Why Balancing Cardio and Resistance Training Is Vital to Achieve These Four Fitness Goals

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A Luke Thunderbolt performs a kettlebell swing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
A Luke Thunderbolt performs a kettlebell swing during the Trojan Warrior Workout at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Nov. 27, 2017. (Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham/U.S. Air Force photo)

If you are like a majority of the people who exercise regularly, often the question of what to do first is discussed. Should you start with cardio workouts (running, swimming, biking, cardio machines at the gym) or resistance training workouts (lift weights or PT).

This article will 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

To burn stored fat optimally, you need to take nutrition into consideration and understand how the body uses food for energy. To burn fat at optimal levels, you should be primed with water (not dehydrated) and use up most of your glycogen stores (blood-sugar energy, aka carbs). So lifting weights or doing high-rep PT workouts is ideal for burning up the glycogen stores; resistance training metabolizes 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, provided that you keep the heart rate in the fat burning zone (use the Karvonen formula -- maximum heart rate minus your age equals your target heart-rate range -- or just run at the rate where you are just able to converse with minor discomfort).

Also consider what you ate before 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 powerlifter, I thought a mile run was a long distance. 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 30 minutes if you really are pushing it.

Your glycogen stores also 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 before working out cardio first and resistance second is a must. 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 cardiovascular function. So you need to do both aerobic activity, like walking or running, and anaerobic activity, such as weightlifting and calisthenics. For optimal health results, you should mimic the fat-reduction method of resistance first and cardio second.

Many studies have shown that increased cardio function, fat loss and lean muscle gains can be accomplished by lifting first, then running. 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 possibly ward off illnesses and other conditions, you should do both.

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

Most fitness tests have a strength component first (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups) and then a cardio component (running, swimming, even biking). So, it is best to train the way you test. Do resistance/PT first, followed by cardio workouts. The difference between 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. Carb loading a few hours before 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. Find out what works for you by testing the nutrition before and after workouts and playing with the order of your workouts. The best bet to remember is "to train the way you play."

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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