Should I Hit the Weights Before the Treadmill?

Running of Treadmill
 Shutterstock

If you like to power through Olympic lifts and get your gears grinding with cardio—all in the same workout—you’ve probably wondered: ‘Am I threatening my strength gains if I pound out a few miles on the treadmill first? Or, will I hurt the quality of my sprint workout by preceding it with heavy lifting?’ The short answer to whether you should be doing one before the other is yes. But the order all depends on your fitness goals.  

In general, any athlete will benefit from a well-rounded strength and conditioning program says Mike Krajewski, CSCS, owner of MK Fitness in Nashville, TN. The amount and frequency at which you include anaerobic (quick, high-intensity activity work) and aerobic training (moderate-intensity cardio that gets your heart rate up, but can be sustained during your workout) varies depending on your intention for the workout and your long-term goals. 

“The scientific evidence on the efficacy of performing cardio exercise before or after strength training remains inconclusive, but you can use common sense.” In short, if you want improved strength, then evidence supports resistance training followed by sprints; if you’re an endurance athlete, run first before you hit the weights.

If you’re trying to optimize strength and overhaul your physique

Bottom line: You can need to prioritize weights first and do the right kind of cardio. 

“Resistance training complements endurance training, but the inverse is not necessarily the same since steady-state aerobic training can hinder your lean muscle growth and strength gains,” Krajewski explains.

For example, if you’re a powerlifter with the goal of improving your squat to 500lbs, you’re not going to care about building your aerobic capacity as much as a weekend warrior whose main goal is to shed body fat, he adds. Your main focus is reaching muscle hypertrophy.

Your strength and conditioning programs need to revolve around three main pillars, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: mechanical tension (lifting heavy things), metabolic stress (getting that deep muscle burn), and muscle damage (eccentric training and negatives). 

Here’s an example of a balanced and properly structured workout: Begin by breaking a sweat with a few minutes of cardio to raise your heart rate. Complete a dynamic warmup (like this one). Next, focus on your resistance training, making sure to select different muscle groups to target each day. Finish your workout with a high-intensity circuit like a sprint session on a cardio machine of your choice (erg/rower, AirDyne resistance bike, treadmill).

The duration of your cardio depends on how fatigued you are from your lifting session. Went really, really hard? Perform 6-8 100m bursts on any of the above cardio machines, taking 45-60s rests in between each; this workout should take you about 10 minutes or so. Had a light lifting session? Perform 15-25 minutes of intervals with adequate rest between each.

“When it comes to cardio, less is more,” Krajewski says. Think about it: Would you rather sprint for less time or jog for more? “Sprints also have a markedly greater effect on torching fat, and allow you to maintain lean muscle mass and strength by producing muscle-building hormones,” he explains. 

For mass building, jogging is a no-go. Steady-state aerobic training can elevate the hormone cortisol, which can result in inflammation, loss of lean muscle mass and, in turn, the storage of fat cells. 

If you’ve never done sprint intervals before, jump on the row machine and try this workout finisher after your next lifting session: 
o    Row 500m x2 for your best time/maximal effort (rest 2-3min between intervals) *shoot for sub 2:00min
o    Row 300m x2 for your best time/maximal effort  (rest 2min between intervals) *shoot for sub 60sec
o    Row 100m x6-8 for your best time/maximal effort (rest 60s between intervals) *shoot for sub 21sec 

If you’re an endurance athlete

You want to incorporate resistance training strategically.

You can see how having “leg day” in the gym the day before a high-mileage run will sacrifice your running or cycling, so introduce strength training when your serious endurance training doesn’t take precedence (for instance, in the weeks before your big race). Then, the sweet spot for endurance athletes is a twice-a-week strength-training program. Space the sessions out so they’re not on back-to-back days and don’t schedule a long training run the day after a strength workout. (You could do an “easy” or “tempo” run that day instead.)

You also don’t want to injure yourself by getting in over your head. Focus on bodyweight exercises like planks, squats, pushups, and lunges first to build a foundation of strength before you add heavy weight and explosive movements. When you progress, start your workout with high-speed full-body plyometrics, then move on to total-body strength moves. This will help you to be a stronger athlete overall.

“A strong core is essential longevity-wise for endurance athletes and long distance runners,” Krajewski adds. “I trained an ultramarathon runner in preparation for a 100-mile race. He went an entire year of training injury-free and improved his previous best 100-mile race by 105 minutes—and we focused primarily on body weight training and using weights under 40lbs.”