Is it best to do strength first or cardio first in a workout? Few questions cause such debate among people. When I teach classes and ask this question, usually half of the people say strength first is best, while the other half say cardio first is best. So who's right? Let's ask a more specific question: What raises testosterone levels more – doing strength first, or cardio first? Fortunately, two interesting studies shed some light on this answer, so let's take a closer look at them.
Exercise And Testosterone Research
From what I've seen, there are two studies so far that look at which exercise order – strength first or cardio first – effects on testosterone levels the most. They find that there may be a novel way to naturally raise testosterone levels that costs nothing.
The first study was published in 2012 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and was titled, Hormonal Responses to Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training With Different Exercise Orders.
This study involved 10 healthy young men (average age 23) who had been working out several days per week for at least 3 months. In the study, the men underwent two different orders of exercise:
- Strength training first and then cardio
- Cardio first and then strength training
The total workout time was 60 minutes – 30 minutes for strength and 30 minutes for aerobic exercise.
The strength training program was the same for all people and consisted of 3 sets of 8 reps at 75% of the most weight they could lift 1 time only (75% of 1 RM). The exercises used in the study were:
- Bench press
- Lat pull-down
- Leg extension
All exercises were performed in the same order during each week of the study.
The aerobic exercise lasted 30 minutes. the subjects rode an exercise bike at 75% of maximum heart rate.
Testosterone levels were measured before exercise, in between sessions and immediately after all exercise was finished.
The results showed that while performing strength first caused the greatest increase in testosterone, it decreased fairly quickly afterward. On the other hand, while cardio first did not initially increase testosterone as much, the levels continued to rise after exercise and ended up being higher than when strength was performed first.
In other words, when cardio was performed first, testosterone levels did not decrease quicklly after exercise but rather continued to increase.
From this study, it might be inferred that performing cardio first in an exercise program might result in higher levels of testosterone over a longer period of time, compared to doing strength training first.
In the picture above, which I took from the study, it can be seen that while strength training first caused testosterone to go the highest (the dark line), the levels decreased after exercise. On the other hand, performing aerobic exercise first was found to lead to greater levels of testosterone after exercise.
Another study was published in 2015, titled, Order effects of combined strength and endurance training on testosterone, cortisol, growth hormone and IF-1 binding protein 3 in concurrently trained men.
In this investigation, 14 men (age 20-35) performed two identical exercise sessions. The only difference was in which order strength or cardio occurred. In other words, either:
- Strength training first, then cardio
- Cardio first, then strength training
Strength training consisted of 3 sets of 10 reps at 70% 1 RM for the following exercises:
- Bench press
- Lat pull-down
- Front lat pull down
All exercises were performed in the order I've listed them.
Why they had people do both front and back lat pull-downs I don't know. Remember, behind the head lat pull-downs are controversial in that they might be bad for the shoulders.
Subjects also performed 3 sets of 30 reps for both crunches and back extensions using only their body weight. 1 minute of rest was used between all sets.
Cardio training occurred on a treadmill and consisted of 32 minutes of intermittent exercise at different speeds.
Results. These researchers likewise noted performing endurance exercise first caused higher levels of testosterone after exercise, compared to when strength training was performed first.
Testosterone Take Home Points
Looking over these two studies, a few things are worth mentioning.
1. Aerobic exercise can raise testosterone levels. That's not a message I think people hear about.
2. Aerobic exercise did not lower testosterone levels. This is sometimes used as an argument to do cardio on different days than strength training. These studies appear to contradict that thinking.
3. Performing aerobic exercise before strength training in a workout might lead to higher levels of testosterone – that stays elevated longer – then when strength training is performed in the workout first.
Problems With The Research
Before everybody starts doing cardio first, I have to say neither of these studies is perfect. I saw potential issues with both studies when I read them. For example, both studies involved men who were fairly young. What about men in their 50s, 60s or 70s?
Another issue is how long testosterone might stay elevated after performing cardio first is unknown. Remember, in both studies testosterone was measured immediately after exercise. What about 5 hours later?
Also, neither investigation looked at which sequence of exercise made people bigger stronger or faster. For what it's worth, I've met bodybuilders who do cardio first and it doesn't look like it's hurt them.
For the person reading this who is concerned about his own T levels, remember that weight loss also increases testosterone levels. In other words, don't put all your eggs in the cardio first basket if you are trying to naturally alter testosterone levels.
Also, see do spicy foods raise testosterone for more insights.
Is Cardio First Best?
These studies notwithstanding, I think the answer to the question “what's better strength first or cardio first” is more complicated than just looking at testosterone levels. For example, before I make a recommendation on this issue, I'd like to know a few things including:
- What are your goals?
- Do you have any health issues – and which ones?
- What is your current fitness level?
- What do you like to do – and not like to do – as far as exercise is concerned?
While we can all agree that exercise is something that everybody should do, this is not always a one-size-fits-all idea.
Based on these studies, however, I can see a reason why some men might want to do cardio first when they work out. I can also envision some enterprising fitness professional marketing him/herself to older men as the “Low T Trainer.”
At the end of the day, I think more research is needed before we know for sure the answer to this question. That said, personally, I like the idea of doing cardio first. Whether these studies are right or wrong, at least now I feel a little better when I bike to the gym.