Cardio and strength training: How do you create a balanced routine?
How do I balance cardiovascular exercise with strength training?
-Emma from Maine
The short answer: It depends.
(Wasn’t that helpful!?)
How you organize your training depends on several factors.
1. What are you trying to get out of your training?
For example, are you a long-distance cyclist who does strength training to prevent injury and build up some muscle for tackling those hills? Or are you primarily a bodybuilder looking to balance out your program and use cardio for “active recovery?” In the first case, you might devote three-quarters of your training time to running, and only one-quarter to a few selected resistance exercises that help you with your sport. In the second case, you might do the reverse, making strength training 75% of your training time.
2. Do you do other activities, and if so, do you do them constantly?
To expand on point #1, you may find that your cardio/strength needs and abilities change with the seasons—either the weather seasons or the training seasons. In the summer you may find yourself cycling, running, and doing other outside activities more; in the winter you may seek the comfort of a toasty weight room. Or, if you compete in a sport, you may do more strength training in the off-season.
3. What other constraints do you have?
Do you only have 3 or 4 days a week to work out? Do you only have access to equipment at certain times? How flexible are you in your choice of activities? Etc.
4. What kind of cardiovascular exercise do you want to do?
Endurance-based? Sprinting? Surviving a three-minute round of boxing?
5. What kind of strength training do you want to do?
Do you want to do mostly rehab or injury prevention type exercises? Bodybuilding type exercises? Sport-specific type exercises? High-skill exercises such as the Olympic lifts (clean and jerk; snatch)?
So, in part, how you balance it depends a lot on your abilities, limitations and goals.
However, here are some general rules:
- A lot of cardio work, particularly of the endurance-based variety (e.g. distance running), will inhibit your maximal strength gains and ability to put on muscle mass. In other words, if your goal is to max out on the squat or bench press, or to get super huge, keep the long distance running to a minimum.
- When done in the same workout, put strength training first. The body uses fuels in a particular order of preference. If you put a lot of cardio in before you do strength training, you’ll run out of gas. (When I was younger, I could never figure out why I felt like a wet noodle trying to hit the weight machines after an hour-long step aerobics class)
- Note: This rule doesn’t really apply so much if you have a few hours and a meal or two in-between.
- You can use brief periods of cardio, say 5 min or so, as a warm-up for your strength training.
- If you’re doing heavy weight training on the body part you’re also using for your cardio of choice, consider doing them on different days. For example, don’t try to take on a long run right after a killer squat workout. Don’t try to row a few kilometers right after you just knocked off a bunch of pull-ups.
- If you’re just looking for general fitness, one no-brainer way to organize things is just to alternate weight training and cardio days. This gives you daily activity but mixes things up so you’re fresh.
Cardio and strength training do not need to be separated
OK, now the big heresy for those folks accustomed to thinking of cardio and strength training as two different things: they don’t have to be. “Cardio” can refer to any activity that gets your heart rate up and keeps it there for a while as you suck in the oxygen. Sure, there are the standard types of “cardio:” running, cycling, elliptical machines, and so forth. But consider “weighted cardio:” longer sets of weighted exercises such as squats, pushups, ballistic exercises like dumbbell swings, sandbag carries, sled dragging, and so forth.
This morning I did the following workout: several sets of 100 meter sprints alternated with sledgehammer and dumbbell swings. I ran down the alleyway behind my house, came back, grabbed the sledgehammer or the dumbbell sitting in the garage, swung it around for 25 reps each side, put it down, set off running again down the alley, and so forth. (By the way, this was at 6 a.m. and at 58 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill! No fancy equipment here!) Which part was cardio? Which part was strength training? It starts to be a bit of a mishmash when you combine it like this, and you can derive both strength and cardiovascular benefits from this type of workout. What makes this work is that:
- Both activities are sufficiently intense (i.e. I was training with vigor rather than slowly shuffling around);
- The exercises selected were more or less full body or compound exercises (i.e. using more than one moving body part);
- Rest intervals were fairly short (perhaps 10-20 seconds); and
- The weight sets were relatively lengthy (25 reps per set is a good baseline, but any amount over that is fair game, if you’re brave).
Check out Crossfit and kettlebell training for more ideas on this “weighted cardio”—it’ll kick your butt, improve your cardiovascular capacity, and get you strong too!
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