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Does Running after Lifting Lose Muscle or Fat?

The question of whether running after lifting will lose muscle or fat is a common one, and it’s important to know the answer. After all, if you want to be an elite bodybuilder, then not only do you need to make sure that your workout routine is perfect for building muscle, but also that your diet plan aligns with this goal. 

If not done correctly, both can lead to unwanted weight loss. So what does science say? Do cardio exercises like running after lifting cause more of your hard-earned muscle mass than fat to disappear? Find out below! 

Cross-training is now accepted as the best universal strategy for improving athletic performance, mobility, and overall feelings of wellness. Taking on a cross-training routine means that your workouts will vary, you’ll target your heart rate, challenge different muscle groups, and engage both slow and fast-twitch muscles.

Perhaps the reason the question, “Should I lift or do cardio first?” is not easily answered is because the answer depends on many variables:

  • What are your overall fitness goals?
  • What are you looking to gain?
  • How do you want to improve?

If you scour all of your resources looking for an answer, you’ll likely be left with conflicting information. A recent article by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research even suggests that it doesn’t matter which type of exercise you perform first or last. They say you’ll experience a hormone surge either way.

For many, that may come as encouraging news. You can stop obsessing over the order in which you lift and run. However, it’s always helpful to gain a greater understanding of what your body is undergoing during exercise and what that means for health and weight loss.

Advantages Of Weights

Strength and resistance training builds muscle. Muscle has a higher metabolic rate than fat, so having more muscle raises your resting metabolic rate (energy expenditure) a little compared to having more body fat.

However, the differences are not dramatic. Even at the high end of predictions (which are disputed), it is less than a few dozen calories per day for each pound of muscle increased. That helps, but it’s not life-changing.

Even so, in a weight loss program, weight training is important to help maintain muscle. When you lose weight, it tends to be a combination of fat and muscle. Ideally, you want to lose the fat but hold onto the muscle. Weight training helps you achieve this, and has many other benefits for health and performance, besides building extra muscle.

If an extra muscle does not provide that much advantage in energy expenditure, what about the afterburn, long touted as an advantage of weight training? The afterburn is the amount of energy you use after you stop exercising. This is another way of saying your metabolism increases for several hours or longer after an exercise session.

Advantages Of Cardio

The main advantage of aerobic exercise at moderate intensities is that you can do it continuously for much longer than the intermittent exercise of lifting weights. It is this non-stop movement that gives cardio an inherent advantage in energy expenditure during an exercise session.

You can mix weights and movement in circuit training sessions to provide that extra boost, but the movement is the key. If you move fast enough to the point where you are running or cycling at around 80% of the maximum heart rate, you will get some afterburn as well. That’s why most comparisons show cardio to be superior to traditional weight training for energy expenditure.

What Are Your Goals?

Many runners don’t have specific goals. Running is likely a part of your life because you enjoy what it does for you, the health benefits it provides, and how it makes you feel. That said, you’re likely seeking the “best” training plan because you want to get better in some way.

“Getting better” regarding running means improving your:

  • aerobic capacity
  • stamina
  • muscular endurance
  • leg strength and ability to generate power over a sustained period of time
  • mobility and flexibility
  • your overall sense of balance

It would be unreasonable to assume that everyone’s goal is to be a better runner. Perhaps your goals are to lose weight or trim your waistline of a few pesky pounds you accumulated over the winter months. For you, the best training approach is to keep your body guessing. Plan your workouts so that no two back-to-back days are the same. This is the best approach because it:

  • ramps up your metabolism
  • gives your sore muscles time to recover, avoiding burnout and fatigue
  • keeps you mentally stimulated and motivated to conquer your weight loss goals
  • gives your body the fat-burning and body-sculpting benefits of weight training coupled with the calorie-burning perks of cardiovascular exercise

Is It Okay To Run After Lifting Weights?

In short, yes. It’s safe to do so. But you need to know what your fitness goals are to see if it’s the best decision for you. If you’re looking to improve speed or log longer miles, running after lifting weights is not going to be your best option.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in gains of size and strength—as well as favorable hormonal changes that will help you burn extra calories faster and reduce the production of cortisol, the stress hormone—lifting weights first is the way to go.

There are a couple of reasons why it’s often better to run after lifting weights rather than the reverse. It’s critical to note that over 100 studies have confirmed that it takes a day or two longer to recover from strength training in comparison to a high-intensity run. Crazy, right?

One reason to lift first is that you’ll have more energy for strength training if you do it before running. Thus, the exercise you want to have more energy for—and this is especially important for strength-training—you’ll want to do first.   

Another is the fatigue associated with running. If you push hard in your runs, you’ll have difficulties pushing through your strength training. In addition, fatigue also impacts your mental acuity, which can give you a lack of focus, particularly later in the day.

How To Train For Your Goals

The short answer that everyone is looking for can be condensed. If you want to build muscle, run first. If you want to build your endurance and aerobic capacity, run last.

