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Should you combine Cardio and Strength Training in one workout?

For people who are short on time, it's a relatively simple question. Can you do your cardio and resistance training exercises together, one right after the other?

The surprising answer is, we don't really know. Despite millions of dollars spent every year on exercise research, there are no large-scale studies that give a clear answer. But research papers released in 2012 from Sweden and Canada, attempt to shed a little light on the subject.

The Swedish Study

The Swedish researchers had healthy young men, primarily college students pedal a stationary bicycle with just one leg, for 45 minutes. That was the aerobic part. Six hours later they engaged in strenuous, leg extension exercises using both legs. Muscle biopsies were taken before and after each session.

The results showed little difference whether the men did just aerobic training or a combined program of aerobic and resistance training. From those small results, the scientists concluded that "aerobic exercise can precede resistance exercise on the same day without compromising" muscle building. For regular readers, that conclusion is neither new nor surprising.

In 2007 when we first wrote about combining aerobic and resistance training programs, the research showed that "strength returned to near normal if there was 8 or more hours between the cardio and strength training programs." By separating the cardio and resistance segments of the study by 6 hours, it allowed the body enough time to recover.

Click Here for our article:
Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?

The Swedish study doesn't change the recommendation we made five years ago. We said, "In an ideal world, if you had the time, you should do one type of exercise (cardio or weights) first thing in the morning. Then, after your body has had time to recover, (8 hours or more) go back and do the other type of exercise."

But it still doesn't answer the question if you should do cardio and resistance training programs TOGETHER, one immediately after the other. That's where the Canadian research comes in.

The Canadian Study

The Canadian Study was three separate trials with sedentary, middle-aged men who engaged in minimal, if any exercise programs the previous year. In one the subjects did leg extensions. On a different day, they did 40 minutes of cycling. In the final session, they combined the leg extensions and cycling together, but they only did HALF of each of the workouts.

Just like the Swedish researchers, they biopsied the muscles before and after each session.

The thought was that the cardio session would affect parts of the muscle cell related to energy production (burning calories) and the resistance session would benefit the mechanisms that build bigger muscles. That's exactly what happened.

The Canadian researchers believed that combining the two workouts together would reduce or interfere with one of the responses. Either subjects would burn fewer calories or have a lower muscle building result. That's NOT what they found.

When subjects COMBINED training, they burned just as many calories as the individual cardio session and they had just as much muscle-building "protein synthesis" as the individual resistance training session. But the mixed session was only HALF the length of each individual workout combined.

Half the work for the full benefit! There are just a few problems with that conclusion.

  1. Both studies were done exclusively on men, so extending the results to women is simply guessing.

  2. There were only 8 subjects in the Canadian trial and 9 in the Swedish trial. It wasn't close to the kind of large study involving a couple hundred people one would hope for.

  3. Subjects respond differently to exercise depending on their fitness levels. We know that if two people do the same exercise, a fit person can continue to burn calories for several hours, while a sedentary person may only burn calories for a few minutes. The surprising results were from adults that had not exercised the previous year.

  4. The testing time periods were extremely short. The results of the Swedish study are from a trial done on one day, while the Canadian study was carried out over three separate days. This was not long-term research conducted over several months.

  5. The researchers didn't actually measure muscle. They looked for "protein synthesis" which is merely the first step toward building bigger muscles. It can't be definitive unless the study is done and actual muscle growth is documented over the course of several workouts.

Until these extreme problems can be addressed and better research is done, we cannot recommend combining your strength and cardio programs into one.

(The only exception would be for sedentary, middle-aged men who plan on working out once!)

So what's the bottom line?
  • In an ideal world, if you had the time, you should do one type of exercise (cardio or weights) first thing in the morning. Then, after your body has had time to recover, (8 hours or more) go back and do the other type of exercise. Another variation of this would be to alternate the days you train with weights and the days you do your aerobic workouts.

  • If you can only workout once each day, and you need to get both strength and aerobic workouts in together, you should base the exercise sequence on your goals. If you're training for endurance capacity and are less interested in muscle gains, do cardio first. If you want optimum strength and muscle mass, put the weight training first.

    Click Here for our article: Do You Keep Burning Calories When Exercise Stops?

  • If you're training for a specific event or test, such as the fitness test given to firefighters or a triathlon competition, sequence your exercises in the order the event or test is going to occur.

  • Finally, if you're trying to lose fat and maximize muscle growth, do the weight training first and follow it up with cardio afterward. The weight workout first will build more muscle mass, and that extra muscle will burn more calories (and fat) over an entire day.

NOTE: Warming Up before a weight training session is not the same as a cardio workout. You should always warm-up, anywhere from 8-15 minutes before you start working out to get the most out of any weight training session.

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