I’ve seen these questions asked a lot across numerous forums and in person. How do you combine strength training and cardio? Is it possible and what kind of results can you achieve from doing so?
Here are the top 2 things I wouldn’t recommend you do when combining Strength Training and Cardio:
- Don’t turn it into a CrossFit Metcon, or metabolic conditioning. In general, Crossfit is a flawed and poorly regulated program. This lack of regulation results in Crossfit gyms hiring coaches that have people perform unsafe practices. Such as highly technique driven lifts being used as cardio. (Doing Power Cleans for reps is not a good idea and shouldn’t be done EVER.) Whenever I see beginner lifters start with CrossFit, they more often than not get injured and have no base of strength.
- Don’t do cardio before strength training sessions if your main goal is building strength. If you do your cardio before a strength training session, you deplete ATP (Adenosine triphosphate). When this happens, you have less energy available and build less muscle. This results in a lack of energy to get stronger and your technique will degrade due to fatigue.
Now that we have these 2 things out of the way, is it okay to combine cardio and strength training? Or is there a better way? Let’s find out!
Is It Okay To Combine Cardio And Strength Training?
The first thing I think about when seeing this question is, “why would you want to combine them in the first place?” If it were me, the main thing I would consider is time constraints.
A lot of people work jobs and don’t have time to do cardio on off days. They want to get it done on the same day they work out so they can get everything done quickly and efficiently. But is it optimal for building muscle and strength? Not likely.
The main people asking this question want to incorporate cardio into their strength training programs. They want to do circuits and treat it like proper strength training. They want to do CrossFit and say that it’s great for building muscle.
Unfortunately, you will never build the most muscle and strength possible training this way. So in my mind, combining the two like this is a bad idea and something I would never recommend.
If your main goal is to simply use it to lose weight and don’t care about building muscle and strength, go for it! It’ll work perfectly fine if all you want is to burn calories and get sweaty.
However, if you want to get strong, build muscle, and stay in shape/healthy; read on and I’ll show you how to do it!
Does Cardio After Weight Training Affect Muscle Growth?
The basic answer to this is, it depends. If you’re training for building muscle you should be in a calorie surplus already.
If you aren’t, no matter when you do your cardio, you won’t be building any muscle mass. Unless you’re a beginner lifter, you can do anything and grow in that case.
Odds are; if you’re in a calorie surplus and gaining weight every week, and hitting PR’s in the 6-30 rep range consistently, you’re most liking gaining muscle mass.
If you’re doing all of the above, will doing cardio after your weight training affect your muscle growth? Probably not.
The main issue with it is giving your muscles different signals. You signal it to grow while doing progressive overload training, and then you do cardio right after which has a different signal entirely.
With this in mind, if your goal isn’t gaining maximum muscle mass, you’re totally fine.
Of course, as I said in the first section, make sure you’re not doing your strength training as your cardio.
Doing CrossFit is fine for overall fitness, but doing it to build strength and muscle mass is a fool’s errand.
Focus on strength training first, do your cardio after, and make sure you have balance in your training.
You can’t do millions of sets of squats and then do millions of sprints without your body fighting back. If you want to build more muscle and increase your strength, you need to do less cardio. If your primary goal is to improve your cardiovascular fitness, do more cardio and less strength training.
You can’t push everything “into the red” and expect to have amazing progress. Doing so only ensures you’ll get injured and force you to take time off.
How To Combine Cardio And Strength Training
Now that we’ve gone over what not to do when combining cardio and strength training, let’s go over what we should be doing!
The best way I’ve found to combine cardio and strength training is by using supersets.
These are essentially two exercises you perform back to back with little to no rest. We use antagonist supersets which refer to working opposing muscle groups, think biceps, and triceps.
Doing a set of Barbell Curls and then immediately following up with a set of Tricep Pushdowns. This is an antagonistic superset.
Supersets For Strength, Muscle Gain, And Fat Loss
When using these antagonistic supersets, I’ve seen some of the best progress in any clients I’ve ever trained.
I attribute this to 3 major factors:
- They’re beginners. This is important, I said earlier that beginners gain more muscle and strength than any other demographic. A solid first year of training will deliver more results faster than any other time in your training career. The few I’ve used this style of training with were all beginners when they started.
- We build strength and work capacity together with proper rest periods. I talked above about how combining strength training with cardio like CrossFit advocates isn’t the best idea. This is nothing like that. Instead of trying to beat the clock like in CrossFit, our goal is to get proper rest in between each set. By doing this, every set we do is strong and under control. I would never recommend somebody do a heavy set of squats or deadlifts while still being fatigued.
