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Cardio Exercise and Resistance Exercise: Which to do First?

Stew Smith, CSCS

If you are like a majority of the people who exercise regularly, often the question of what do you do first – Cardio workouts (Running, swimming, biking, cardio machines at the gym) or Resistance training workouts (lift weights or PT) is discussed.

This article will further discuss that question on several different levels. What combination is best for the following common exercise goals:

- Fat Metabolism
- Muscular Strength Gains
- Overall Health
- Fitness Test Training

Fat Metabolism – For optimal burning of stored fat, you need to take into consideration nutrition and understand how the body uses the foods we eat for energy. To burn fat at optimal levels, your body needs to be primed with water (not dehydrated), and used up most of it glycogen stores (blood sugar energy – AKA Carbs). So, lifting weights or doing high reps PT workouts is ideal for burning up the glycogen stores as resistance training is metabolizing your sugar stores. After about 20-30 minutes of resistance training, you should be ready to burn fat at a higher rate during your cardio workout providing you keep the heart rate in fat burning zone (use Karvonen Formula or just keep your runs at just able to converse with minor discomfort). You have to also consider what you ate prior to exercise. Did you eat a lot of carbs? If so, it may take longer to get into fat burning mode, but you will have plenty of energy to lift weights!

Muscular Strength Gains – As a former power lifter, I thought a mile run was long distance and every now and then I would run to the gym and try to lift only to be burned out and unable to hit many of my previous high weight reps. Cardio activity burns a lot of calories fast. In fact, you can burn up to 300-500 calories in half and hour if you are really pushing it. As well, your glycogen stores can be lowered significantly and your body will try to make more glycogen out of fat, muscle, and remaining sugar in the body. If you like to do cardio first, that is fine. You can get used to it, but it usually requires rest periods and some sort of sugar / electrolyte replacement drink to help you through the workout. Proper nutrition prior to working out cardio first / resistance second is a must too. In fact, you should combine protein rich foods and carbs like fruit to give you the energy needed to get through the workouts. Better yet – just lift first if you want to be strong and supplement your lifting with some cardio workouts for overall health and fat metabolizing.

Overall Health – An overall health goal will consist of fat reduction, lean muscle mass gains, and cardio vascular function. So, you need to do both aerobic activity like walking or running and anaerobic activity like weight lifting and calisthenics. For optimal health results, you should mimic fat reduction method of resistance first / cardio second. Many studies have shown that increased cardio function, fat loss, and lean muscle gains can be accomplished by lifting first then running. In fact, improved cholesterol blood counts can be gained by cardiovascular first and resistance second. You can see much of these health improvements by doing cardio or resistance ONLY, but to OPTIMIZE your health performance and improve / prevent illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and other illnesses. PS – if you smoke, you should stop. Smoking does not help at all with overall health gains. Like I needed to tell you that.

Fitness Test Training – For my students and I who train to ace fitness tests regularly, most fitness tests have a strength component first (pushups, situps, pull-ups) and then a cardio component like running, swimming, even biking. So, it is beat to train the way you test. Resistance / PT first followed by cardio workouts. The difference in fitness test training and the above goals, is that you will be mostly anaerobic throughout the test and given a few minutes to recover for the next exercise. Once again, nutrition is vital to acing fitness tests. In fact, pre-carb loading a few hours prior to the fitness test and a steady dose of carbohydrate replacement will help energy levels throughout your test. Some tests are different and may have cardio at the front and back ends of the test. The Navy SEAL test is 500 yds swim, pull-ups, pushups, situps, and 1.5 mile run. This requires technique training which you can read about in Ace Any PT Test. Get more fitness advice at the PoliceLink Fitness Bookstore.

Stew Smith, CSCS, former Navy SEAL and fitness writer is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). Email him personally at

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    I always do my cardio first. Usually 5 to 7 miles either on the treadmill or elliptical (knees are shot for outdoor running on concrete), and then weights for about 40 minutes, either arms or legs, depending on what I did the previous day (I work out 5 to six days a week, usually for 90 minutes). Since I retired last year, I've lost 18 lbs.
    I'd d like to be under 200 lbs., as my doctor suggests a man my age and height should be (I'll soon be 52, and I weigh 216 lbs.) I watch my diet, eat a salad for lunch every day, but I don't know if I'll ever reach 200 lbs. unless i just starve myself, which isn't likely (I haven't had red meat in my diet for the past 6 or more years).
    But I really cannot complain; my blood pressure is good, my cholesterol is low. Many of the people I came on the job with 28 years ago aren't here anymore, so I appreciate the fact that I retired in reasonably good health, and improved it a good deal in the past year since I retired. I include swimming and boxing into my cardio workouts too.

