There are tons of open debates in the fitness world: Are crunches or planks better for your core? Should you stretch before or after your workout? Low weight, Cardio Before high reps—or vice versa?
And then, of course: Is it better to do cardio before or after weights? It’s a question trainers say comes up again and again…and again. “I would be a millionaire if I had five bucks every time someone asked me if they should run before or after weights,” Mary Johnson, a certified running coach, strength coach, and the founder of Lift Run Perform, tells SELF.
While the timing of cardio and weights remains hotly contested, the overall well-being benefits of including both in your routine are more established. Lifting weights and other forms of strength training can preserve your muscle mass, boost bone health, and make everyday tasks easier, especially as you age. Meanwhile, cardio has a lengthy list of potential perks, including a better mood, stronger heart, and healthier immune system. And if you put them both together, it just might add up to a longer life, as a 2022 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests.
Both matter for most fitness goals too—and have cross-over benefits for your primary mode of movement. For people who enjoy cardio workouts like running, cycling, or triathlon, strength training can reduce injury risk and may boost performance in their chosen aerobic sports. Meanwhile, cardio exercise can improve stamina and reduce soreness for people who prefer to hit the weight room.
Doing both is great, but fitting them into your workout routine can be tricky. For people with busy schedules and limited gym time—ahem, pretty much all of us—slotting both strength and cardio into your schedule means you’ll probably have some days where you’re doing both. But should you do cardio or weights first?
There isn’t a single correct answer to that age-old question, exercise physiologist Alyssa Olenick, PhD, an ultrarunner, CrossFit Level 1 coach, and self-described “hybrid athlete”—someone who aims to do their best in both weightlifting and endurance sports—tells SELF. And stressing too much over it can be counterproductive: Especially if you’re newer to either type of workout, training both your strength and endurance “is all going to add up over time,” she says. You’ll be better served if you focus more on being consistent with both rather than finding the “perfect” order for doing them.
But once you’re already in a fitness groove, there are reasons to pay a little more attention to the sequence of your sessions—especially if you’re taking on some more complicated workouts or have longer-term goals, like a faster 5K time or a heavier deadlift. Here’s what to keep in mind when planning a combo workout.
A good rule of thumb: Start with what’s hardest.
You’ll have the most energy and focus at the beginning of a session. So if you have something that requires a lot of either—think, a lift like a squat or press that’s heavy or complex, or sprints on a treadmill—consider tackling it before you get too tired, Steph Rountree, MS, a certified personal trainer and owner of Bolt Fitness in Chicago, tells SELF. (Of course, make sure you do a good warm-up first.)
“The movement that’s going to require the most attention, effort, technique, and energy—you want to do that first, so you can put all your effort into it,” she says. “If you’re doing the hardest part last, you risk injury or not reaping the benefits of why you’re doing that exercise.”
For many people, the most technically tough part is going to be the lift—that’s why in most cases, Dr. Olenick says she prefers weights before cardio. “Running or cardio can be very demanding on our central nervous system and deplete our muscles’ carbs stores a bit more than our lifting sessions,” she says. This means that when you strength train first, you might have an easier time recruiting the muscles you’re trying to target, and more fuel in them to power stronger contractions (and thus heavier lifts), than if you log a few miles beforehand. Besides, being tired when you pick up heavy things—say, from a run or bike ride first—can lead to injury and burnout, Johnson says.
But make sure you consider your goals.
The calculus may change a bit if you’re working toward a specific longer-term goal—for example, training for a race or a weightlifting PR. In those cases, you may want to begin with what’s going to get you closer to that objective. “Prioritize the training that is most important to you for that day,” Johnson says.
