Should You Strength Train Before or After Cardio?

Everybody has their own routine when they go to the gym. Some like to warm up by hitting their heart rate hard, breaking a sweat before making a move for the free weights. Others prefer to tackle strength first, leaving an intense cardio burner for last.

And while we’re all about you finding the gym rhythm that works best for you, it’s worth knowing that whatever activity you choose to do first can potentially impact your performance in that second activity.

According to an article published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, which reviewed more than 20 relevant studies, you should structure your workouts according to your priorities. If you want to improve your heart health, conditioning, or endurance, start your workout with cardio. If you want to make strength gains, start with the weights.

Related: The Best Rep Range If You’re Strength-Training For Weight Loss

Whatever you do first will make you more tired than you would’ve been for what you do second—especially your legs, which are often used heavily in both cardio and strength exercise, according Nicholas Ratamess, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, one of the authors and associate professor or Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey.

If you want to hit cardio before a big lift, monitor your intensity. “If your cardio is low-intensity and short in duration, it may not have as many negative effects on your strength workout, for example,” he explains.

But if you’re attacking an intense cardio workout like HIIT (high-intensity interval training) right before lifting weights, expect your performance to be diminished, according to another one of Ratamess’ studies, published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The study had young, fit men perform intense running exercises, wait 10 minutes, and then perform a strength workout. The result: The participants who ran prior to lifting performed nine to 18 percent fewer reps than those who didn’t. Not surprisingly, the most dramatic difference was seen in leg exercises. The men also had higher heart rates, reduced power output, and higher overall ratings of fatigue.

Related: The Best Cardio Workout For Weight Loss

The good news: If your goal is to lose weight, both cardio and lifting will help you get there. “Both aerobic and resistance training increase your calorie burn,” says Ratamess. Aerobic exercise helps you burn more during exercise, while strength training will help you burn more after exercise.

Here’s how it works. Your muscles need to burn fuel to function, and part of that fuel comes in the form of oxygen. When you perform aerobic exercise, your muscles use oxygen at a rate that you can replenish with a little heavy breathing—that’s why you start to huff and puff when you jog or hit a quick round of burpees. But heavy lifting exercises (known as ‘anaerobic’) deplete your oxygen stores enough that you body has to work to replenish them long after you’re done exercising—burning extra calories the whole time.

The bottom line: Unless you’re training specifically for extreme cardiovascular performance or ultra-heavy weightlifting, how you order your workouts won’t have much impact on the benefits of breaking a sweat. However, you can still give sequential preference to one or the other if you’re training for specific goals (like wanting to become more muscular) or to improve certain weaknesses (like knee or ankle joint stability), according to Ratamess.

For most people, training both strength and cardio simultaneously can be a good long-term approach to fitness. Hence why what Ratamess calls “hybrid programs,” like CrossFit, Orangetheory, and Barry’s Bootcamp, have become so popular. In these types of fitness classes, you’ll bounce back and forth between cardio efforts like running or rowing and strength exercises like pushups or squats. The workouts require both cardiovascular capacity and strength, and create more of a hybrid athlete instead of a specialist, he says.

Related: Power up your workout with a performance supplement.


How I Went From Eating 5,000 Calories A Day To Putting Health And Fitness First

As told by The Vitamin Shoppe Health Enthusiast Debbie Burkhart

Healthy living was never a priority for me growing up. As a teenager, I did whatever I could to get out of gym class. I would have much rather curled up with a book than spend time exercising. When I got to college, I lived on pizza and pasta, and developed a nasty addiction to soda. Breakfast often involved cheesy breadsticks and gas station candy.

When I hit 190 pounds and started having trouble tying my shoes, I knew things were bad. But it wasn’t until chest pains regularly stopped me in my tracks that I finally decided to get my health on track.