Essentially, your body’s adaptive response is greater for the type of exercise that you finish your workout doing. Thus, a workout concluded with weights will trigger muscle growth more effectively, while a workout ending in a run will enhance your body’s aerobic endurance.

If losing weight or toning up is more important to you than performance, then also consider that resistance training first depletes your body’s stored carbohydrates, encouraging your body to tap into fat stores as you jump into cardiovascular training afterward. In other words, doing cardio last will ramp up the fat-burning capacity of your workout.

Another approach is to simply combine both ideals. Losing weight will be accomplished at a high rate if you look to challenge your muscles and heart rate throughout all of your weekly workouts. Plan your workouts by running at the beginning of your workout three times a week and then running last for the remaining two to three weekly workouts.

Incorporating weight training into your routine can help retain muscle mass during a weight loss program. Keep in mind that a calorie-heavy diet is far more responsible for women becoming bulky as a result of lifting, not the actual training itself. Replacing a few pounds of fat with muscle on your frame will actually keep your resting metabolism higher and your physique looking more toned and athletic.

Another effective way to lose weight by combining cardio and lifting is to do interval workouts. This involves alternating back and forth between running and lifting. It will cause your heart rate to skyrocket and keep you stimulated, especially if you struggle with treadmill boredom.

Cardio And Strength Workouts

The standard advice is to do cardio and strength workouts in separate sessions or on alternate days. A sample program would have cardio workouts on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, strength training on Tuesday and Friday, and use Thursday for yoga, stretching, or recovery.

Or, you can do your cardio in the morning and strength training later in the day. If you are concentrating on building strength, this allows you to work on your upper body one day, then your lower body the next, most days of the week.

But if you have trouble making time for exercise each day, combining cardio and strength workouts in one session is an option. There have been studies and debates over whether to do cardio first, followed by strength training, or vice versa.

There isn’t conclusive evidence for an advantage of one sequence over another, whether your goal is aerobic fitness, fat loss, muscle hypertrophy, or gaining lower body strength. It may be best to not overthink it and just do it in the order that appeals to you.

Is It Better To Run Pre-Strength Or Post-Strength Work?

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The American Council on Exercise has a convenient chart that will allow you to determine whether it’s better to run pre-strength or post-strength work. In many of the instances, it’s better to run after lifting weights than before.

If you’re looking to lose weight, get leaner, or are more focused on improving strength, you should always start with strength first. If you’re just working your upper body, you do either first, but lower body workouts, you really want to do strength training first.

In addition to goals, you might also want to consider your personal approach to working out. Do you hate to run and love to lift weights? Or would you rather pound the pavement and can’t dream of regularly lifting weights? Chances are that you fit in the latter category.

If that’s the case, you might want to consider strength training first most of the time, because then you’ll get the task you don’t like out of the way first and then get to do what you enjoy. If you switch the tasks, you’ll have significantly less energy for lifting weights.

One option you might want to consider that can bring the best of both worlds is running for 5-15 minutes before lifting weights. This brief run will help you warm up your muscles, increasing their mobility. This can assist in preventing injury during strength training as well as allow you to perform an intense strength workout.

You’re Doing Cardio Before Your Weight Workout

The order in which you complete your training session depends on your priorities and goals. For those who want to gain muscle and fuel growth, you need to do your weight training before cardio. If you do cardio before your weight workout, then you just might be hindering the muscle gains that you could potentially be getting.

Tiring yourself out with cardio before you even start lifting means that you won’t be at your full potential for your weight training. It can limit your performance and you may very well find that you won’t be able to lift as heavy or as many reps or sets as you can if you’re lifting fresh. 

This is particularly important because a key component of growing muscle and strength is progressive overload. You need to ensure that you’re constantly challenging your body and making them work harder over time. If you’re completing your cardio before a workout and subsequently, not able to lift as much as you typically would, then you won’t be able to progressively overload efficiently. 

What to do instead:

Stick to lifting weights first thing and then complete your cardio after all the weight training is completed for the session. This way, you get the best of both worlds while maximizing your performance and hence, your results. And remember to always warm-up and cool down in every training session.

Why Should I Consider Running After Lifting Weights?

One of the best ways to support strength gains that you have realized during a weightlifting workout is to run afterward. You’ll be supplying the muscles you worked out with additional oxygen and nutrients that will aid in recovery.

Not only will you be upping your running game to some degree by running after lifting weights, but you’ll also be making healthy strength gains with ample time to recover, encouraging an overall healthy physical fitness.

As a final note, your body will respond most to the type of exercise that you end your workout with. If you conclude with a run, you’ll enhance your body’s aerobic endurance, which is what every runner wants.

Conclusion

If you’re more of a visual person, you can check out this video that will summarize much of what we discuss in this article. It has animated characters and objects, which is always fun!

At the end of the day, running after lifting weights is probably the better option than running pre-strength work, except if you’re training for a race and need to improve speed and log miles. In many other cases, running after will give you the biggest physical gains. Whichever way you go, strength training is an often-overlooked, yet critically necessary part of improving as a runner. Make an effort to put time into your training plan for building your strength.

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