When you walk into the gym, there’s a good chance that you tend to gravitate toward the same section first each time. Maybe it’s the cardio machines: Sweating it out on the treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike is your type of stress relief. Or perhaps you prefer the weight section, which makes you feel strong and confident.
Both cardio and strength training are important, but if you really want to maximize your workout—while simultaneously protecting yourself from injury—when you do each type of exercise matters. Surprised? Keep reading to find out how you should structure your workouts, straight from expert trainers.
Why Are Weights and Cardio Important?
If you’re a diehard runner and dismiss lifting weights as something for bros or, vice versa, if cardio is your kryptonite, trainers offer up a hard truth: Both are important. “Strength training is important for a number of reasons: It makes you stronger, which helps to support your day to day activities whether you are an office worker, student, busy parent, or casual or serious athlete,” says fitness trainer Donna Walker, NASM.
Wendy Batts, NASM-CPT, NCC, an exercise science adjunct professor at California University of Pennsylvania, says that strength training is linked to living longer. Scientific studies have shown that strength training can reduce the risk for premature death from between 10 and 17 percent.
As for cardio, that too has been linked to longevity. Regularly engaging in cardio-based activities can add between four and eight years to your life, according to scientific studies. “Cardio is important for heart and lung health. It lowers your blood pressure, helps with your sleep and strengthens your immune system,” Walker says. If you are trying to lose weight in a healthy way, she says that cardio plays an important part and it doesn’t have to be super intense either. “Walking is great cardio,” she says. “Do something you enjoy, whether it’s dancing, skating, hula hooping or a team sport.” Besides these benefits, cardio is also linked to improving mental health and boosting mood.
Related: 25 Cardio Exercises You Can Do At Home
Should You Lift Weights and Do Cardio On the Same Day?
Some people do both strength training and cardio on the same day. Others split it up, devoting certain days of the week to weight lifting and other days to cardio. What is the best way to go about it? Both trainers say that it depends on someone’s individual goals and schedule, including how much time they can commit to working out. However, Batts says that if you have the option, she recommends doing them on different days. “There is some evidence that shows performing cardio exercise too close to strength training—either before or after—may interfere with the body’s responses and processes that are involved in developing strength and muscle,” she says. In other words, giving yourself time to recover from strength training is important.
In terms of how much strength training and cardio to do each week, Walker recommends 30 minutes of cardio three to five times a week and 25 minutes of strength training two to five times a week. “More is not always more. It’s important to listen to your body and give yourself adequate rest and recovery,” she adds.
Related: What To Know About Functional Strength Training, the Type of Exercise That Makes Life 10 Times Easier
Should You Lift Weights or Do Cardio First?
If it works best for your schedule to lift weights and do cardio in the same day, Batts says to decide what to do based on what your exercise goals are: Whatever it is, do that first because that’s when you’ll have more energy. “For example, someone training for an upcoming half-marathon would do their running workout first, followed by strength training [because their primary fitness goal is to build endurance],” she says. Lifting weights requires energy, so if you strength train first, you may not be able to run as far later.
On the other hand, if your goal is strength training, lift weights first. “You’ll maintain better form and have more energy to potentially lift more load or [do more reps], versus using muscles that are slightly fatigued to do the same,” Walker says. It’s a valid point: If you’re completely spent from a 30-minute run on the treadmill, your form is more likely to suffer as you warily move through a dumbbell routine. This also helps prevent injury.
Related: 12 Trainers Share Their Favorite Workouts or Weight Loss—and Yes, Walking Counts!
Both trainers say that there are also many types of exercises that combine cardio with strength training so someone can do both at once. Walker says that F45 (where she is a coach), YogaSculpt at Core Power Yogaand Les Mills Body Attack (another places she teaches) are three fitness classes that structure their classes with this in mind. Batts says you can also create your own cardio-strength training combos by circuit training, which alternates between these different back-to-back workouts with minimal rest in between.
Instead of getting too caught up in what to do first, what’s most important is making the effort to move your body at all—that’s what really counts. However you structure your workouts, your body will benefit and it just may add years to your life too.
Next up, see a whopping 75 ways to get a full body workout at home.
Wendy Batts, MS, LMT, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, CNCpersonal trainer and exercise science adjunct professor at California University of Pennsylvania
Donna Walker, NASMfitness instructor, F45 coach, Les Mills teacher