Strength Training before or after Cardio: What’s Better?

Should you do strength training before or after cardio? But also, does the order even really matter? Well, that's what this article answers.

Strength Training before or after Cardio: What’s Better?

The argument goes like this. 

You’re already at the gym, so you might as well do strength training and cardio in the same session.

OK, that sounds reasonable enough, but what about the order?

Does it matter? And if it does, which is better: strength training before or after cardio?

Strength training before or after cardio: does it matter?

Yes. It 100% matters. 

Just from a logical point of view:

  • Strength training before cardio would negatively impact your performance on the latter; and
  • Vice versa — cardio before strength training would hurt your lifting performance

Research is on the same page.

Cardio before strength training

Researchers in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research randomly assigned participants to 3 groups: 

  1. Strength training only
  2. Running, followed by strength training
  3. Cycling, followed by strength training

And what did they find? Groups 2 and 3 clocked significantly fewer reps than those in group 1! 

Interestingly, while this study suggests that doing cardio before strength training would limit muscle growth over time (because fewer reps = lower training volume, and there’s a dose-dependent relationship between training volume and hypertrophy — to a point), it isn’t quite the case.

Proof? A 2022 meta-analysis of 43 studies published in Sports Medicine. More specifically, the researchers found 2 key things:

Doing strength training and cardio in the same session did not lead to significantly less hypertrophy than strength training alone and
Didn’t seem to matter if the participants did cardio before or after strength training; they all experienced comparable muscle growth regardless

Woah. So, contrary to popular belief, doing cardio before strength training is perfectly fine and doesn't seem to hurt your gains!

Does that mean you should always do cardio before strength training?

Hmm, before jumping to hasty conclusions, let’s first explore what happens when you do strength training before cardio.

Strength training before cardio

Put simply, lifting weights before cardio will inhibit your aerobic performance. 

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that participants who performed hypertrophic and plyometric strength training exercises before endurance training reported a significant reduction in time to exhaustion on the cycle ergometer (a stationary exercise bike).

Now, you may be wondering,

“Well, that’s if they did cardio immediately after strength training. What if they rested for a bit in between?”

We’ll let this 2013 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism speak for itself.

The researchers first measured the participants’ baseline running performance (for a fair comparison), then randomly assigned them into 2 groups:

  1. Strength training, followed by running 6 hours later
  2. Running, followed by strength training 6 hours later

The researchers re-assessed the participants’ running performance 18 hours later and found that group 1 experienced greater impairments in running performance than those in group 2. 

All in all, the scientific literature seems to suggest that doing strength training before cardio could hurt your cardiovascular endurance over time. 

Case closed: always do cardio first?

To recap, here’s what we’ve learned so far on the strength training before or after topic:

Cardio before strength training doesn’t seem to blunt hypertrophy outcomes, but
Strength training before cardio appears to hurt cardiovascular endurance training adaptations

So, given this, it can be awfully tempting to settle on the blanket recommendation, “Always do cardio first.” 

But the truth is that whether you ultimately do strength training before or after cardio also depends on many other factors.

In fact, here are a few scenarios where it’d actually make sense for you to do strength training first.

You’re not training for endurance-focused sports (e.g., marathon)

If you’re simply doing cardio for its health or weight management benefits, the tradeoffs in endurance from doing strength training first may not bother you all that much.

Complex weightlifting movements

You’ll have the most energy and focus at the beginning of the session.

So, if you have some complex lifting movements that’ll require a ton of effort and the right technique in the books (e.g., deadlifts and barbell back squats), you’ll want to hit them first to lower your injury risk.

The cardio machines are all taken

You get to the gym, and the cardio machines are all taken.

It’s more practical to simply do strength first than to aimlessly wait around, hoping that someone will be done soon. 

You simply enjoy it

Ultimately, the most important factor dictating whether you should do strength training before or after cardio is your personal preference.

The best workout is the one you want to and will consistently do week after week.

So if you enjoy getting the reps in before your cardio, go for it.

Keep an eye on your recovery

Alright. A final parting note: please remember that you can overdo strength training and cardio to the point where you see sub-optimal training adaptations for both. 

But how can you tell if you’re doing too much? 

Answer: how well you’re recovering between sessions. 

If you’re sleeping enough and eating well, for example, but still struggling with persistent muscle soreness and/or declining workout performance week after week, it’s a sign you should consider scaling back on the frequency of your strength training or cardio sessions (or, sometimes, both).