you don’t want to fatigue your body first with cardio, and then risk injury with weights.
To Lose Weight
“Most times you will want to do strength training first,” Tamir says.
Musto agrees it’s probably smarter to do your weight training first and cardio second because you may oxidize a little more fat during the cardio portion of your workout. However, he stressed this only applied to lower intensity, steady-state cardio workouts and also noted it may not make a significant difference in the long run (remember the study we mentioned above?).
And good news for HIIT fans: The popular workout style has several benefits that may aid in weight loss. Only thing is you can't do it daily. Barnet suggests you keep your HIIT workouts to three times per week max on non-consectuive days (for instance, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays); and opt for cross-training—like a yoga or spin class—if you want to add more workout days.
To Do More of What You Love
Sorry to break the news, but if you love running and can’t stand lifting weights, it’s probably best to do strength training first and save cardio as your "reward" at the end of the workout.
“A big thing people should consider is energy and interest level,” Barnet says. She suggests focusing first on what you might likely avoid if you were running short on time or what you'd skip if you were fatigued from something you enjoy doing. Love spinning? Get your strength training out of the way first, then head to the bikes knowing that "the hard part" is over.
If you’re going for general fitness and wellness, it probably doesn’t matter which you do first. Varying the order of your workout can be a great way to break up boredom, and there aren't many negative consequences to mixing things up. But if you're hoping to lose weight, gain strength, or just need to set a priority, focus on weight training first and cardio second.