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Optimal Order of Workout Routines

A lot of people choose to go to the gym only a few days a week, but when they go, they cram in several activities – cardio, strength training and abs – into their session.  There is nothing wrong with this…especially if you can get to the gym only a few times a week.

To ensure you are getting the most out of your workout, however, it is good practice to follow a certain order to ensure safety and maximized effectiveness.  Below is an optimal order:

  1. 5 minute warm up and stretching
  2. Abdominal Exercises
  3. Strength Training
  4. Cardiovascular / Aerobic Training
  5. 3 minute Cool Down and stretching

Here is why:

  1. Warm Up and Stretching: This warms up your body by increasing blood flow to the muscles that you will be working, warming up your joints and increasing your heart rate and body temperature…all helping to prevent injury, improve flexibility and prepare your body for the exercises to come.  First do your warm-up and then stretch the muscles you used, using static stretches (no bouncing!).
  2. Abdominals: You use your core muscles (abs and back) for almost every movement that you do, whether it be cardio or weights.  Exercising these muscles first helps to ensure that they aren’t tired out before you actually get to them.  Further, you will continue to work them as you move onto the rest of your workout.
  3. Strength Training: Nutritionally, it is best to weight train first.  When you exercise, you first use carbohydrates for energy.  Then, you use fat for energy.  When you strength train, the preferred source of energy for your body is carbohydrates.  When you do cardio, your preferred source of energy is fat (this is why they talk about burning fat when you do cardio).  Further, it can take up to 29 minutes of cardio activity to burn your carbohydrate stores, meaning that if you start with a 30 minute cardio session, you have only burned carbs, and then burned fat for only one minute.    Using up your carbohydrate stores with strength training allows you to burn more fat when you do your cardio workout, making your workout much more effective.Now, from a more practical standpoint, strength training before cardio is safer.  You haven’t depleted yourself of all of your energy, allowing you to be more focused and aware of your form while strength training.  This will help minimize risk of injury.  Also, it is good practice to stretch your muscles in between your sets.
  4. Cardiovascular Exercise: At this point, you are ready to burn fat.  Additionally, if you are a bit tired, you can do low-impact and/or light cardio and still burn fat.
  5. Cool-Down: For two to five minutes, it is good to slow down and let your body return to normal after your cardio workout.  This will help prevent blood pooling in your extremities, lightheadedness and/or fainting after a workout.  Again, add in some static stretches to keep your body limber and flexible.  It will also help decrease lactic acid build-up which can lead to sore muscles!

Do you go to the gym and do all of these activities?  What order have you used?

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Posted in Brett's Blog, Fitness Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
  • Larry Geier, MD

    I agree with this order, but have a few comments. For starters, warming up before exercise is important, but stretching is overrated. Cold muscles do not like to be stretched, but warm muscles do. Stretching the muscles AFTER exercise is more important than before, allowing them to slowly elongate, ultimately improving flexibility. So, when I start my workout, I go straight to the elliptical at a fairly gentle pace, with no impact, and warm up ALL my muscles. Ten minutes is usually plenty to feel a warm glow, without necessarily working up much of a sweat. Then it’s on to the abs and core, then on to strength training for arms and legs. This part will of course vary from day to day, but the important thing is to vary the exercises for each muscle group to keep the muscles “confused,” and therefore prevent muscle adaptation. Remember in all strength training to emphasize slow controlled movement during the relaxation phase, and that perfect form is more critical than how much weight is used. Then it’s on to cardio, and it is important to vary these as well. I recommend at least 30 minutes total, but there is no maximum. Time can be split among several apparatus to keep it from getting boring, and to again confuse the muscles. On days where you want to focus on weight loss, keep the heart rate low for the entire cardio session, say less than 105-110. However, at least once and preferably twice a week, step up the pace and get a good 10-15 minutes sustained at a higher (non-fat-burning) rate of 130-140. This will improve overall cardiovascular tone and function. After the cardio cool down, with pulse back under 100, do gentle non-bouncy stretches of all major muscle groups of the legs, and of any arm muscles targetted during the strength training. Hydrate well before, during, and after the workout. I have found this approach to be the best overall way to achieve weight loss while gaining improved core and peripheral strength, plus cardiovascular health, while avoiding injury.

    • Brett

      Thanks Larry! I agree with your stretching comment…I actually stretch my muscles AFTER I work them during the strength training. Thanks for your input!

  • Tom Marino

    As a guy, I disagree with the suggested order and have had conversations with other guys about the error of their ways concerning doing strength training first and then cardio.
    It’s real simple, 4 me cardio involves boxing for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes and then lifting. Whether punching a bag, biking, treadmilling, etc, as the intent is a consistent high(er) level burn, use ur carbs in the cardio, allow the cardio to warm up the body, thereby minimizing the potential for injury why lifting- -yes yes so this is on-top of the warm up stuff which I do also.
    The most important reason not to do cardio after lifting is this- cardio- -especially if it’s running or biking- – seriously detracts from properly supporting the muscles one trained during strength/core training. Thin k about it, whether ur a heavy lifter (like myself) or just a going through the motions of 3 sets of 10-15 reps, some- hopefully- shock has been done to the muscle group(s) worked; so the idea of go to the cardio area to demand all that additional circulation to your legs, etc., is a disservice to any other body parts you trained.
    To conclude, as maybe deduced, I am not a particular fan of running; on the other hand, I have just incorporated running sprints 2x a week into my routine. However, I do this cardio on a day I’m not lifting. To borrow from the good-book, “one can not serve two masters”; so trying to do a “cardio workout” and a “strength/ core workout” is by my calculation never a good thing to begin with, but doing cardio after lifting is just like throwing bad money after good- yes a reversal of the typical expression but correct in this circumstance.

  • power walker

    I think both of the above were very educating. Thanks! Can you please advise me on my situation. I’m a new power walker. I started going to trials in Dec. and go about 4-6 days a week. At first, I would sprint, walk, sprint, walk. Now, I have incorporated….sprint and power walk. I take along 2 one pound soft weights and do arm raises and bicep/tripec curls as I’m speed walking and not when I’m sprinting. I look totally silly but I feel like I’m getting a good workout because I’m soaked at the end of the trail. (This trail has 3 major hills). Is this an incorrect way to exercise? I don’t want to risk injury in the long run, and so far I haven’t. My goal is to burn fat, gain muscle, and tone up faster while getting the most out of my workout. I’m getting better about stretching and after reading your comments, I will do it every time. Please comment. Thanks.

    • Brett

      Power Walker…anything that motivates you, and has low risk of injury is a great workout. It sounds like what you are doing is working. I would, however, try to do strength training one or two days a week (beyond your weights while you work). As we get older, building muscle is crucial to keeping our bones and body strong. You should try to do at least one or two exercises for each muscle group…and aim to do about 3 sets of 12 – 15 repetitions each. Check out our Strength Training section under Fitness for more information. Good luck!