Should You Do Cardio Before or After Lifting Weights? What’s Best?

The answer to whether it’s best to do cardio before or after a weightlifting session depends on your fitness goals.

Often, the type of workout you do and the order of your workouts will depend on your primary fitness goal.

This requires that you have a fitness goal.  Not goals, but goal.  Note, your goal can change over time; but at any given time, you should have one goal.

Examples of fitness goals:

  • Build huge amounts of muscle mass
  • Cut down your muscles (get ripped)
  • Improve VO2 max
  • Improve long-distance running ability
  • Get more flexible
  • Get stronger
  • Get rid of fat
  • Lose weight (I don’t think this is necessarily the best fitness goal – read here why).

If your primary goal is building muscle or is muscle related, it’s best to lift first and do cardio afterwards.  Although I like doing 5 to 10 minutes of low intensity cardio before lifting to get ready for lifting.

However, if you’re primary goal is NOT “building muscle related” cardio can form your primary workout followed by some weight lifting and/or stretching.  For example, if you’re training for a marathon, running should be your primary workout.  However complementing your running workouts with lifting and other cardio styles can help.  Just focus on running.

If your focus is on burning fat, you also must decide if you simply wish to burn fat or burn fat AND add muscle.  If you want to add muscle, you might start with a 20 to 30 minute weightlifting routine (circuit training and/or supersets are great for this) followed by an intense cardio session.

The question about whether to do cardio before weightlifting is usually asked by people focused on building muscle.  My response, based on 15 years of working out, usually with an emphasis on building muscle or cutting down, is to save cardio for after lifting weights.

I’ve experimented with doing cardio before weight lifting and it does impact my lifting performance.  I end up not lifting as much weight (or do fewer reps).  It really does impact my workouts.  Moreover, I don’t get that super intensity I like to have for attaching the weights.

That said, after an intense lifting routine, I don’t crank out all that intense of a cardio workout.  I do HIIT quite a bit, but it’s not as intense as my off-weightlifting days when I do only cardio and stretching.

What if you’re cutting down (getting ripped)?

It’s a judgment call.  Experiment with cardio before and after.  For me, I still prefer doing cardio after my weight lifting routine.

A big part of cutting is eating fewer calories.  I don’t like to compromise my lifting sessions even during a cutting stage.  I may increase my cardio sessions during a cutting cycle … but that’s after a lifting session.

What’s the best cardio machine for weightlifting?

There really isn’t a best cardio machine for weight lifters.  Running burns the most calories in the shortest period of time for me, but that’s because it’s intense.  It’s easy to ease up when using a stationary bike, rower or elliptical.  That said, indoor cycling classes can be incredibly intense cardio sessions.

Over the course of a week, I run on a treadmill, use an elliptical, ride an exercise bike, use a rower and use an upper body ergometer (stationary cycle for arms).

The cardio machine I use most is the treadmill for the intensity aspect.  The other machines I use about equally over the course of a week.

Can weight lifters skip cardio?

Sure.  In my view cardio offers a lot of benefits such as good health; however, it’s not necessary to build muscle.  Weightlifting is needed to build muscle.  You can largely control muscle mass, density and degree of “ripness” through diet and rep count.

Keep it simple

Articulate your current fitness goal.  Do the fitness activity that is will generate the best results for your goal.  Complement that activity with other fitness activities, if you’re so inclined.