I downloaded a food-tracker app and got smacked in the face by the reality of my daily diet: I was eating somewhere around 5,000 calories a day. I traveled a lot for work and didn’t realize my fast food meals alone clocked in at over a day’s-worth of calories. I immediately ditched my morning soda and used my food app to make better choices when drive-thrus or chain restaurants were my only meal options.

When I hit 190 pounds and started having trouble tying my shoes, I knew things were bad.

After six months or so, I’d lost 40 pounds by cracking down on my nutrition. I had always laughed at people who worked out, but I wanted to keep seeing changes in my body and feel healthier, so I knew I had to add exercise into the equation. I started doing tae-bo workout videos at home, and asked the trainers at my local gym about strength training and cardio workouts.

Once I started lifting weights, I was hooked. I tried yoga and pilates classes, too, and despite cardio always being a struggle for me, I even incorporated treadmill interval workouts into my routine.

photo credit: Debbie Burkhart

After a few years of consistently hitting the gym and keeping my portions and calories under control, I took things a little too far. Exercise became my coping mechanism for stress, and I spent more and more time at the gym, until I was spending hours there every single day. My weight dropped down to 116 pounds (I’m 5’5”). I pumped the breaks and cut back on my workout time, and my weight bounced back up to 135, where I’ve hovered ever since.

After six months or so, I’d lost 40 pounds by cracking down on my nutrition. I had always laughed at people who worked out, but I wanted to keep seeing changes in my body and feel healthier

Now my routine feels much more balanced. I split my time among lifting weights, yoga, and a little bit of cardio. I even started teaching mat pilates at my local gym twice a week and set up an aerial yoga rig in my home. I still feel like my 190-pound self sometimes—neither strong nor graceful—and that’s okay. I cried after teaching my first pilates class because I couldn’t believe how far I’d come.

These days, I eat a bagel with light cream cheese for breakfast pretty much every day. (Cheers to flexible eating!) I make foods like chicken, rice, and broccoli or green beans for lunch, and snack on almonds or protein bars throughout the day. I haven’t touched soda, but still crave that giant ice-filled cup from the gas station, so I buy myself a cup of ice and water and mix in a couple scoops of Optimum Nutrition’s grape-flavored Amino Energy, instead.

photo credit: Debbie Burkhart

Some days I’m exhausted or feel tempted to use food as a crutch for stress—but then I think of the 70-year-olds who make it to every single pilates class I teach, rain or shine. They remind me of the way I want to live my life: They get out there, take care of themselves, and thrive no matter what.

I cried after teaching my first pilates class because I couldn’t believe how far I’d come.

Biggest Advice

I think sometimes we are so ashamed that we’ve let ourselves go that we don’t do what we need to do to turn things around. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; don’t be ashamed to start. Having cracks doesn’t mean you’re broken—you can do it. You just have to take that first step.

Deb’s Go-To Picks From The Vitamin Shoppe

Of course, I love my grape Optimum Nutrition Amino Energy. I sip on that stuff all day. I have a sensitive stomach, so I love D’s Naturals No Cow protein bars, especially the lemon meringue or chocolate banana bread flavors.




Is It Worse To Skip A Workout Or Skimp On Sleep?

If you have a busy schedule (and who doesn’t?), chances are you’ve set your alarm for an ungodly hour of the morning in order to squeeze in a workout. Most of the time it just takes a little discipline to drag yourself out of the comfort of your bed, but when your alarm is blaring after a night of tossing and turning and you just can’t shake your sleepiness, should you suck it up or snooze?

Sufficient sleep and exercise are both integral to your health, but if you’re faced with having to sacrifice much-needed  shuteye or a good sweat,  sleep is the answer, says Sina A. Gharib, M.D., sleep researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

Related: Support your immune system with a large selection of supplements.

Sleep helps to regulate your hormones and immune system, says Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., board certified neurologist and sleep specialist at University of Washington Sleep Center. So routinely getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night can lead to serious side effects that can sabotage your health, such as metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity, and obesity.

