Everything to Know About Combining Cardio and Strength Training for Your Goals

Your workout routine should have the best of both worlds - cardio + strength training. But, how do you incorporate the two for better results? We'll tell you!

Everything to Know About Combining Cardio and Strength Training for Your Goals
8 min. read 2/10/2022, 7:05 PM

When it comes to attaining fitness goals like building muscle or losing weight, most people choose one training route over the other. Typically those with fat loss goals place a greater focus on cardiovascular training or endurance training programs. Those who want to build serious muscle and strength focus on different types of strength training and often leave cardio behind. Both groups are making a mistake! Combining both cardio and strength training can get you a long way on your journey. Both are great at burning calories while working your muscles, so striking a good balance between the two is ideal!

Although cardio is usually the least favorite type of exercise among active people, especially lifters, knowing how to pair it with your strength training routine is key in order to really start seeing those results that you’re looking for - whether it's for fat loss or building muscle! To help you maximize your efforts in the gym, and to make sure those sweat and tears from your cardio workouts aren't going wasted, we're going to give you the full breakdown on how to combine cardio and strength training for your goals!

How much cardio should lifters be doing?

To answer this question, you first need to determine what your fitness goal is. Is it fat loss or building muscle mass? Or do you just want to stay in shape in order to lead a healthy life? People with different goals and routines will need different amounts of cardio, so let’s take a look into this!

In order to build muscle, aerobic training is important, but too much of it can actually negatively affect your progress. Cardio burns up a lot of calories, but your body uses up those calories as fuel when recovering and in the process of building muscle, so you don’t want to be in a calorie deficit if your goal is to gain muscle. Focus on lifting weights and perform about two to three cardio sessions per week, this way you’ll be taking care of those calories but not so much that you hinder the progress of muscle growth.

On the other hand, if your goal is fat loss, cardio will be your friend, but don’t forget about lifting! They’re equally important, but cardio will help you create a bigger calorie deficit, allowing you to cut back on body fat if you’re not too worried about gaining muscle, just maintaining it. Three to four cardio sessions a week, 20-30 minutes of cardio per session, is ideal for those who are looking to burn fat. Of course, the actual amount of cardio that you need to be doing also depends on the intensity and type of cardio training workout you do.

So, what type of cardio is best?

Best type of cardio for building muscle

If you want to build muscle or strength (or both) then stick to low to moderate intensity cardio sessions! Performing low-intensity steady-state cardio (also known as LISS) is a great way to supplement weight training without straining or fatiguing your muscles even more. Stick to workouts you enjoy, like jogging, walking on the treadmill on an incline, using the elliptical, going to your favorite cycling class. Anything that isn't going to push you too hard that it gets in the way of your weight lifting!

Best type of cardio for fat loss

Those wanting to lose weight can focus on doing any type of cardio, but if you want to maximize fat loss consider including a few high-intensity cardio sessions in your workout routine. The key to fat loss is to be in a calorie deficit, and one of these best ways to do that is by increasing your activity levels and cardio is great when you need to burn extra calories. So, to lose weight, consider doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT)! HIIT is great for many reasons like it's time-efficient and most importantly, it helps burn calories even after your workout due to it helping increase post-exercise oxygen consumption. Another great type of cardio, similar to HIIT, is circuit training. Circuit training is actually better for those that are trying to maintain their muscle gains because it can include strength training exercises like squats and deadlifts except under a shorter time frame so the focus is more on endurance than muscle building. It's also better for beginners or for anyone who just hates how intense HIIT is! You can also simply use the cardio machines at the gym like the StairMaster or a stationary bike, just make sure to set it at a moderate to high intensity to help you work up a better sweat!

When balancing cardio with weightlifting, it’s important to keep in mind your muscle health. Be careful not to over-fatigue your muscle groups by hitting the same muscles both with cardio and with strength training, instead, divide your workout so that you’re training your desired muscle groups without overworking them. Low-intensity and steady-state cardio are best for lower body days, in order to keep your legs in good shape when performing strength training and bodyweight exercises, and higher intensity aerobic exercise could be done on upper body days, that way you’ll be performing optimally on both exercises without fatiguing your muscles!

When should you do it - before or after lifting weights?

Again, it all comes down to your fitness goals! Whatever you’re looking to improve or achieve is what you want to do first in order to really put your energy into it. If your goal is building muscle mass and improving your strength, then you’ll want to do your weightlifting before cardio. To put it simply: you need your muscles to be fresh to really reap the benefits of strength and resistance training, and lifting isn’t the easiest task! When you do cardio, your muscles get fatigued and slowly lose the ability to contract effectively, so you’re using up the energy needed to perform optimally when it’s time to lift weights, decreasing the number of reps that you’re able to do before exhausting your muscles. Strength training before cardio ensures that you’re focusing on lifting weights with proper form and technique while staying away from possible injuries! You can also include one of your cardio sessions on an active rest day so you're not always doing cardio on your weight days.

If your goal is getting rid of body fat, even though both are great at burning calories, you’ll benefit more from lifting weights first as well. While cardio burns more calories the moment that you’re exercising, weightlifting helps you increase and maintain your lean body mass. This is important because muscle tissue burns more calories every day because of its resting metabolic rate, which measures the total number of calories that your body burns when resting. So, the more lean body mass you have, the higher the resting metabolic rate, which in turn helps to burn more calories in the long run for your weight loss goal! On the other hand, starting with cardio is a good warm-up option too, just opt for a low-intensity cardio workout to really get your heart rate going before your strength workouts.

That said, weightlifting before cardio could actually decrease your endurance, so if you’re an endurance athlete and training for a race or another endurance-related activity, it’s best if you go the other way around and start with a cardio workout! Just like with building muscle, when your goal is endurance, you don’t want to fatigue your legs with strength training before you go on a run. When training for aerobic endurance, your cardiovascular fitness comes first, so a good session of cardio before lifting weights will get you a long way.

But what if you just want to stay active and maintain good shape?

Well, you can do either of them first! Maybe start with the one you like less in order to get that out of the way and finish with the one you enjoy the most!

Ideally, cardio and weightlifting should be done at separate times or days, that way you can really focus on each activity and rest accordingly. But there’s nothing wrong with combining both in your workout routine! If you’re short on time, squeezing some cardio exercises in between strength training sets will allow you to get your cardio done while still hitting your weights in optimal shape. A great and effective cardio exercise to add to your strength training sessions is kettlebell swings because they’re effective for burning fat without putting too much pressure on your muscles, allowing them to perform optimally on the next exercise. You can also incorporate HIIT exercises, like jumping rope and jumping jacks, that don’t compromise your strength and can be done in 30 seconds between strength training sets, while also improving your overall conditioning.

And there you have it! While strength training is great for building muscle and for burning fat, pairing it with cardio will give you quicker and better results. Just remember to prioritize whatever aligns with your goals more, whether that is fat loss, muscle building, or just overall wellness and good shape. And if you're worried about overworking your muscles, or just need lower impact workouts, check out our Low Impact Cardio Ideas! These low-impact cardio ideas are less straining on your muscles and joints, but will still help you work up a sweat 😉