Strength Before Cardio: How to Structure Your Workout?

by Terry Kozmor

Formatting a proper workout is a common topic of conversation between clients and personal trainers. Does it matter when you do cardio or weights? How should a workout be structured to maximize safety, fat loss, and strength gains? When a personal trainer writes a customized program for their clients, there is a prescriptive reason behind the order in which we suggest you exercise. Just as there is a reason for taking rest days*, there is a reason why we recommend that you perform strength exercises prior to cardio exercises.

The Warm-Up

By now, we all know the importance of starting every fitness session with a warm-up. The warm-up allows us to get our blood flowing, generate movement in our muscles, and increase our heart rate so that we are adequately prepared to complete our regimen with less chance of injury.

Strength Training

After the warm-up, the next step in a workout is typically a combination of strength exercises. Now that our body is, well, warmed up , we can begin to incorporate resistance training so that we are building muscle while elevating our heart rate. Clients are often surprised how breathless they become during a set of squats or walking lunges. Don’t let the term “strength training” fool you—this is a challenge for the muscular and cardiovascular systems.

One reason that it’s recommended to do strength first is that our muscles are fresh. For example, there’s a staggering difference between how much I can deadlift at the start of my workout versus after I run three miles . When our body is tired and we try to then do strength exercises, we risk greater fatigue and improper form, which can easily lead to injury. According to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, “Exercisers who ran or cycled before lifting weights performed up to 20 percent fewer repetitions of the exercise—at significantly reduced weight.” This type of study proves that our muscles are best suited to resistance train prior to cardio.

Another reason it’s recommended to hold the cardio until the end is that our body actually burns more fat when we lift weights and then knock out cardio. Our body tends to burn the majority of our stored fat as fuel during the strength training session; therefore, the body continues to burn more fat not only during our cardio portion, but even after we have completed our workout. In one study, 10 weeks of resistance training increased resting metabolic rate by 7 percent—and reduced fat weight by almost 4 pounds. This means that more strength training equals more fat loss.

The Finisher

Lastly, I typically recommend that clients finish with some sort of cardiovascular session, or what I like to refer to as a “finisher.” At this point, the muscles are tired and often feel fatigued. A good way to think of this section is that this is the time to expend all of the energy you have left. Whether that is a thirty-minute uphill walk, a stationary bike ride, or a set of interval sprints, the goal is to focus on maintaining steady breathing and giving it all you’ve got.

Curious to read more about exercise and gut health? Consider reading one of the articles linked below:

  1. 3 ways exercise affects the gut
  2. What’s more important strength or cardio
  3. 5 ways to get back into your exercise routine

About the Author

Photo: Terry Kozmor

Terry Kozmor has been in the health and wellness industry for more than 15 years. After graduating from Northeastern University with a degree in exercise science, he began his career in fitness. In addition to being Ixcela’s fitness expert, Terry is also the Director of Fitness at Lynx Fitness Club in Boston, Mass., where he oversees a group of specialized personal trainers, group fitness instructors, and nutritionists. He is an avid athlete himself and you can often find him outside snowboarding, surfing, or hiking.

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“Resistance Training Is Medicine: Effects of Strength... : Current Sports Medicine Reports.” LWW,