Plus, if you’re chronically sleep deprived, your early-morning session could be doing more harm than good: You might just sabotage the size or strength gains, or fat-loss results you’re looking to see from your workouts. “Without adequate sleep, our bodies don’t get a chance to recover and rebuild after a workout, meaning they’re in constant breakdown mode,” says says Jim O’Brien, C.P.T., and certified group fitness instructor for Orangetheory Fitness. Not to mention, your workouts themselves will probably decline if you’re feeling super tired, he says. No one wants to walk out of the gym feeling even more zonked than when they walked in.

Related: 5 Signs You Need A Day Off From The Gym

So how can you tell when to push through and when to hit snooze? Be on the lookout for signs of chronic fatigue: “Sleep deprivation causes excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty focusing, and even feelings of depression,” warns Gharib. If you can’t stay awake and alert throughout the day without caffeine, or if you sleep much longer on weekends than you do on weekdays, you aren’t getting enough regular sleep, cautions Watson.

To avoid having to sacrifice your workouts to catch more Zzz’s, O’Brien recommends setting a bedtime for yourself and sticking to it. Then, to avoid falling into a black hole of Facebook videos, put your phone on silent mode and out of reach. If you use your phone for your alarm, then you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off in the morning.

If A.M. training sessions continue to feel like too much of a struggle, you may want to consider hitting the gym after work or dinner—just keep in mind that exercise stimulates the body, and a nighttime workout may cause some people to have trouble falling asleep afterward, according to Watson. He recommends you leave at least one to two hours between the end of your workout and the time you want to hit the sack. Once you’ve got your sleep schedule on lock, though, it’ll be easier to identify what time of day works best for your workouts.

Related: Find a supplement to promote sleep, relaxation, and recovery.


So You’ve Hit A Weight-Loss Plateau—Now What?

Let’s get one thing out there right away: Plateaus are a totally normal part of any weight-loss journey. They happen to even the most arduous and motivated health warriors. So don’t beat yourself up if the scale is no longer budging, ya hear? You’re not doomed!

In order to turn things around, your weight-loss strategy most likely needs a few tweaks. Read on to find out the most common exercise and diet traps, and what you can do to bust out of them.

Woman training on ellipse
photo credit: iStock

Exercise Culprits

On the fitness side of the equation, there are two main reasons your results may be tapering off. The first: You’re doing the same thing day after day. The second: You’re doing too many different things each week, according to Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., professional trainer, and author of The Great Cardio Myth.

Here’s the issue with too much consistency: “If you do the same exercise program over and over again without increasing your weight, reps, or intensity, you’re no longer stimulating your body to adapt and change,” he says.

On the other hand, if you’re doing too many different types of workouts—for example, lifting weights on Monday, going to spin class on Tuesday, taking a bootcamp class on Wednesday, running intervals on Thursday, and then hitting up CrossFit on Friday, your body can’t make sense of everything that’s happening, says Ballantyne. “You need to give your body time to recover and adapt to what you’re doing,” he says. “It’s not about doing more, more, more; it’s about doing the right things and then letting your body recover.”

To avoid both of these potential pitfalls, Ballantyne recommends picking a lane and making it your primary focus. Since building muscle is the best way to ramp up your fat burn, lifting weights is your most advantageous option, he says.

If you’re going to make strength-training your go-to grind, it should make up the majority of your week’s workouts. But that doesn’t mean you’re bound for boredom. You can switch up what you’re doing by adding days of muscle-building-friendly activities like bootcamp classes between straight lifting days, Ballantyne suggests.

The key: “Don’t let more than three weeks go by without ramping up your intensity,” he says. Whether that means picking up more weight, adding more reps, or performing exercises faster for a bigger heart-rate boost, you have to keep challenging yourself. “As soon as your workout starts to feel easy, make a change,” he says.

