Which should I do first? Lift Weights or Cardio?

It’s one of the most common questions I get asked, “Elizabeth, which one should I do first? Strength train? Or cardio?”

And, as always, the answer is, “It depends.”

It depends on your goals. Why are you doing one or the other, or both.

Do you have goals to run a sub 3 hour marathon? Or do you have a goal to compete in a strongman competition?

Okay – I realize that you probably don’t have either of those goals in mind, BUT you might want to run a 5k, or just look toned – like your muscles are flexed even when they’re not.

While doing higher amounts of cardio to prepare for your race is going to compete with muscle growth and maintenance, the flip side is that having a ton of muscle is going to slow you down for your speed goals.

The short answer is that you want to do the activity first that is your primary goal. BUT first, let’s talk a little about what I mean when I say ‘strength training’ and ‘cardio’


I love movement! Moving is great! But not all movement falls into the category of strength training or cardio. Movement is probably best categorized as anything where you’re not sitting: at your desk, on the couch, at the table, in your car. Being busy is not necessarily moving. You can have a very hectic day, but barely take 3000 steps! Likewise, it’s really important to distinguish that although you know how much I love walking, walking is not cardio. Walking is movement. The reason that walking is not cardio is that it really doesn’t raise your heart rate high enough. There are a few caveats to this though that I’ll address in the next section.

Types of movement:

  • walking
  • gardening
  • cleaning
  • shopping (yes! I said it!!)


In order for movement to count as cardio it needs to raise your heart rate above 50% of your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR). The American Heart Association recommends that we all get 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days per week (50-70% of MHR) or 25 minutes 3 times per week (70-85% MHR) as a minimum.

The fitter you are, the harder you’ll have to work to get your heart rate into the target zone.

I know what you’re going to ask me next: How do I know what that is for me? A Ha! I have you covered. I could give you a bunch of math to figure it out on your own, but we have the Internet, and someone has created an app for that.

First, go to this website, fill in your age, and your different heart rate percentages (50, 70, 85), just so you know what range you’re working within. Then, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor (or you’re not using a machine with sensors), you can use an app on your phone to tell you your heart rate! Nifty! Huh? Technology is so cool!

Cardi. . .oh look! Weights!
Cardi. . .oh look! Weights!

Strength Training:

I’m going to have to give you some tough love here. Most women do not use heavy enough weight. I know it seems really heavy when you pick it up out of the rack, but it’s because I love you and I want you to be healthy that I tell you the truth.

You should be lifting heavy enough that after 3 sets of 8-10 (for muscle growth) or 12-15 (for muscle endurance), that you CAN NOT do another repetition. If you CAN do another repetition, increase the weight next time. So, if I use 15 lbs for an exercise, and can do 3 sets of 15 repetitions, next time, I need to increase that weight to 17.5 (if it’s available), or 20 lbs. Once you do this, you *might not be able to do as many reps. THATS OKAY! This is your new weight now. Every time you do that exercise, just try to do one more rep. You’ll eventually get there!

If you’re using a weight that you could do 20 repetitions, but you’re only doing 15, honestly, you’re only wasting your time. You’re not challenging the muscle, and so it’s not going to grow to meet the challenge.

[sad trombone sound]

Again, it’s because you’re important to me that I’m telling you the truth.

Okay – so now that I have my definitions out of the way, back to the question at hand: Which to do first?

Strength Goals

Lifting weights for strength takes a lot of energy on the part of your muscles. I mean – seriously! That stuff is heavy! You want to make sure that your muscles have enough glucose in them to fuel your workout. Otherwise you might have bad form, and can hurt yourself. You might even notice that if you haven’t been eating a lot of carbs, you aren’t as strong.

So, if you’re training for strength, make sure that you are properly fueled, and then after you’re done strength training, you can run (or bike – whatever) to deplete your muscles of energy even further.

Speed or Conditioning Goals

Just like with strength goals, if you’re pursuing speed or conditioning, you want to make sure that your muscles are fresh, so that you can get the most out of your training.

After you’re completed with your speed or conditioning workout, you may want to eat something quickly before strength training since you’ll want some energy to complete your strength workout. And as I mentioned above, you probably want to strength train in the 12-15 repetition range.

Weight Loss Goals

Okay – so what if you have neither speed & conditioning OR strength goals? What if you just want to lose some body fat and look toned?

In that case, it’s really important to keep strength training. When you’re in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain) it’s almost impossible to gain muscle. The best that you can do is preserve what muscle you have by strength training.

When you’re in a calorie deficit, muscle is more expensive metabolically (it burns more calories than fat), so if your body thinks that it’s not getting enough calories, it’s going to try to get rid of the stuff that’s more expensive to maintain (your muscle).

And that’s bad. For two reasons:

  1. Because I like to eat! And if I have less muscle, I can’t eat as much!
  2. The difference between losing weight while strength training and not is like hanging a dress on a really nicely padded hanger versus a wire hanger you get from the cleaners. The dress (and thus, your body) will just have better shape when there’s more muscle.

So, the best workouts to do if you have weight loss goals, is strength training, but doing it in such a way that it elevates your heart rate – doing circuits, or metabolic conditioning, or just lifting weights faster.

THEN – once you’re finished with your strength, go for a 30 minutes walk. It doesn’t have to be a power walk. It’s just a walk.

See, what happens when you strength train faster, is that your body starts releasing fat from your fat cells is to your blood stream for energy. When you’re finished, you don’t want to reabsorb that fat – so you want your body to use it up by going for a leisurely walk.

If you’re interested in receiving workouts that do both – train for strength and train for conditioning – I’ve compiled my favorite workouts together in this email series. The email series includes not only a list of exercises to do, but also ways to make the workouts (and exercises!) adaptable to your level – modifications to make them easier, and suggestions on how to make it more challenging!

I think it’s awesome. I hope you like it too!