  • 0524001248_0001_0001_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Good thoughts from the training corner. Its also good as well to have a partner on your shift who wants to go to the gym with you. My Sarge and I train right after we get off of work in the morning. I am a former bodybuilder so I know that (GOOD) carbs are the most important thing before a workout. My partner is finally catching on to the ideal. I train him in weights and he pushes me to do cardio, so we both have our strong points. It also helps when you need back up. Your confident in what your partner can do. Sarge chases the bad guy and I deal with the bad guys who want to fight. It all works out. Don't forget that a supplement here and there helps along the way. GREAT ARTICLE!!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago

    When you do your cardio sometime during the day other then first thing in the morning, you spend most of that time burning off carbs that you already ate that day. When you do it first thing in the morning, there are no carbs to burn, so all your body can burn is body fat!

  • Belgian-malinois-picture_max50


    over 4 years ago


    good article..i think for police work.hit training or crossfit is the way to go. old school style of working out is outdated.

  • O_s_max50


    over 4 years ago


    I understand what you're saying Topcat, and I agree that for most people doing weight training first will be fine, but for those people who are trying to lose weight as their main goal you need to be using the fast twitch fibers during your HIIT training. High intensity interval training requires fast twitch fibers, not slow twitch. Also, as you said, assuming you're eating healthy and training properly (get a personal trainer if you need one) and not over training, recovery time should be 24-48 hours. A solid cardio/weight routine with proper nutrition and rest periods (i know rest for cops isn't something they have a lot of time for) you'll get in great shape. Like I said when people don't know what they're doing and just get info on the internet is when they follow a bad program, don't eat properly, and end up hurting themselves. Get a personal trainer who can teach you what to do/not do if you want to make progress fast and properly.

  • Christmas_2008_top_half_max50


    over 4 years ago


    I want to get into this kind of shape--well it doesn't have to be pristine shape but it has to be extremely good. My shape right now is NO shape. I've got a deadline to do it in and a lot of weight to loose. Plan on using this as my workout guide as well as his ebooks. Hopefully I'll find a workout partner (thats how I work out best unfortunately) and decide if a gym membership or an at home workout thing like biggest looser athletics video etc to use. If anyone has any suggestions they're greatly appreciated!

  • Cert_max600_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Good article...I've read this or something like it many times. It's what I do for my workouts...weight train first followed by cardio!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago

    Topcat you must be in great shape

  • 474305986_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Good Artical, I most of the time start with cardio then work out, now I am going to try working out first then do cardio and see how it works out for me. Thanks for the Artical...

  • Police_mia_weapons_zastavki_com_22517_19_max50


    over 4 years ago


    I got my P.A.T. coming up...I have been lifting weights but what I really need to work on is my cardio resistance...need to be able to run longer without getting burned out too fast...

  • Img_2238_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Guess I will have to try weights first and then cardio and see what happens. interesting article

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    I alternate from week to week, one week I'll do resistance training first and the following week I flip flop. I have seen good results from this. Furthermore, my resistance training is different from week to week as well which keeps my muscles guessing so I don't plateau. Now if I can dedicate as much discipline to my diet I would be a body builder, lol!!!!

  • O_s_max50


    over 4 years ago


    doing cardio first does serve a purpose topcat. If you're goal is fat loss and muscle tone (especially for women) doing a 20-30 min med/high intensity HITT workout can be extremely beneficial. Followed by a short circuit and some core work you've got yourself a killer workout.

    If you're trying to gain muscle, specifically bulk, cardio is your enemy. I have multiple friends who are body builders and during a "bulking" phase there is 0 cardio in their workout routine. For those who want lean muscle a mix of either, cardio in morning, weights in the evening, or weights one day, cardio next alternate is a great way to go.

    For those trying to gain muscle an intensive cardio session after a weightlifting workout will damage the muscles your just tore in an attempt to make them bigger during your workout. Particularly after a leg workout. It takes your muscles 24-48 hours after lifting to heal completely. Waiting 24 hr min will give them time to heal and be ready to workout again.

    Olympic lifting (cleans, snatch, etc) are also a great full body/cardio workout.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    Exercising is very important in order to have a healthy lifestyle.Also Steroids in order to increase your muscle.Hannah Jones

  • Image1a_max50


    over 4 years ago


    A nice simple to understand article, thanks. =]

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