One of my friends asked me the other day which one comes first: cardio or strength training? Not only that, what’s more important and how often should you do it? This seemingly simple answer really is actually more complex. Because there are so many variables to this question, I can’t just answer it one swoop. Rather, this question requires a set of questions to dig a bit deeper which is what I cover in this blog!
In this blog post, I want to talk about:
- Cardio versus Strength: how each one affects your body
- How often you should be doing both
- What’s more important based on your goals
- My personal recommendation for how to approach your workouts
By the time you finish reading this blog post, you should know exactly how you should be approaching your workouts and which type of workout (cardio or strength) you should be focusing on based on your goals.
Let’s first differentiate between the two types of focuses: CARDIO versus STRENGTH
What is cardio?
Cardio is a simply a method of fitness intended to get your heart rate up and increase your cardiovascular endurance. There are many forms of cardio, including but not limited to: running, walking, high intensity interval training, Crossfit, dance, power yoga, etc. There are so many benefits to add cardio to your workout regimen, including but not limited to: increasing endurance, keeping your heart healthy, lasting longer in your workouts, raising your resting metabolic rate, burning excess calories, and getting an awesome endorphin high and feeling happy! No matter what your goals are, I do believe adding a cardio component to your workout regimen at least 3-5x a week is important for overall health.
But when does cardio become detrimental to your goals?
There is such a thing as doing TOO much cardio. When you focus on too much cardio and have zero focus on building strength, it will become harder to lose body fat. For example, let’s say your normal routine is running for 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week. You saw great results when you first started and lost 5lbs in the first month, but you still want to lose an extra 10lbs of body fat. Flash forward 6 months later, you’re doing the same routine and now you’re wondering why you haven’t lost any more weight. What happened?
The Answer: you’ve hit a plateau. While your 30 min jogging routine may have given you temporary fat loss in the beginning, your body has now adapted to the workout and no longer requires extra energy to fuel your run.
Now, the WRONG thing to do if faced with this situation is to do MORE running! (And this is what MOST people do!) A 60-minute run won’t solve your stalled fat loss. Why? The same reason as above. While your body is benefitting from increased cardiovascular endurance, it will sooner or later “stall out” and adapt to the longer workouts. In other words, you’ll still have that extra fat on your body even though you’re doing more cardio.
You also run into the risk of overtraining.
This is something that I actually personally struggle with! I have dubbed myself the Cardio Queen – I LOVE CARDIO! I can keep going and going and going! I love getting my heart rate up and leaving class drenched because it shows me that I worked hard and pushed myself. However, 3 hours of cardio a day (which I do some days due to training and teaching) can do more harm than good! There are many disadvantages when it comes to overtraining, such as loss of sleep, moodiness, overuse injuries, decreased physical performance, and lowered immunity.
So how can we make sure that we are not overdoing it on too much cardio? How can we avoid hitting that plateau?
This is where STRENGTH comes in. Let’s first define what strength training means.
Strength training means any form of activity where you are putting your muscles under tension. With enough of this tension or force, whether it’s coming from your own body weight, dumbbells, or any type of gym equipment, your muscles will break down tissue. Then, in the recovery phase, your muscles will then grow new muscle fibers to accommodate that load (or weight) in a future workout. This is a VERY simplistic breakdown of how we build muscle. We break down muscle fibers in order to create new ones. Strength training can take many forms, whether it’s yoga sculpt, TRX training, Crossfit, weight lifting, or basically anything where you’re putting “load” on your body.
There are so many benefits when it comes to strength training.
First and foremost, it helps you out in daily living! You don’t want to be that person who can’t carry a big bag of groceries up a flight of stairs, right? (I hope not.) Strength training helps you to be strong in all aspects of your life, whether it’s picking up a child, moving furniture, hiking up a mountain, or lugging your suitcase in the airport. And while we’re on the topic of building muscle, EVERYONE should be doing it. Not just men!
Ladies, hear me out – do not be afraid to strength train!
Again, strength training does not mean you have to pick up dumbbells in the weight room and grunt with the guys at the gym. You can do strength training at home with DVDs, just do bodyweight exercises, whatever floats your boat. The reason why women, especially, should be strength training is because it’s what’s going to help you reach your goals FASTER than just cardio. I am likely going to guess that your goal is to lose body fat, right? Now, you have a few options:
Option 1: You can run (from the previous example) 2 hours a day and eat less than 1,200 calories a day and reach your goals. In the process, you’ll feel like you’re starving and depressed. Not fun.
Option 2: You can add strength training in addition to cardio, eat a normal amount of food without starving, and feel strong, fit, healthy, and happy. So much better!
So why does adding strength training help you get results FASTER?
One reason is because it allows you to burn more calories while at rest.
When you strength train, the recovery process takes a lot more energy to rebuild those new muscle fibers that you tore during your workout. This energy can be taken from two major sources, glucose (the food you ate) and secondly, your own body fat. In other words, you are able to burn more calories while at rest long after your workout. Pretty cool, right?
Another reason why strength training can help is because it adds that “muscle tone” and shape that all women strive for.
If your goal is to look like a string bean without any muscle, then feel free to choose Option 1 (which I don’t suggest). But if your goal is to have toned abs, a nice booty, strong arms, and chiseled legs, strength training will help you get there. By now, you understand that both cardio and strength training both benefit your overall health. You also understand that you shouldn’t be afraid to strength train because it’s what’s going to help you get results FASTER and give you the nice figure you’re looking for.
Now your question might be: “How often should I be doing both?”
The answer: It depends on your goals!
If your goal is to simply stay healthy and maintain your current body composition, then do both equally at least 3-6x a week, or whatever your schedule permits.
If your goal is to increase your lean mass and build lots of muscle, then I’d say focus MORE on strength training and less on cardio.
If your goal is to shred down and get leaner, then I’d say focus MORE on cardio and less on strength training.
But again, I do recommend that you always include BOTH cardio and strength regardless of what specific goals you have. My biggest recommendation though is to combine both together through high intensity interval training. To me, focusing 45 minutes on straight strength training followed by 15 minutes on cardio just sounds so boring! Rather, I like combining the two to get the best of both worlds. When you do high intensity interval training, you’re able to get your heart rate up (through quick cardio bursts) while also building strength (through strength exercises interspersed between cardio).
HIIT Training also makes your workouts more effective. You can get BETTER results with a 25 minute HIIT session versus a 60 minute steady state treadmill run. How do you do HIIT you ask? There are tons of different classes out there that are based on HIIT training like OrangeTheory, F45 Training, Crossfit, Barry’s Bootcamp, and so many more. There are also a lot of online workout programs on Beachbody On Demand that you can do at home that require minimal equipment. You can also create your own workout at the gym by simply alternating between your favorite cardio machine and doing strength exercises.
The point of HIIT is to simply get your heart rate up really high through a cardio spike (jumping jacks, high knees, burpees, etc.) followed by moderate-intensity strength training (squats, pushups, lunges, sit-ups) and repeating!
So to recap this entire blog post, let’s summarize what you just learned:
- Cardio is important for overall heart health, cardiovascular endurance, and burning excess calories
- Too much cardio can lead to a weight loss plateau or overtraining
- Strength training is important to build muscle, increase metabolism, and help you get results faster than just cardio alone
- The combination of adding both cardio and strength training depends on your specific goals
- My favorite way to get both elements is to combine both via high intensity interval training