Prioritize your resistance training for optimal body composition and fat loss. Research shows that you will build the most muscle and lose the most fat by doing strength training before sprint intervals or aerobic exercise.
A common question is whether it’s best to lift before cardio or vice versa for best results. There are a variety of ways to analyze how these two exercise modes affect muscle development and metabolism, and a new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research provides insight into the BEST method for body composition.
Common sense will tell you that you should resistance train first if your goal is to develop muscle and gain strength since you will be able to apply maximal effort and focus when you are fresh and unfatigued from doing intervals. This new study shows that additional benefits to prioritizing resistance training include greater fat burning during the workout and the promotion of muscle mass gains.
The study measured respiratory exchange rate (RER), which is an indicator of the body’s use of fat for fuel—as the RER rises, the body uses more carbohydrates for its energy needs. As RER declines, the body burns more fat.
Researchers tested three exercise schemes that used a resistance workout (squats, leg press, bench press, and lat pull-downs at 70 percent of the 1RM) and an interval workout (20 minutes of cycling with 1-minute intervals at 75 percent of maximal and 2-minutes rest at 40 percent of max). The exercise schemes were resistance training followed by intervals, intervals followed by resistance training, and intervals in the middle of the resistance training workout.
Results showed that the overall average oxygen uptake during training was equal across all trials, indicating that there is no significant difference from a cardiovascular training standpoint. The catch is that when resistance training was performed first, RER was lowest, meaning more fat was used for fuel. RER was highest and the body used the most carbohydrate when the intervals were performed first, whereas when the intervals were done in the middle of the resistance workout, fat burning was favored as well.
Researchers suggest that aside from supporting fat loss, doing resistance training first can promote muscle mass gains because the RER values indicate that greater lactic acid buildup from the anaerobic resistance training can promote protein synthesis and assist in hypertrophy.
Other studies have found that excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which is the degree to which metabolism is elevated after a workout, can be maximized by doing a treadmill run before lifting, but there is a catch. This study only measured EPOC for 20 minutes post-workout and actually found that the run-resistance order increased EPOC significantly only at 10 minutes post-exercise, whereas EPOC was equal at 20 minutes post-exercise regardless of the exercise order, providing more support for prioritizing your lift if you want a lean physique.
In fact, most goals can be best met by doing resistance training first:
To increase speed for short and long sprints, research shows that the BEST way to get faster is to increase lower body maximal strength. Free sprint training will also boost sprint speed, but it should really be done in a separate training session for best results. If this is impossible, do free sprint training after lifting to get the benefits pre-activation of the muscles.
Endurance athletes will also benefit since they will burn more fat with this exercise order, sparing muscle glycogen for their aerobic workout.
Alves, J., Saavedra, F., et al. Does Aerobic and Strength Exercise Sequence in the Same Session Affect the Oxygen Uptake During and Post-Exercise? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(7), 1872-1878.
Drummond, M., Vehrs, P., et al. Aerobic and Resistance Exercise Sequence Affects Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2005. 19(2), 332-337.