If you’re primarily looking to get stronger, pick up the weights first. Meanwhile, if you’re in the thick of training for a race and doing speedwork—intervals of fast running or biking—you’ll probably want to do that before lifting, Dr. Olenick says. According to research by the American Council on Exercise, doing strength training first increased exercisers’ heart rates in a subsequent cardio session. That means if you start with lifting, you might find it harder to hit the quick paces you’re aiming for—and you might feel more fatigued afterward. (Quick note: If you’re a runner newer to lifting, Johnson often recommends against doing speedwork and strength workouts in the same session, since both will be pretty taxing on your body. So when you want to do strength and cardio together, it’s probably best to save that for days when your scheduled cardio is of a lower intensity—more on how to structure your routines below.)
Also note that you don’t have to go in the same order every day. After all, your goals can shift over time. That’s why Dr. Olenick cycles between “seasons,” where she focuses on one type of workout more than the other. When she’s in a strength-focused training cycle, she’s even more likely to put weights first. When she’s training for a race, she’ll prioritize running more.
Even if you don’t have a longer-term plan that’s quite so structured, you might still have an idea of what you most want to accomplish that day, and that can guide your choices. “Maybe I’m going to push my speed faster on cardio, and therefore, I’m going to do it first—or I’m going to try to hit a heavier weight this session, therefore, I should do that first,” Rountree says.
Sometimes, logistics makes the decision for you—and that’s okay.
Of course, physiology is one thing—real life is another. There are all sorts of reasons why it might make sense for you to structure your workout in a specific way, despite everything we’ve said above.
For instance, maybe the cardio machines are all taken, so you have to do strength first. Or perhaps it’s more practical for you to run or bike to the gym, putting your cardio first. Or maybe you’re taking a group class that splits participants between starting with strength or cardio, like at Rountree’s gym Bolt Fitness.
In those cases where your plans are thrown off, remember—there’s nothing saying that you have to do both parts of your workout, even if you initially intended to. In some cases, taking a rain check on one aspect might be the choice that feels best for you. But if you’re still feeling both, there are some things you can keep in mind that can help you proceed safely (and probably end up enjoying it a little more, too).
Tweaking your workouts accordingly can make both more doable.
There are a few steps you can take to offset any potential interference when you’re stacking cardio and lifting together, especially if you’re doing them out of your preferred order. If you’re starting with cardio and still want to maximize your strength, consider choosing a modality other than running—think cycling, rowing, swimming, or SkiErg.
That’s because running tends to be more taxing on your nervous system than other forms of cardio, Dr. Olenick says. As a 2022 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found, runners’ fatigue usually occurs because the brain’s ability to send signals to the muscles wears down. This makes it different from that which occurs with cycling, for instance. After time on the bike, your muscles themselves can’t contract as forcefully. Both could impact your lifting—but the tired brain you get from running can affect all of your body, while the more muscle-specific fatigue from cycling isn’t as overarching.
You can also adjust the intensity of one modality to make up for any fatigue caused by what came before it. One easy way to do this is using a tool like rate of perceived exertion (RPE), Dr. Olenick says. Instead of focusing on a particular running pace or number of pounds to lift, rate your effort level on a scale of one to 10. So if you’re modifying your workout to make the cardio aspect easier, she recommends keeping your RPE between 2 and 3—that might mean slowing your pace considerably, or swapping a hilly course for an even terrain. To lower your RPE while strength training, you may want to go down in weight, lower your reps, increase your rest periods, or even choose less-taxing exercises (say, isolation moves rather than compound ones).
Remember that personal preference matters too.
For as many factors as there are to consider when it comes to planning the order of your workouts, the bottom line is this: The best workout of all is the one you want to do.
While there may be structures and situations that affect how you feel and perform, there’s no true “wrong” way. That’s especially true when you’re just getting into a new routine or if you have more general goals, like better health or simply feeling good, Rountree says.
So if cardio’s not your jam and you’d like to get it out of the way before you get started with your favorite—lifting—or vice versa, go for it. You’re still getting movement in, in a way that works for you. “Do what makes you happy and what brings you joy, because we are doing this thing for fun,” Johnson says.