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Cardio Exercise and Resistance Exercise: Which to do first?

Stew Smith, CSCS

If you are like a majority of the people who exercise regularly, often the question of what do you do first – Cardio workouts (Running, swimming, biking, cardio machines at the gym) or Resistance training workouts (lift weights or PT) is discussed.

This article will further discuss that question on several different levels. What combination is best for the following common exercise goals:

- Fat Metabolism - Muscular Strength Gains - Overall Health - Fitness Test Training

Fat Metabolism – For optimal burning of stored fat, you need to take into consideration nutrition and understand how the body uses the foods we eat for energy. To burn fat at optimal levels, your body needs to be primed with water (not dehydrated), and used up most of it glycogen stores (blood sugar energy – AKA Carbs). So, lifting weights or doing high reps PT workouts is ideal for burning up the glycogen stores as resistance training is metabolizing your sugar stores. After about 20-30 minutes of resistance training, you should be ready to burn fat at a higher rate during your cardio workout providing you keep the heart rate in fat burning zone (use Karvonen Formula or just keep your runs at just able to converse with minor discomfort). You have to also consider what you ate prior to exercise. Did you eat a lot of carbs? If so, it may take longer to get into fat burning mode, but you will have plenty of energy to lift weights!

Muscular Strength Gains – As a former power lifter, I thought a mile run was long distance and every now and then I would run to the gym and try to lift only to be burned out and unable to hit many of my previous high weight reps. Cardio activity burns a lot of calories fast. In fact, you can burn up to 300-500 calories in half and hour if you are really pushing it. As well, your glycogen stores can be lowered significantly and your body will try to make more glycogen out of fat, muscle, and remaining sugar in the body. If you like to do cardio first, that is fine. You can get used to it, but it usually requires rest periods and some sort of sugar / electrolyte replacement drink to help you through the workout. Proper nutrition prior to working out cardio first / resistance second is a must too. In fact, you should combine protein rich foods and carbs like fruit to give you the energy needed to get through the workouts. Better yet – just lift first if you want to be strong and supplement your lifting with some cardio workouts for overall health and fat metabolizing.

Overall Health – An overall health goal will consist of fat reduction, lean muscle mass gains, and cardio vascular function. So, you need to do both aerobic activity like walking or running and anaerobic activity like weight lifting and calisthenics. For optimal health results, you should mimic fat reduction method of resistance first / cardio second. Many studies have shown that increased cardio function, fat loss, and lean muscle gains can be accomplished by lifting first then running. In fact, improved cholesterol blood counts can be gained by cardiovascular first and resistance second. You can see much of these health improvements by doing cardio or resistance ONLY, but to OPTIMIZE your health performance and improve / prevent illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and other illnesses. PS – if you smoke, you should stop. Smoking does not help at all with overall health gains. Like I needed to tell you that.

Fitness Test Training – For my students and I who train to ace fitness tests regularly, most fitness tests have a strength component first (pushups, situps, pull-ups) and then a cardio component like running, swimming, even biking. So, it is beat to train the way you test. Resistance / PT first followed by cardio workouts. The difference in fitness test training and the above goals, is that you will be mostly anaerobic throughout the test and given a few minutes to recover for the next exercise. Once again, nutrition is vital to acing fitness tests. In fact, pre-carb loading a few hours prior to the fitness test and a steady dose of carbohydrate replacement will help energy levels throughout your test. Some tests are different and may have cardio at the front and back ends of the test. The Navy SEAL test is 500 yds swim, pull-ups, pushups, situps, and 1.5 mile run. This requires technique training which you can read about in Ace Any PT Test.

Stew Smith, CSCS, former Navy SEAL and fitness writer is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). Email him personally at

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