Related: The Best Rep Range If You’re Strength Training For Fat Loss

Woman chopping mushrooms with knife on cutting board.
photo credit: iStock

Diet Culprits

If you’re watching what you eat to lose weight, you’ll have to adjust your approach as your body adapts over time, especially when it comes to cutting calories, says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.

You want to aim to lose around one percent of your bodyweight per week (three pounds for someone who weighs 300 pounds, and a pound and a half for someone who weighs 150 pounds), so the number of calories you may need to cut varies depending on your starting point.  In that first month of dieting, a smaller person (say somewhere around 150 pounds) should start by reducing their caloric intake by 250 calories. A larger person (say somewhere around 300 pounds) should start by cutting 500.

You’ll notice that after a few months, though, this approach will stop working. “As you diet successfully, your body starts to shrink in size,” explains Israetel. “And because fewer calories are required to maintain a lower body weight, your metabolism slows down.” After you make that initial progress, your body needs fewer calories than it did when you started, so your initial nutrition plan becomes less effective.

Related: 6 Possible Reasons Why You’re Still Not Seeing Results From Working Out

Why does this happen? Since our more primitive ancestors’ primary struggle was finding food, not over-consuming it, we’re wired with natural coping mechanisms that kick in when our bodies think food is scarce (a.k.a. when we’re cutting calories).

You may start to feel fatigued as your body starts to subconsciously conserve energy, burn fewer calories at the gym and throughout the day, and even start to feel hungrier, says Israetel. So unfortunately, your success has brought about the exact one-two punch that will push you straight onto a plateau.

“No amount of willpower and motivation will help you overcome this,” says Israetel. It’s just not realistic. Your body is physically reacting to what you’re doing, so you have to treat the problem physically. And in order to do this, you need to shift your diet into a ‘maintenance phase.’

Related: Check out an assortment of supplements to support your weight-management efforts.

During a ‘maintenance phase,’ you gradually increase your caloric intake to reengage your metabolism, explains Israetel. Here’s what you do: Add back either the 250 or 500 calories you cut from your diet slowly over the course of about two months. As long as you’re diligent and patient, this should help your metabolism speed back up without you gaining much weight back, says Israetel. If you gain more than a few pounds in that window, you’re adding too many calories too quickly.

Israetel recommends reevaluating after a few months of this approach. If you’re still feeling fatigued or super-hungry, you’re best off continuing to slowly add calories to your daily intake. Otherwise, you may be ready to switch back into that ‘cutting’ phase.

“Everyone thinks they’re the exception to the rule,” Israetel says. Pacing yourself and finding your rhythm between about two months of maintenance for every three months of calorie-cutting should help ward off that dreaded plateau.

Related: Exactly What To Eat To Build Muscle


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How I Changed My Relationship With Food And Lost Nearly 300 Pounds

As told by Sean Baltz

As a kid, I played basketball and never thought twice about the foods I ate. I was active and rail-thin. That changed, though, after decades at a desk job, a marriage, and later, a divorce.

At 30 years old, I was incredibly depressed. I worked and ate—and not much else. After surpassing 350 pounds, I tried to lose the weight, but couldn’t clean up my diet and fell deeper and deeper into unhealthy patterns of emotional eating, so I ended up just gaining more and more. Eventually, at 50 years old, I found myself at 510 pounds.

I was poisoning myself with food instead of dealing with the sadness I felt. I drank two liters of soda a day, and finished off a quart of rocky road ice cream only to reach for another.

My feet became so swollen that I couldn’t get my shoes on. I couldn’t get into my car or even walk to the end of my driveway to get the mail. If I dropped something on the floor at home, I left it there because I couldn’t pick it up.

I was poisoning myself with food instead of dealing with the sadness I felt.

