Which should come first – cardio or weights?

The decision about whether to do cardio first or weights depends on your fitness goals. We explain the benefits of each approach.

There are numerous ongoing debates in the world of fitness, and one of the longest-running is “cardio or weights first?”. Different trainers and indeed different exercisers all have differing opinions. Some people prefer to get the cardio part of their workout over and done with. Others prefer to lift heavy weights first, and then there are those who like to do both at the same time, often in a class such as Bodypump.  

Is there a definitive answer to what’s best? No. The truth is, any exercise is always better than none, and the best way to do something is always the way you like best. However, there are scientific reasons behind putting either cardio or weights first, and which one you pick will depend on your personal goals.  

Man on exercise bike doing cardioCredit: Shutterstock / NDAB Creative

What are your goals?

Dean Zweck, product development manager at health-club chain Total Fitness, says: “Both cardio and weights are important parts of any workout plan, and I’m often asked which you should do first. Well, the simple answer is – do the one you want to improve the most.” 

  • If your goal is to lose weight, do cardio after weights. 
  • If you want to improve cardiovascular fitness, do cardio before weights.  
  • If your goal is to get stronger, do cardio after weights.  
  • If you’re a beginner, or returning to exercise after a long break, do either cardio or weights first. 
  • If you’re doing a lower-body weights workout, do cardio after weights.  
  • If you’re doing an upper-body weights workout, do either cardio or weights first.  

When you should do cardio first

“If your goal is centred around fitness or training for an event such as a half marathon, or a bike race, start with cardio,” Zweck says. “If you do weights before cardio, especially interval training, you won’t be able to exercise at the intensity, speed or power that you need for fitness improvements.” 

One of the main benefits of cardio exercise is that it improves the condition of our heart and lungs. When we first begin exercising, those benefits come quite easily, as our body isn’t used to working out. Over time, as we become more conditioned, we need to make our cardiovascular system work harder, meaning more intensity in our workouts.  

That might sound daunting, but don’t forget, you’re getting fitter. So, it makes sense to concentrate on your cardio first, such as running on a treadmill, or using an exercise bike, before tackling weights.  

If cardio is usually your primary form of exercise, strength training is still important, even if it’s not your priority. Strength training for runners helps keep joints moving and improves muscular strength in the legs, enabling us to run quicker and cope with uneven terrain.  

Current NHS guidelines recommend 150 minutes of exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise, with strength training added at least twice a week.  

Couple lifting weightsCredit: Shutterstock / LightField Studios

When you should do weights first

“If your goal is along the lines of toning, strength or building muscle, start with weights,” Zweck says. “Doing cardio before weights, your muscles will be fatigued, and you won’t be able to lift heavier weights, so your workout will be less effective.” 

Strength training, or lifting weights, works by breaking down muscle fibres so they grow back stronger. The benefits of strength training extend far beyond that, though – it also protects joints and bones, increases longevity and can stave off conditions such as osteoporosis.  

If increasing strength – at whatever level – is your goal, then it’s much better to lift weights first, and have that form the main basis of your workout. Often, as you lift, your heart rate will rise through the exertion, so although it’s not a cardio workout in the truest sense, you’ll still be working your heart and lungs.  

If you’re strength training to increase mobility or protect joints, some steady-state cardio (that is, low-to-moderate intensity as opposed to interval training) is a great way to combine the two. Once you’ve done your weights, take a walk on the treadmill, or better still, walk to and from the gym to lift the weights.  

Why you might want to do them both together

While there are definite arguments for doing cardio or weights first in your workout, there’s also a strong case for combining the two. This works especially well if you’re a beginner. Exercising with lighter weights, for more repetitions, allows you to reap the benefits of strength training along with cardio exercise.  

Examples of exercises that combine cardio and strength include:  

Dumbbell thrusters

Woman squatting and pressing a pair of dumbbells overheadCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells at (not on) your shoulders.
  2. Squat down and then, in one swift motion, come out of the squat, driving the weights overhead.

Squat jump

Woman doing a squat jumpCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Squat down, then use your arms to help you jump up out of the squat.
  2. Land with a soft bend in your knees, then repeat.
  3. If jumping is an issue due to the impact on your joints, rise onto your toes instead.

Mountain climbers

Woman in plank position walking feet in towards hands - mountain climberCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. In a plank position, run or step the feet in towards the hands.
  2. Be careful not to let the hips rise too much – keep the hands in line with the shoulders to minimise this.

Many classes also offer the opportunity to combine weights and cardio, such as Bodypump or similar. One of the best known and most efficient combinations of cardio and strength training is kettlebells. Some kettlebell exercises, such as a press or deadlift, are purely focused on strength. But kettlebells routines also include explosive dynamic power in moves such as the swing, snatches, or clean.  

Kettlebells predominantly uses the legs, meaning you can use heavy weights because the leg muscles are so large, and therefore enjoy improvements in your strength, as well as working your cardiovascular system and losing weight (if that is your goal, and combined with a calorie deficit). 

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky is passionate about Kettlebell training, and runs a regular kettlebell club in the local community. Prior to this, she worked as a Fitness manager in a local gym. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain.

Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

Away from work, Becky unsurprisingly enjoys exercise, with a focus on lifting weights, kettlebells, and Olympic rings. She loves watching theatre, swimming, and reading a good book. She has three teenage children and enjoys spending time with them, preferably on a Cornish beach.

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