There are all sorts of different theories out there about how you should structure your workouts, in regards to the order you do things. Specifically, the discussion usually revolves around whether cardio or strength training should be the first thing on your list when you hit the gym. And there are various reasons – some a little more mythical than others – used on either side of the debate.
To confuse the issue even further, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) encourages a workout framework that is a little more complicated than just cardio and strength training. According to the ACSM guidelines, your weekly workouts should include:
- 3–5 days of cardiorespiratory exercise, depending on intensity
- 2–3 days of resistance training
- 2–3 days of flexibility training
- 2–3 days of neuromotor training
In an effort to clear all this up and provide a definitive answer regarding which form of exercise should come first, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently sponsored a study on the matter.
The study began by selecting 24 healthy, active men and women who were familiar with each form of exercise. Each subject than underwent baseline testing and was given a chance to practice the exercises that would be used in the study proper.
Since there are 24 possible ways to order and reorder the four exercise modes, that’s how many workouts each participant performed. Every workout was directly supervised by a member of the research team and the subjects were given 48 hours of rest between workouts to make sure that one workout didn’t affect performance on the next.
Once all of the data from the study was collected, the researchers found that placing the cardio section first kept the subjects’ heart rate significantly lower than if it was done after strength training. The order of flexibility and neuromotor training made no difference, as along as it came after the strength portion.
Based on their findings, the researchers recommend doing cardio first to keep your heart rate in the “moderate intensity” range. However, they also state that this depends on you and the goal of your workout.
The above-mentioned recommendation is made with the goal of keeping people safe and not pushing the average exerciser to hard. Keeping your exercise intensity at “moderate” is a safe way for you to see endurance benefits while not putting your heart at risk. That being said, these recommendations don’t work for everyone.
The most obvious reason that one might ignore these recommendations is because they want to get their heart rate into the realm of “vigorous intensity.” For sprinters or those who are more focused on building power than endurance, this is an important difference. This study, then, provides important insight into how you can restructure your workouts to be most effective for your goals.
It’s also important to remember that every workout does not need to include all four of these exercise modes. If you need to focus specifically on strength, then, there’s no reason why certain days cannot be strength-only. Similarly, if you want to have greater endurance gains, you should design days around that goal.