Cardio & Strength Training in a Single Workout: "What Do I Do First?" Plus: Could the Answer Be Sex-Specific?

"Men are different women, too..." We all know that, but can we still train together or will women have to do cardio first, while men would be better off starting out lifting weights?
This is not the first and certainly not the last article on what should come first, if you actually have to or want to do endurance and resistance training in single workout session. Today's SuppVersity article is however the one on the study with the most detailed evaluation of the differential effects of "endurance vs. resistance training first" on the endocrine response, neuromuscular fatigue and power in men and women, I have seen in a while. The pertinent paper is titled "Acute Hormonal and Force Responses to Combined Strength and Endurance Loadings in Men and Women: The 'Order Effect'" and has been written by Ritva S. Taipale and Keijo Häkkinen from the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland (Taipale. 2013).

60 minutes LISS + 45 min leg circuit or vice versa - what's best?

The intention of the researchers was to "to examine the acute exercise induced serum hormone and neuromuscular responses and the time course of changes during recovery in response to a combined strength and endurance training session in recreationally endurance trained male and female runners and whether this response would differ if the participants started their workout with a ...
  • steady state running exercise at an intensity between each subject’s previously determined individual lactate threshold (LT) and respiratory compensation threshold (RCT) for 60 minutes, or 
  • a circuit leg workout with 2 minutes rest between sets that implemented both maximal and explosive strength exercises at loads of 70–85% of the individual 1RM for three sets of 5–8 repetitions, with the final repetition of each set being performed to "near failure" and explosive strength exercises of 8-10reps at a maximal velocity using only 30-40& of the 1EM load on the bilateral leg press (3 sets maximal and 3 sets explosive), the squat (3 sets maximal), loaded squat jumps (3 sets explosive), and calf raises (2 sets maximal).
In short, the question the researchers had in mind when they came up with the research design was: "What's the best way to combine 60min of steady state cardio and an intense 45min leg routine into a single workout"?
Figure 1: Change in maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) in men (left) and women (right) during, immediately after and in the recovery period after the endurance first (ES) and strength first (SE) workouts (Taipale. 2013)
As the data in figure 1 goes to show you, the results were not exactly flattering to the strong sex (=us men), whose absolute maximal bilateral isometric (MVC) strength in the endurance first (ES) trial decreased significantly (28%, p = 0.002) following the 60 minutes of jogging (E), while it remained stable in the 10 female study participants. Luckily, there was still a follow up after which we were back on par (-22% in men and -21% in women).
"The relative loading-induced decreases (D%) in strength between ES and SE differed significantly at mid in men (p<0.001). The relative decreases (D%) in strength in men and women were similar at MID; however, at post, a significant difference between ES men and ES women was observed. The absolute rate of force development (RFD) decreased during both loadings in ES and SE men (at post -19%, p< 0.001 and -22%, p = 0.003, respectively)." (Taipale. 2013)
So once again, the "fairer sex" had an "unfair" advantage, as the rate of force development of the women did not decrease significantly after either the ES or the SE trial. However, it was on ony after the "endurance first" (ES) trial that this effect reached statistical significance.

Level playing field? You must be kiddin' the girls are on dope... ah estrogen ;-)

A similar advantage was observed for the recovery of the initially equally decreased maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) in men and women. Contrary to the ladies who bounced back to normal within the first 24 hours, the MVC of the men remained significantly below the baseline levels in both the strength- (ES) and endurance first (ES) arms of the study 24 h after the endurance first trial (-14% and -15%, respectively) and was still below baseline 48 h post (p < 0.01  -11%).
Figure 2: Endocrine response to endurance (ES) or strength first (SE) workouts in men an women (Taipale. 2013)
If we set these performance outcomes in relation to the endocrine changes the scientists observed, it's quite intriguing to see the that the highly significant increase in post-workout cortisol levels right after the strength-first trial in the men coincides with faster recovery in response to doing strength before cardio workout... or should I rather say in response to doing a steady state cardio session after your strength workout the guys recovered faster?

"Men better start with strength training. Women do whatever they like?! "

The faster recovery after the strength first, endurance second (SE) trial, as well as the 343x higher GH levels after the in this arm of the study appear to speak in favor of doing your strength training first, before you hop onto a recumbent bike or treadmill and add in another 40-60min of light intensity steady state training (LISS), if you are a man! In the fortunate case that you are a member of the estrogen driven fairer sex (= a woman ;-), the study at  hand appears to suggest that it would not really make much of a difference, whether you hit the weights first or second.

For people whose main goal it is to shed fat, the reduction in leptin with cardio first may argue in favor of during your cardio first (read more).
The SuppVersity veterans out there may now feel reminded of a 2012 study by di Blasio et al. that was likewise covered in the SuppVersity news. Di Blasio et al. were the first to investigate the effects of "doing cardio in between", i.e. hopping on the treadmill or cardio equipment of your choice after the completion of a strength circuit or any other given time point in your strength workout and returning to the weights, afterwards (learn more). Unfortunately, this still isn't the answer to everthing. In fact, you don't have to browse the SuppVersity archives for posts on exercise order for very long until you hit onto an article that carries the title "Cardio First if You Want to Leave the Gym More 'Anabolic' Than You Were When You Came in?" (read more) and points you into yet another direction...

So, which of the myriad of studies do we trust?

If it were not for one major glitch in the study at hand, I  would probably end this article on the note that the singularly long follow up period in the study at hand would clearly suggest that the results Taipale et al. generated in the course of their experiment had more practical value (we all know about the fallacy of the narrow minded focus on the immediate post-workout endocrine response; don't we?) the fact that they did not control for the workload is a real bummer.

Imagine the guys simply lifted way more weight in the strength first, endurance second trial - wouldn't an increased GH response to an identical endurance workout with way more depleted glycogen stores actually be what you would have to expect? Also, we all know that when you put men and women together in the gym, the former train until they drop, while the latter do as they are told and take their time looking at the sweaty guys while fumbling around with the weights... ok, that's a cliché, but there is way more than just the splinter of truth that's at the bottom of every of these commonly held prejudices.

Doing (intense) cardio first could promote anabolism (learn why).
Bottom line: In the end, I can only give you this advice. Try both! Try doing cardio before and after your workouts for 2 weeks each and decide afterwards which exercise order you like best. Things you should base your decision on are (a) the amount of weight you lift, (b) your performance during the cardio part of your workout, (c) how smooth the transition between one and the other goes, (d) how you feel the day after and during your next workout.

And don't forget, a glycogen depleting cardio session before your strength workout could increase the expression of the muscle building isoform PGC-1a (learn more)

  • Di Blasio A, Gemello E, Di Iorio A, Di Giacinto G, Celso T, Di Renzo D, Sablone A., Ripari P. Order effects of concurrent endurance and resistance training on post-exercise response of non-trained women. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2012 Aug; 11:393-39.
  • Taipale R, Häkkinen K. Acute hormonal and force responses to combined strength and endurance loadings in men and women: the "order effect". PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55051.
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