Can I do Strength Training and Cardio Together?

Posted on 14 Jun 2015 20:41


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Men’s Fitness posted an article recently giving advice to people who want to mix strength training and cardio. The general theme of the article is that the best way to lose fat is to prioritize “strength training” and keep cardio secondary. I have a few thoughts on the matter.

Original Article

The original article from Men’s Fitness can be found here: Trainer Q&A: How to Mix Cardio and Strength Building to Zap Fat

Am I about to open a can of worms?

This issue is a GIGANTIC can of worms because there are too many variables involved in the answer. First, you have to consider what “cardio” means. Is it regular jogging or running or sprinting or using the treadmill or elliptical or is it some fancy prowler or sled dragging or is it simply hiking a mountain? Are you planning on doing metabolic conditioning drills as your “cardio”? Is it just one of these activities or more? Second, you have to consider what “strength training” really means. There should be a definition and a lot of people don’t view it the same way.

Men’s Fitness has explained strength training as performing big compound movements like squats, deadlifts, overhead press, etc for high rep sets. Powerlifters believe strength training is limited to just the big three movements: the squat, bench press and deadlift. Strongmen view it as being able to lifting a really heavy weight many times. What do you mean by strength training? Which of these definitions is applicable? Will the parameters make a difference? The over all volume, the rep ranges, the frequency, etc.?

Last, you must consider the purpose of doing cardio. Why do you want to do cardio? Is it to be fit or look good or lose fat or fit into a weight class for a competition or do you just want to do it for the sake of doing it? Are you an athlete who wants to maintain some basic cardio-respiratory fitness, or even athleticism while adding weight lifting into your regimen?

Being that is about maximal strength, I am going to be very specific in my commentary for this topic. I am going to address those people who are trying to get strong on any one or more exercise. Meaning: They are trying to increase their one rep maximum on one or more lifts.

Maximal Strength and Cardio

The best way to start is to ask yourself why you are doing cardio. There are options I listed above and some few short examples of why someone who is trying to get strong will be open to cardio are:

  • To lose weight for a meet
  • To improve performance because excess bodyweight is getting in the way of lifting
  • To overcome endurance related breathing problems

And the list goes on..

The next issue is to think about the forms of cardio. Most of the time this is limited because of availability; for example only some people have access to a sled or a prowler or space to drag or push both equipments. The most common form of cardio equipment is the treadmill or cross-trainer or elliptical or stationary bike. In this specific case I am keeping cardio as a “secondary” goal because the primary goal is to get stronger. So given this priority of cardio in a trainee’s training; it need not be restricted to just ONE single type of cardio activity. The trainee can go through multiple activities on various days of the week.

Putting it all together

Let’s say you have 3-4 days of working out at the gym. I am going to call these “strength training workouts” despite hating the label. So you have 3-4 strength training workouts per week and you want to do some form of cardio for a specific reason. I know this answer is going to irritate a lot of people but you have to experiment and play around with it and observe what happens. I know this is a really short answer but I have some guidelines that will definitely help steer you in the right direction.

As a general rule of thumb do not perform any cardio activities before any big heavy workout sessions. So if you have heavy squats on Monday, do not do cardio on Sunday. In truth, being conservative and goal oriented (maximal strength is #1 on the list of goals), I would not do any cardio on Saturday or Sunday before the Monday squat workout.

If you are going to do cardio on the same day as weight training, I would advise either a big gap between workouts if you cardio in the beginning of your day or you postpone cardio to post-strength training workout. The further away they are the better your performance in the gym will be.

I strongly advise you to not add in cardio, change your diet and change your workout routine all at one time. That is too many variables being meddled with to know what to attribute the subsequent performance changes to. It is best to keep your diet and strength training constant and add in cardio bit by bit to see what happens to your performance. If you ever do change your routine you will have to scale back cardio temporarily as you adjust to the new routine and then re-introduce cardio several weeks later.

Wrapping up

Strive to stay attuned to your strength training to know whether performance is being adversely affected. Sometimes this adverse effect will sneak up on you. You might initially have 3-4 easy weeks of cardio and you will keep bumping up the intensity on it and then suddenly in week 5 you will have a huge breakdown in your strength workout. Sometimes you might start expressing small problems like missing lifts here and there (initially) and by the time the actual drawback reveals itself several weeks will have passed. So it is imperative to be conservative with your cardio approach. Start small and be prepared to make changes if you find your performance in the gym being affected.

This is why I love strength training. Almost all questions about cardio and nutrition boil down to the results you see and unlike bodybuilding where the results may time to surface; strength training is about performance and you will immediately know whether a change you have made is good or bad depending on your actual real-world performance in the gym. Remember: you are doing cardio to supplement your strength training, not the other way around.

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