Cardio, before or after lifting?

There is a long standing debate as to whether cardio should be done immediately before, or after training.  Even further you can do cardio:

  • Several hours before you weight train
  • Several hours after you weight train
  • On non-training days
  • Fuck cardio, it’s not needed

For most the idea of doing cardio right before weight training is absurd.  But weight training before cardio has shown an increased hormonal response to weight training itself.  In fact in a head to head battle testosterone was lower post workout for up to 48 hours after men weight trained first, then immediately did cardio [1].  While the group that did cardio, then weight training saw no significant change in testosterone over the 48 hour post workout window.

But there is some debate as to whether the lower testosterone is simply a result of normal recovery indicators, or quite simply the fact that cardio before weight training reduced glycogen enough to decrease the training intensity.  In fact, this is usually the biggest argument as to why you should not do cardio prior to weight training (reduced glycogen stores).

The Latest Cardio Study Says…

The latest study wanted to compare the anabolic and catabolic responses to cardio before weight training vs. weight training alone [2].  Specifically they wanted to test whether strength and hypertrophy would be diminished as a result of cardio before weight training.

They put ten guys through an experiment which lasted 5 weeks (there was an acute study as well).  Each guy completed a single leg ergometer with only one leg, while the other remain rested.  The ergometer part of the experiment was the “cardio”.  Then they completed single leg extensions for 4 sets of 7 reps with each leg, while power was measured.  Each cardio portion was 45 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of rest before the leg extensions.  Each leg extension set was followed by 2 minutes of rest.  Notably the final 2 minutes of cardio was “all out effort” to exhaust the leg/trainee.cardio before weights

Heart rate (for your reference) averaged 120 bpm over the 5 weeks of cardio training.  Over the 5 weeks the leg that completed cardio first, produced 20% less power during the leg extensions.  However, and of most interest, quadriceps muscle volume actually increased more in the leg that completed cardio prior to leg extensions (see image on right).  This was true for all ten participants.

Other interesting findings included a greater reduction in myostatin (myostatin is a negative regulator of muscle) after cardio and leg extensions, but not leg extensions alone.  Greater MuRF-1 expression, which has been shown to be necessary for muscle hypertrophy [3].  PGC-1alpha expression also increased, which is known to reduce protein breakdown [4].

So what about the all important glycogen?  Well in this case reduced glycogen seemed to play a role in the diminished power output (-20%).  However a 30% reduction in glycogen (due to cardio training) did not reduce their ability to grow muscle.

Mind Blown?

Increased muscle mass, from doing cardio first?  This flies in the face of what most would expect.  Unfortunately I would agree with the authors caveat in this case.  That is that they believed over an extended period of time (or in the case of higher level athletes), the reduced strength would subsequently impair performance.  It’s reasonable to believe that over time that decreased performance would also result in a lowered hypertrophy response.  The authors note:

“Altogether, it is apparent that restored muscle function between exercise bouts is a prerequisite for attaining optimal gains in muscle function in response to AE+RE training.  This contrasts the muscle hypertrophic response, which seems to occur independent of recovery.”

My Practical Application

I think this study highlights a few things.  First, it’s not going to kill your gains if you have to (for whatever reason) do cardio right before lifting.  Personally, I believe you will see similar anabolic response by saving cardio for after you train.  If you are a powerlifter that does do cardio, it’s best on days you do not plan to lift.  For bodybuilders and physique enthusiasts, doing cardio away from your training is still optimal.  And simply doing cardio vs. none at all is still going to produce a superior anabolic and metabolic effect (sorry this is something I strongly disagree with John Meadows on).

Weight training is the number one driver of muscle protein accretion (hypertrophy), and increased loading is necessary to sustain this response.  Because of this, cardio before training is ill advised (because of the noted power decrease it causes during lifting).

– Travis DeGraff


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