Cardio And Lifting: What Exercise Should Be Performed First

what exercise should be performed first

Honestly, is Exercise Order a Big Deal?

One goal of almost any beginner (and seasoned fitness junkie) is to burn fat. That’s exactly why you always see those “fat burn” charts in the cardio section (and even on the machines themselves) in every gym you go to. These are the charts that show a relatively low intensity at which proportionally more fat is burned due to the low aerobic nature of the metabolic pathways that are used to fuel your muscle – that was a mouthful.

But can we burn more fat by lifting and doing cardio in the same session if we are pinched for time?

Breaking Down Exercise Order

These days everyone is pinched for time. It doesn’t matter whether you exercise in a gym or at home you are lucky to get 2-3 workouts in a week (4 on a good week). Because of this, you want to make them count which means you try to do both cardio and strength training.

But does the exercise order matter?

“Do we burn more fat doing a specific exercise order?”

“Dude, just tell me the best way to burn fat!”

To answer these questions we will use our body’s own physiology and metabolic pathways to help us understand the best method. The best method will help us burn more calories/fat while building muscle all at the same time.

Let’s quickly break down two metabolic pathways without getting incredibly swamped in technical jargon.

The Metabolic Pathways

In very simple terms (a thorough metabolic breakdown here), our bodies use carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to make ATP which is our body’s form of energy. However, the process by which it is made can differ.

During moderate to intense exercise, our bodies use the anaerobic energy pathway, or glycolysis to make energy. This occurs in the absence of oxygen and requires carbohydrates to quickly make ATP with a byproduct being lactic acid.

This means that you can only use this metabolic pathway so long before the lactic acid load is too much (the lactate threshold) and you must cease the intensity of the exercise.

On the other hand, when you are performing a low-intensity exercise with oxygen available, your body uses the aerobic metabolic pathway. This slower energy pathway can last for a longer duration and uses oxygen to convert fats, carbohydrates, or proteins to ATP, with fat being proportionally used more often for fuel.

“So the fat-burning zone is correct then?” More on that below…

“….Uh…Right…So this means that we should what?”

Strength Training Before Cardio

weights2If you have the time, this means that we should hit the weights before jumping on the treadmill.

When you lift before you do your cardio, your muscles have an adequate supply of energy (carbs) to fuel them through their high-intensity workout – remember we always try to work out at a high intensity in order to ignite the afterburn effect (among other things).

Another added benefit is muscle growth: when lifting you want your muscles to be able to exert maximum force in order to help them grow. Having a full supply of energy is great for doing this.

As you lift at a high intensity and build up lactic acid, your body is crushing carbs using the anaerobic metabolic pathway. A 50-60 minute lift session can greatly deplete your glycogen stores.

Next, it’s on to cardio. After your lift, you can jump on the treadmill for some jogging, sprints…etc. During this 30-45 minute cardio session your body will use the remaining portion of the glycogen and force your muscles to start recruiting fat to produce energy.

As Dr. Jason Karp said in an IDEA article,

“If clients exercise long enough (1.5–2 hours), their muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) content and blood glucose concentration become low. This metabolic state presents a threat to the muscles’ survival, since carbohydrates are muscles’ preferred fuel. When carbohydrates are not available, the muscles are forced to rely on fat as fuel….In response to this threat, muscles “learn” how to use fat more effectively and over time become better fat-burning machines.”

What this means is that in order to maximize the effectiveness of this combination and burn the most calories/fat while building muscle you need to go hard for at least 1.5 hours (including both your lift and cardio).

Yes, that is a long time when we are pinched for time but I didn’t say it would be easy or that you can do it every day, but that is the better way to burn fat by using your body’s metabolic pathways to your benefit.

So Low Intensity is the Best for Overall Fat Burn?

No. While fat is used proportionally more during low-intensity exercise, the total number of calories burned is lower compared to high-intensity exercise.

This means that you blast through significantly more calories during high-intensity exercise resulting in less fat. Basically, a higher percentage of fat is burned during lower-intensity exercise BUT there are more total calories burned during high-intensity exercise.

Plus, during high-intensity exercise, you have the ability to ignite the afterburn effect.

With or without an extended cardio session after your lift, a 30-40 minute intense workout can definitely induce the afterburn effect. I won’t go into full detail here, but this process can have you burning over 700+ (including EPOC) from one hardcore workout… that’s incredible!


Well, I hope that spiel on exercise order made a little sense to you.

When it comes to strength training and cardio and which should come first, remember to pick up the weights first, bust your ass, then head on over to the treadmills (or wherever you are doing cardio).

This will help you build more muscle, burn more calories, and hopefully blast through the fat.

Just remember to forget the “fat burn” zone charts… it’s not about proportion, it is about total calories burned.

Stay healthy everyone!

Get More Metabolic Information and Ideas for Good Cardio Workouts:

Image Credit: Local Fitness

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Josh is the founder of DIY Active - your at home fitness source! He enjoys blending the latest science and expert advice with health practices to help you exercise smarter at home!
Josh Anderson
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