We all know we should do some conditioning work, whether it’s running, cycling, burpees – “do your cardio” is the “eat your veggies” of the fitness game. Like it or not, cardio is too damn good for you to skip out on, and it's a key tool for getting ripped. But where’s the ideal place to program it into your gym routine?
Should you do conditioning, metcon, or cardio work before or after lifting?
Some say to do it before. You’re going to warm up anyway… might as well push a little longer and get cardio out of the way.
Classic bodybuilders will tell you doing cardio first will drain you and interfere with the real reason you’re there: to lift weights.
So when is the best time to do cardio?
Thanks to a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, we have the answer. The old school lifters who said to do it after weight training were on to something.
The study found that across the board, when healthy, resistance-trained men performed cardio/conditioning exercise before a weight training session:
For the pre-lifting cardio portion, researchers tested four different treadmill protocols and intensity levels:
Researchers found that all forms of pre-lifting cardio negatively impacted strength and endurance in the weight training that followed. The decrease in performance matched the intensity of the cardio work done – the harder the cardio, the worse the athletes lifted after.
Despite its work/rest balance, the High Intensity Interval (HIIT) group experienced the greatest reduction in lifting performance.
That last point is important, because many online gurus recommend HIIT before lifting. They argue that because HIIT doesn’t take a long time to complete, and because has built in rest periods, it won’t drain your lifting session.
This study disproves that argument, showing that HIIT (when done first) did more damage to lifting sessions than any other cardio type tested.
While HIIT is an outstanding (arguably the best) way to do conditioning work, it is not optimally done immediately before a weight training session.
Do weights first. If your goal is to build muscle and have a strong, productive lifting session, don't perform conditioning work before you lift. For best results, save cardio for after weights, or do it on separate “cardio days” if your schedule allows it.
Ratamess, Nicholas A. et al. October '16. ...Resistance Exercise Performance Is Negatively Impacted.... JSCR, Vol. 30 (10).
Tip: Try the at-home Leg Day exercise that’s so good you’ll do it even when the gym opens up.