Balancing A Strength And Cardio Training Program
Some very common Internet searches bring people to Girls Gone Strong every day.
- “Which should I do first, cardio or weights?”
- “Which one on which days, and how much of each?”
- “Will doing cardio interfere with my recovery from strength training, and vice versa?”
Runners or other endurance athletes often ask these questions, since their training typically requires a great deal of energy and recovery time, especially for a new athlete or one who has been out of training for a period of time.
Your training schedule should reflect your priorities.
If overall fitness is your top priority, there are ways to balance your activities to reap the most benefit from a well-rounded approach. If your goal is to get stronger or build muscle, hit the weights first. If you want to train to have a great 10K time, you should focus your efforts on improving your cardiovascular fitness, and your strength training should complement your goals. In other words, build your program based on your goals, and let other modes of exercise support, not interfere with your training priority.
If your goal is to perform better in cardiovascular activity…
Your program should emphasize your cardiovascular workouts and utilize strength training to correct and prevent muscular imbalance and improve performance. Of course, if your cardiovascular exercise is all lower body (running or cycling, for example), there should be no interference with upper body and core training. However your legs may be too sore and fatigued from the cardiovascular activity, and frequent, heavy, or high-volume lower body strength training may do more harm than good (or may not even be possible). Every person is different. Some able to tolerate large volumes of all types of exercise, and some much more sensitive to overtraining.
Many endurance athletes go through seasons, or phases of periodization. There are months when their training is light, and others when it is quite intense, such as when preparing for a marathon. During phases when cardiovascular training is lighter, such as between races or other types of cardiovascular events, is a perfect time to focus on a structured, progressive strength training which can help to address weaknesses or muscle imbalances (common culprits of repetitive stress injuries in endurance athletes).
If your goal is to get stronger and build muscle…
It can be a little more difficult to know how much and how often you can perform cardio workouts without interfering with your training. It’s safe to say that low- to moderate-intensity cardio at the current recommendations for health (30 to 40 minutes, three to four days per week) shouldn’t interfere with your strength goals, provided you are eating enough to not put you in negative energy balance. Becoming stronger initially happens due to neuromuscular adaptations, not actual growth of muscle, known as hypertrophy. Hypertrophy takes more time, and requires performing strength exercises to failure more often.
Adequate protein and carbohydrate intake are key if you are going to perform both types of activity without any interference. The best way to know the correct balance for you of frequency, intensity and type of cardio that will support your strength training goals is to start small, and gradually ramp up the cardio, carefully monitoring your strength training progress. If you start to feel low on energy or are plateauing in your progress, you can try eating a bit more before and after your workout, and see if that makes a difference, but if not, consider tapering back.
If your goal is fat loss…
As mentioned above, your program should include a sensible balance of cardio for health and strength training to encourage preservation of lean muscle mass, strength, and muscle definition. You should also strive to have more daily physical activity overall. Don’t try to increase your exercise volume, frequency, or intensity too quickly, especially when dieting.
If you don’t have a specific goal…
If you don’t have a specific goal other than feeling strong and having a good aerobic capacity, use the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine as a guideline for your training schedule: a total body strength training program two to three days per week, cardiovascular training two to five days per week (depending on the chosen intensity discussed previously), and flexibility/mobility exercises for each major muscle group two to three days per week.1
Cardio for Women: What’s Next?
If you’ve read all of this information and still aren’t sure where to start, we don’t blame you! Putting together an effective, balanced, and safe training program that you enjoy doing isn’t exactly an easy task. Which is exactly why we created…