Take the guesswork out of planning your cardio and strength workouts with this science-backed take on concurrent training.
Strength training and cardio are a little bit like salt and pepper. You can have one without the other, but they’re much more effective together. Doing both—known as concurrent training—can help you achieve your goals, but how you schedule them in your week can be tricky. Here, experts break it down for you.
First, What Is Concurrent Training?
Concurrent training is a combination of strength and cardiovascular training performed within one session (think: a full-body HIIT class) or one week. In life and in sport, both strength and cardiovascular endurance are essential, and they complement each other well. In a review published in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, researchers saw concurrent training improved strength and aerobic capacity over cardio or strength training alone.
What Are the Benefits of Doing Both Cardio and Strength?
Strength training can be the secret sauce for improving your cardio performance. “It’s like getting better gas mileage on your car,” explains Jay Dawes, PhD, Associate Professor of Applied Exercise Science at Oklahoma State University. “In running, strength training improves your stride, you’re able to put more force into the ground, maintain proper joint position throughout your entire run, and you’re going to be less likely to experience an injury.”
Regardless of your mode of choice for cardio, incorporating strength can be a boon for power, efficiency, and injury prevention. And in general, you don’t want to miss out on the heart and mental health benefits of cardio.
Concurrent training can also set you up for body fat loss. In a study published in Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, the participants who performed a concurrent training program for 12 weeks showed improved strength in the 1RM leg and bench press and the best results for body fat loss. Resistance training, research shows, is a major player in body composition changes.
So, Should You Do Cardio Before Strength?
But when time is limited, or if you just prefer doing both cardio and strength in one session, there are certain strategies to use to get more bang from your buck in strength and endurance gains. The key is to arrange your workout to support your primary goal by putting your main priority first.
“While each type of training is going to affect the other, you’re going to be fresher and have more fuel in the first part of your workout, so whichever physical attribute is most important to you should be the focus,” says Dawes.
If you’re trying to build muscle or get stronger, studies show strength then cardio would be the best order. For cardio endurance goals such as running a half marathon or hiking up a mountain, research backs up the plan for cardio first for better aerobic capacity and time trial performance. But if you’re trying to build power to jump higher, for example, one study found performing cardio before strength was the best option.
You can also structure your workouts around intensity or what areas of your body you’re targeting. You might think a heavy strength day is best paired with a low-intensity cardio work, but it’s actually the opposite.
“High-intensity cardio will have a lower impact on your lean muscle mass than something like long, slow-duration cardio does, so pairing it together targets different aspects of power together,” notes Dawes. You also have the option of pairing upper body strength days with long duration cardio, like a 45-minute bike ride. While you have more wear and tear on the lower body, you can train your upper body while it’s fresh.
But Does Cardio Actually Kill Your Muscle Gains?
The short answer is probably not. The idea of avoiding cardio to protect your strength training gains is based on the interference effect, which kept endurance runners away from weights and weight lifters away from running for decades.
The interference effect is when the cellular changes you get from cardio potentially negate the signal in the cell to build muscle. Resistance training builds muscle by creating an adaptation in the cells through molecular signaling. Lower-intensity workouts with repetitive contractions (like jogging or cycling easy) help enhance mitochondria with enzymes. Research shows that an uptick in the enzymes from your cardio may actually cause a suppression of the signaling pathways that build muscle. If you’re training really aggressively in both strength and cardio without taking time to recover or planning accordingly, it’s as if your muscle hits a road closure and can’t move forward in the pathway to build muscle.
While there is some scientific basis behind the interference effect, it doesn’t mean you should retire your running shoes forever. Unless you are a very specific type of elite athlete, you’re likely to see more benefits than drawbacks from concurrent training.
“Usually we see an interference effect with people who are really pushing limits on their absolute max strength like elite powerlifters,” notes Dawes. “For most individuals in the general population who have a variety of strength and fitness goals, it’s going to be reasonably nominal in the grand scheme of it all and the benefits outweigh the cons for concurrent training.”
That said, simply doing both won’t do the job. You can strategically time when you do cardio and strength workouts to reap the benefits of both without losing momentum on either.