When Should You Do Cardio? [EXPERT GUIDE]
Working out and training to lose weight is hard enough without having to worry about when you should be doing your cardio. Yes, it is true that sometimes are better than others – but the answer is a little more complex than that.
Here’s the thing – for the average person, the time you do your cardio is not really too essential.
It is important that you get on the treadmill or bike anytime you can. After all, no one ever put on weight because they were running or doing more cardio – that just doesn’t happen.
With that said, if you are looking to take your fitness to the next level and are starting to think about making your workout program more effective and efficient than this is the guide for you.
In this guide, we will walk you through the best times to do cardio and even help you pick the best cardio for your specific skill level. Let’s get to it.
This is the first style of cardio that many people seem to forget about. Isolated cardio is when you go into the gym to train just your cardio – no weights, but you can do some mobility work. The idea here is to create a workout that will be highly specific to your skills and end goals of running faster or biking further.
Isolated cardio sessions are perfect for deloading weeks (recovery weeks) or for those who are on a strength cycle and just want a low-impact workout to let the muscles recover. In this case, you’d be best off using an elliptical machine or bike as the impact and strain on the muscles is much lower.
Cardio Before A Workout
We are not talking about warming up. In my opinion, everyone should do at least 5-10 minutes of relatively easy cardio to warm up their body – but this isn’t the cardio we are referring to. Cardio before a workout would have to be at least 30 minutes or moderate intensity work.
This could be running a couple miles or doing hill sprints before a workout. In most cases, I would not recommend this time for you to train cardio.
Training your cardio before a workout is only okay if your strength session is not important. If you value your strength over your endurance than you will notice a slight decrease in strength after a long cardio session.
Your cardio workout will deplete your body of glycogen stores (your fuel for weight training).
As such, you will not have as much energy for your training session.
Cardio before a workout would be good for anyone who is strictly an endurance athlete and is going to finish their combo workout with a short weight training workout – but for those who value strength over endurance (most bodybuilders and strength athletes), this is not the best time to do your cardio.
Cardio After A Workout
This is the most common time to commit to your cardio session and for most people this is my recommended time. You should still have a short cardio session to warm up the muscles and mobilize them prior to your strength session but the majority of your training should be through weights.
Following your weight training, you can jump on a treadmill to condition the body. The important note to make here is that you will not just be burning fat. This is a common misconception that leads people to do long, exhaustive cardio sessions after a workout in an effort to burn more fat – this just doesn’t make sense.
In both cases, the end goal is to train according to your goal. If your goal is based on strength you should commit the bulk of your energy to your strength session and follow it with some cardio for conditioning – or isolate your cardio sessions in your recovery weeks.
Best Forms of Cardio
There are some forms of cardio that are much better than another. Here we separate your cardio depending on your skill level.
For the beginner athlete, I would recommend sticking to exercises that are low-impact and very natural to the human body. This means walking, hiking, incline walking, running and cycling. You should do your best to maintain your heart rate at the early levels – there is no need to do HIIT sessions or strange pyramids at the early training levels.
You’ll know you’re intermediate when your body starts to be able to handle 4-5 sessions of training a week without an issue. For the most part and intermediate athlete will have a decent enough level of conditioning to commit to cardio like rope pulls, battle ropes, sled pushing, running, cycling and stair climbers.
Even though you are intermediate you should still focus on having optimal form and training within your limits. Your goal here is longevity and injury prevention – don’t be silly about your training.
Have you been training for 5-6x a week for the past year? Chances are if you hit this category you might be in the realm of an advanced gym-goer. In this case, you should try to be creative with your training, but at the same time, you must have structure.
The world is your oyster when it comes to the type of training you would like to do but we recommend sticking to the basics like running, biking and stair climbers. In this way, you can use your knowledge of progressive overload and programming to maximize your training and performance.
What About HIIT Workouts?
HIIT workout can be a really good way for beginners to get into fitness, raise their heart rates and have fun while training – but I am not the biggest fan of this style of training.
From the perspective of overload and progressive training, it is just too difficult to make concrete progressions on how much stronger you are getting.
Strictly from the perspective of growing stronger with overload and progressive techniques it is very difficult to make alterations to the intensity and duration of the workout. For this reason, I always recommend cardio sessions like running and cycling over a HIIT session – no matter the skill level.
When Should You Do Cardio?
There is not a definitive answer to when you should do cardio. This really depends on your personal goals and aspirations in the realm of fitness.
If your main goal is to run faster and further than it should be your priority and come first in the workout. On the other hand, if you are focussed on strength, put your cardio sessions after your finish your weight training or place the cardio on isolated recovery days.
The biggest concept here that we want to drill in is that cardio is not something to avoid because you are unsure when you should use it. Cardio session are essential to your training as they will help you to become more efficient at using oxygen (better breathing), help your body to deal with stress, and can even help with weight loss.
The secret to any program is to track your progress and make the necessary changes along the way in order to ensure success in your goals.
Related: How Heavy Should You Be Training?
Gabriello is a writer and strength expert best known for his science-based and practical approach to Exercise Physiology, Nutrition and Strength. After serving in a directors position for The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology Gabriello moved towards writing to help more people understand the importance of living a healthy life. Gabriello’s writings have been published in several languages on some of the largest health and fitness websites helping people learn, grow and understand the complex components of optimizing human performance in a simplistic way.
Gabriello also takes on specialized, high-performance athletes who are in need of strength, mobility and conditioning programming to optimize their fitness through his Earned Fitness program.
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