Written by Lisa Allen, MD
First things first… that’s what we’ve been told and maybe even told other people. The problem is in knowing which things are first – especially when it comes to a workout routine. Our fitness experts tell us that when it comes to your workout, it’s just that: yours.
So the key is to find which sequence of exercises or activities work best for you and allow you to not only continue your workout, but to do so with optimal performance.
Until recently, it was considered to be common wisdom to do 20 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise prior to any weight training. The thought behind this approach was that the cardio workout would serve two purposes. The first purpose was to get your blood flowing and reach your target heart rate. The second purpose was to serve as a warm-up for your muscles that, in conjunction with stretching, would ready them for strength training.
This approach may work perfectly for you. If that’s the case, then don’t change a thing. If, on the other hand, you’re finding that your workouts have hit a plateau lately, then try moving your cardio routine to the end of your workout. Some positive effects of moving your time on the bike or the treadmill can be that you actually have more energy and strength for weight training than may have otherwise been the case.
Your aerobic activity can deplete your body of stored energy, leaving you feeling weak when it’s time for your anaerobic weight training. By reversing the order of your exercises, you can maximize your strength training.
It all comes down to preference and intention. You will be able to put the most effort into (and see the most results from) the exercise you do first. If you are most interested in toning certain muscle groups or working on your overall strength, hit the weights first.
If you are trying to increase your cardiovascular capacity and endurance (and lose weight), then opt for cardio first. But no matter which order you decide to try, be sure to properly warm up before any exercise by doing several minutes at a lower weight, speed and intensity.
Which Muscles First?
Whereas the order of cardio and strength training can largely be left to personal preference, the order of exercises in a weight training routine can make a big difference. Generally speaking, exercise the large muscle groups first – when you have the most energy. This includes your chest, back and thighs. Then follow that with your shoulders, arms and abs. The reasoning here is two-fold.
First, the weight you use to exercise the larger muscle groups is more than the weight you use on the smaller groups so from an injury standpoint, it makes sense to move the highest weights around when you are the least tired.
Secondly, working those big muscle groups gives you a lot of “bang for your buck” so to speak. Your heart rate elevates (and stays there) and it has been shown that by working the biggest muscle groups, you actually stimulate the smaller ones to work as well, so you get a certain degree of double duty from the large muscle exercises.
A favorite example of trainers for this phenomenon is squats. Although focused on the thighs, squats involve the entire body in both the movement and the balance needed to carry it out.