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An age old question, or at least a question that fitness experts hear a lot. Whether weights or cardio should be performed first seems to be a genuine concern for many a gym goer.

The answer is that you need to first ask yourself what your goals are.

Are you looking to improve your cardiovascular fitness? Possibly for a run or sporting event? Or are you training to get stronger? Most likely you are training for fat loss and want to know which form of exercise to perform first.

Training For Cardiovascular Fitness (Running or sporting event)

If you are looking to improve your running time then cardio is the more important part of your training. Yes you should also include weights in this program (to strengthen muscles, reduce risk of injury, and help with weight loss) but the main target to focus on is improving your cardio.

How to train

A good program plan for someone trying to improve their running (let's say for a 10k race) would be a couple of sessions of cardio per week, either High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or Low Intensity Steady State (LISS). 
Then 2 to 3 weight sessions. These sessions could look at improving explosive power in the legs.

The three best weight exercises for running are:

  • The High Bench Step Up
  • One Leg Squat
  • One Leg Hops

This is because they can improve power and stride length. Adding exercises such as Glute Ham Raises, Romanian Deadlifts, and Walking Lunges could also improve your running technique. Alongside deadlifts and barbell squats of course.

Obviously you wouldn't want to avoid the upper body either, if you are running you will need a strong lower and middle back, and core muscles (Abdominals, and Obliques in particular).

You might also require weight loss, the more excess weight you are carrying the more difficult the run would be. For this you will want to keep within a calorie deficit (diet wise) and make sure that your training program is intense enough.

Training For Strength & Hypertrophy

If you are training to improve your muscle strength and size (Hypertrophy) then you will want to prioritise weights over cardio. In fact you may not require any cardio at all (unless you decide that you want to get the health benefits of cardio).

Training for strength will require you to eat properly, creating a calorie surplus (more calories consumed than burned) so that you can use that extra fuel to build muscle. Increase your protein intake too.

How to train

When in the gym put your emphasis on nig compound exercises such as the Deadlift, Squat, Pull Up, and Bench Press. This will ensure you get maximum bang for your buck. If you want to increase muscle but keep fat gain to a minimum then you can add some cardio to the end of your session. Perhaps 10-20 minutes of HIIT. 

Training for Fat Loss

When you are training exclusively for fat loss it is a matter of personal preference whether you perform weights first or cardio first. I would recommend you to do weights first. 

Weight training enables you to build up a larger degree of lean muscle mass, which then basically serves as your calorie-burning powerhouse in the body. After a weight training workout, your metabolism can be boosted for up to 36 hours post-workout.

Another big benefit that weight training has over cardio training is that it will completely allow you to reshape your body. Cardio training generally will help you lose weight, however typically this weight loss is going to be a bit of a combination between fat and muscle; therefore what you are left with is a smaller version of your current self.

Diet wise, you will want to stay in a calorie deficit so that you can burn excess fat. But you must ensure that you are still consuming enough calories to exercise. A slow taper of your calories will ensure you get the best of both worlds. 

How to train

Training should be the same as you would do for strength gain, but you might find that the weights you lift are slightly lighter than you would be using if you were eating more. Lots of compound movements, with a slightly higher rep range (8-12 rather than 6-8).

From a cardio perspective, you can dedicate one session to running (LISS for 30-40 mins) or you can add 10-20 mins of HIIT to the end of your weights sessions. Or do both.

Conclusion

In reality it does not matter at all whether you train weights or cardio first, or whether you train cardio with weights or perform it separately. So long as you involve both in your training program you will get the benefits. What is most important when it comes to training is commitment and consistency, don't get hung up on the little things because unless you are a professional athlete it won't make any difference! Just work hard and hang in there. 

At the end of the day, even the world's worst training program, when combined with a calorie controlled diet will produce results.

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Written by Matthew Smith , BSc Sports Science Degree (2010) from London Metropolitan University | REPS lvl. 3 (2010) | BTEC Sports Science (2006)
Matthew Smith is a Personal Trainer at LA Fitness Marylebone based in Harrow, London. He has been coaching for six years and loves to write helpful and effective fitness articles.

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