- We have an increased frequency of basic squatting, deadlifting, overhead pressing, benching, rows, pullups, dips, and pushups. In this article, I went over my top 10 exercises to get stronger for life. This program I’m going to go over uses 7 of those 10 exercises. (NOTE: the pushups are another important one that didn’t make that original list.) These 8 exercises being performed and pushed multiple times per week in a superset fashion is the #1 best way I’ve found to train. Others may disagree with the program completely but don’t diss it till you try it. These results aren’t normal whatsoever but from what I can see, they’re absolutely repeatable. I’ve used this on female and male clientele so I know it works without fail.
The training I recommend looks nothing like this, it’s fine for working up a sweat but lousy for building muscle and strength.
I have a couple of ways I set this up for my clients. All of them have built more muscle mass, decreased body fat, and increased strength using these training programs so I’ll go over them in detail now. I went over my client, Brianna’s progress here. Definitely check it out to see just how great the improvements can be over a short period of time.
This program is something I’ve been working on for a very long time and this is the most bare-bones style of training you can do. It promises strength and muscle mass IF you eat for it. But can also be adapted to lose body fat and maintain/improve strength if you take your time.
|“A” Day||“B” Day|
Work Up To PR Set
(Leave 1 Rep In The Tank)
Cap sets at 10
Work Up To PR Set
(Leave 1 Rep In The Tank)
Cap sets at 10
Work Up To PR Set
(Leave 1 Rep In The Tank)
Cap sets at 20
Work Up To PR Set
(Leave 1 Rep In The Tank)
Cap sets at 20
Using this setup is super easy and allows you to train multiple days of the week in a rotating fashion. I wouldn’t recommend doing this more than 4 days a week. You could change it up but I’ve seen the best results with my clients doing this 3 days a week.
Progression For Main Lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift, And Press)
The way we progress using this training is by using the standard PR sets to gauge our progress.
I like to start super light on the main Barbell movement. The lighter it is at the start, the better the progress is I’ve found.
Work up to a weight you can do for 15-20 reps on Bench and Overhead Press.
Once this is done, increase your weights by 5 lbs ONLY! DO NOT increase more than this or the program won’t work as intended. Trust me on this!
For the Deadlift and Press, pick a weight you can do for a solid 10 reps, again only increase by 5 lbs each week. The lower the increase, the longer you’ll be progressing.
After 3 weeks, we take a deload in week 4. We work up to our current weight for 5 reps instead of a PR set. After that, we add 5 pounds in week 5 and work up to a PR set once again.
Progression For Assistance Lifts (Pushups, Dumbbell Rows, Dips, And Pullups)
For our assistance lifts, we want to use a very basic strategy to work on building muscle. By using these supersets with the main movements we also work on burning body fat and building our work capacity.
The first week, as shown above, starts at 3 sets. Week 2 will progress to 4 sets and week 3 will progress to 5 sets. Our goal is to slowly increase the volume on the bodyweight movements and increase the weight on the Dumbbell Rows.
You can do other assistance movements in place of these but these are the ones I recommend the most. After 3 weeks is up, we take a deload week, back off the intensity and do 3 sets instead of 5.
When the deload week is over, we start at 3 sets but resume with the proper intensity, 1 rep away from failure.
If you have any questions on the progression, let me know in the comments below. It’s very simple but my explanation might be confusing to those that haven’t used this type of progression.
Prowler Pushes are King for hard conditioning.
After this basic workout is done, you can decide to do standard cardio after these workouts. I recommend doing Prowler or Hill Sprints for 15 minutes. Remember, when doing this type of high-intensity interval training, it’s important not to kill yourself. Try to get complete rest in between and only push when you’re able to do so.
The whole goal is to work hard without killing yourself. By doing this, I’ve seen people prepare for a running event without running at all months in advance. My client Alex has been using this exact program for the last couple of months without much deviation. In that time we’ve only done Prowler Sprints and Sled Pulls for the majority of it.
Along with the supersets, he’s only been doing some low-intensity cardio on off days for 30 minutes max. The first time he jumped into running for the first time, he did 5 miles “on accident” because he was feeling so good.
I’m telling you guys, this style of training kicks ass and you definitely need to try it.
If it works for you, I want to know about it in the comments below!
Once again, if your training involves doing technique based exercises such as power cleans, snatches, or box jumps for cardio; you’re doing it wrong. And if your coach or box gym is having you implement these practices as a beginner, get a new coach or go to a new gym. It’s irrational and there are much better ways to implement cardio and strength training correctly.
Some of the results we’ve achieved using this style of training is absolutely amazing. I’ll throw some numbers your way and add some video as well so you have an idea of what kind of progress I’m talking about. Let’s start with Eli.
Eli has been training with me for 3 months, she originally wanted to start training with me to help her lose weight and get stronger for the National Guard. She’s had to miss multiple weeks due to training for the National Guard on some weekends.
