Strength vs Cardio

David gives advice on how to structure your workout based your goals

You arrive at the gym, and the clock is ticking: You’ve got 45 minutes to work all of your major muscle groups – and squeeze in some cardio too. But which one should come first?

Sadly, there’s not a cut-and-dry answer: Your priority in the gym depends on your personal goals – there are lots of variables to consider – exercise history, injury, setting realistic workout durations and specific individual targets.

Whatever your fitness goal, you should have elements of both forms of training in your workout. The ratio, however, will depend on what you are looking to achieve.

Weight Loss

The ratio here depends on what you mean by weight loss – are you looking to lose lots of weight or are you trying to shape the body after an initial weight loss?

Remember, losing weight is all about the calorie deficit, i.e. taking in fewer calories than you burn each day. As long as this is being achieved, you will begin to lose weight.

At the beginning of your weight loss journey, you should focus on continuous cardio exercise for the majority of your workout. This will help build your cardiovascular system capacity and endurance (make you feel fitter). This, in turn will allow you to achieve more during your workouts later. So pick your favourite machine (bike, cross trainer, treadmill, rower) and go for it!

A phrase commonly seen in fitness to describe this is ‘LISS’(low intensity, steady state) – working at around 40-60% max heart rate (low to moderate intensity) allows the body to burn fat as its primary source of energy. This format does mean longer duration workouts!

You should also include some strength training. Whilst strength training may not burn as many calories as cardio at first, you’ll see the benefits after your session. By increasing lean muscle mass, you can improve your metabolism even when sitting still. The best way to start is by creating a strength based circuit – either on the machines or with free weights. Make sure this part of your workout is balanced between upper and lower body.

In terms of exercise order, I would always advocate warming up and building up intensity with cardio, with strength training in the middle of the workout. If you leave the strength element to the end, you will often be too depleted to give this part the correct attention.

If you want to lose just a little weight, or shape the body, then for cardio you should focus on interval training. This is high intensity, short bursts of exercise with short bouts of rest in between. This can be achieved on the CV machines in the gym or by doing exercises such as step ups. Resistance exercises can also be incorporated in this type of routine in order to get your muscles working – using TRX or Kettlebells for example – try one of our classes to get that all over workout!

Muscle Tone / Strength Building

If you’re already in good shape but are looking to tone up or build muscle, the type of cardio exercise changes again. With this goal, the majority of your workout should be resistance based as you’re saving your energy supply for building muscle mass.

For those with a small amount of fat to lose as well, HIIT training, which stimulates metabolism, is the way to go. Short duration and high-intensity stints will decrease your body fat percentage and increase fitness levels. It’s also great if you play sports.

The LISS method mentioned above is also good if you are want to focus on muscle building, but not appropriate if you can only work out for short durations!

Again, in terms of order, the resistance element should take priority, with cardio exercises fitted in the middle or towards the end of the workout.

What to remember

  • Set realistic workout times – an hour? 30 mins? Make the workout suit your timings and goals
  • Consider your physical condition – make sure the workout method is appropriate
  • Make sure you know exactly what your goal is – this can change as goals are achieved, so the workouts can change also to match.

We’ve only talked about two goals here and you might have other aims. So come and talk to us. The fitness team can adapt any workout to be specific for your fitness level and adapt it to help you achieve your goal. So don’t be shy! Find any member of the fitness team in the gym and we’ll work it out.