Here are some of her numbers we’ve hit in the gym in this time!
- Bench Press: 65×5 to 90×10
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 145×5 to 200×10
- Pushups: 4 sets of 5 on knees to 3 sets of 15 regular
- Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 10 @20 lbs to 3 sets of 15 @35 lbs
As you can see, she’s definitely become much stronger, her blood pressure has dropped from 160/90 to 120/75, and she’s lost a decent amount of weight without changing her diet much. She works 50 hours a week at a strenuous job so she really has a hard time with it.
My client Brianna has been featured on the blog before. The main thing I’ve had her work on is getting stronger, losing body fat, and getting in better shape. The program I gave her to do so is currently turning into something pretty interesting which I’ll go over in the future.
In 3 months she’s lost almost 15 lbs with what her doctor called, “the worst case of hypothyroidism she’s ever seen.” If you don’t know what hypothyroidism is, it basically means her thyroid gland isn’t capable of producing enough thyroid hormone. This means her metabolism is incredibly slow. She’s currently taking medication for it and I know losing weight is going to help her out.
Also to note, Brianna has been working out for a couple of years consistently, so I wouldn’t call her a beginner in the traditional sense.
Here are some of the results she’s received from this training program:
- Bench Press: 75×5 to 115×10. She also did 135×5.
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 155×5 to 195×10
- Pushups: 3 sets of 5 on knees to 3 sets of PAUSED on knees @16, 13, 10
- Overhead Press: 50×5 to 3 sets of 10 @65
- Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 10 @20 lbs to 3 sets of 16, 12, 10 @40 lbs
- Prowler Pushes: 6 trips in 15 minutes @25 lbs to 9 trips in 15 minutes @50 lbs
As you can see, even with a severely under-active thyroid and low energy levels she made great progress.
June came to me around the same time as Eli and they train as a group together. The greatest thing about training June is she has no training experience, this allowed me to build her strength and technique from the ground up. As you can see from these numbers I’m about to show you, she’s made incredible progress.
- Goblet Squat: 10×10 to 4 sets of 18,16,10,14 @30 lbs. She also did
SSBSquat for a set of 20 @45 lbs her first time doing it.
- Modified Pushups on knees: 3 sets @7,6,5 to 3 sets @20,14,15
- Back Extensions: 12,17,14 to 3 sets of 12,13,17 @25 lbs
- Decline Situps: 3×20 @Bodyweight to 3 Sets of 14,16,13 @30 lbs
- Dumbbell Rows: 3 Sets of 11,11,16 @10 lbs to 3 Sets of 14,14,13 @20 lbs
As you can see; her legs, back, and upper body strength have all improved dramatically. Just like Eli, she had to take multiple weekends off due to National Guard training. The amount of strength she has gained already shows just how well this training program works.
Because she is a beginner, we have her doing Goblet Squats instead of Barbell Squats, and she has more abs and low back work added in to build her strength up for Deadlifts later down the line.
My client Alex has been working with me for multiple years. In that time period, he’s lost a ton of weight, gained a ton of strength, and built a solid level of muscle mass as well. The majority of the time, he’s been working on losing body fat, which should show you just how impressive this program is when it comes to building strength and losing body fat simultaneously.
His recent progress in the past 2 months is as follows:
- Overhead Press: 85×20 to 125×11
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 160×10 to 200×10
SSBSquat: 100×10 to 140×10
- Bench Press: 180×13 to 220×7
- Pullups: 3 sets of 10 to 3 sets of 15,15,12
- He also lost 10 lbs using Intermittent Fasting without any need for calorie counting.
Alex is also the client I’ve been working with that had multiple issues with his shoulder, knee, and of course his major back injury. When he first started training with me, he couldn’t even bend over without hurting his back. Now, he’s been slowing improving his lower body strength in the Deadlift and Squat.
Overall, no matter who uses this program, it absolutely works. No matter what your main goal is, this is the best way I’ve found to train when it comes to combining strength with cardio.
And there you have it! When combining strength training and cardio, make sure the strength training portion isn’t affected by the cardio. Don’t do Power Cleans for reps trying to beat the clock and call it strength training. Also, don’t do sets over 5 and call it cardio. If sets over 5 reps tire you out that much, you need to get in better shape.
The way I’ve outlined above is the best way I’ve found to combine strength training and cardio while building your work capacity. In my experience, nothing else has worked better for building strength and getting in shape simultaneously. I’ve used this with beginner and intermediate lifters with huge success.
Let me know what your favorite way to combine strength training and cardio is! And if so, what kind of results did you get from it?
I hope you all enjoyed and have a wonderful day! Thanks for reading and get after it in the gym.
Until next time,