Everything changed on December 18, 2015. I’ll never forget that date. After having some bloodwork done, the doctor called to inform me that I had developed type 2 diabetes. I was filled with fear. My A1C, a measure of average blood sugar, came in at 9.1 percent that day. (Editor’s note: According to the National Institutes of Health, you’re considered diabetic at 6.5 percent.) Diabetes, in combination with my obesity, put me at risk for losing a limb—maybe even my life.

That fear rocketed me toward making a radical change. I knew I had to take control of my health, so I set the goal of losing 250 pounds by September 2017. I cold-turkey quit all of the soda, junk, and processed food that had filled my diet for so long, and stocked my fridge with produce. I started tracking my calories to make sure I didn’t eat more than 2,000 calories per day, and stopped snacking in the middle of the night. The more progress I made, the more the fear that initially propelled me transformed into self-respect.

I realized I had to look at my food as medicine, as something that served my body—not just as instant gratification for my taste buds. At breakfast, I loaded up on fresh fruit and a few tablespoons of nuts or seeds, plus an occasional protein shake. I ate a light midday snack of almonds and an apple, and went vegetable-crazy at dinner, filling my crock-pot with broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. I got my protein from beans or a small portion of lean meat. Throughout the day, I drank tons of water: ten 16-ounce bottles every day.

I knew I had to take control of my health, so I set the goal of losing 250 pounds by September 2017.

After months and months of eating only the freshest foods I could get my hands on, I’d dropped 200 pounds. I meant business! I wanted to exercise, but I could still only power-walk for about five minutes at a time. So I started there, power-walking for five minutes, and adding a minute every day until I could walk for a half-hour straight. Then I added two minutes a day until I could walk for an hour.

I reached my goal of losing 250 pounds in September 2016—a year early. By the end of the year I weighed 215 pounds and I’d lost almost 300 pounds. Now I’m incorporating strength training into my routine and I celebrate every bit of nourishing food I put into my mouth. My A1C level is under control at 4.9.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Wellness

I used to see myself as a loser, and I conquered that. My health transformation has been about so much more than the pounds lost and bloodwork numbers. As I told myself over and over that I deserved health and that my life was worth fixing my toxic relationship with food, the temptation of ice cream and my other old vices went out the window. I transformed my outlook on life, and that enabled me to be positive and make change happen. Now I plan to write a book about my experiences.

Advice For Others

You have to change the way you talk to yourself about food. Redefine what you call a ‘comfort food.’ Who says an apple can’t be as comforting as a candy bar? If having the junk food around blazes an inner battle in you, clear it out of the house. Create an environment at home that’s conducive to health.

Sean’s Go-To Picks From The Vitamin Shoppe

I’ve tried a lot of supplements on my path to health. CoQ10, apple cider vinegar tablets, and omega-3 fish oil have been a part of my regimen since the get-go.


5 Exercises Every Gym Newbie Should Master

When you’re a fitness newbie, it’s tempting to look around at other gym-goers to figure out what you should be doing. Those box jumps look cool, right?

But before you try to crank out your first power clean or achieve some tricked-out lift for your Instagram feed, you’ve got to nail a few choice moves.

“These exercises will literally be your foundation for every exercise moving forward,” explains California-based trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. Just like a house will eventually crumble if it’s built on a shaky foundation, your body will pay the price down the line if you don’t establish a solid fitness base.

Hence why many people who fire up their gym membership in the New Year get injured, burnt out, or simply give up after they don’t see the results they want—they don’t give their bodies the foundational training they need.

So rather than sweat it out in vain or risk a sidelining injury, set yourself up for success with these five foundational moves every gym newbie should master. (Hey, self-proclaimed gym vets, you may want to make sure you’re solid on these, too…)

Related: Find the supplements to support your performance in the gym and post-workout recovery.


1. Reverse-Grip Lat Pulldown

This beginner-friendly move hits your back, deltoids, biceps, triceps, and core muscles while promoting proper shoulder alignment, which is critical to avoiding the super-common neck and shoulder injuries that occur in both exercisers and gym-phobes alike, says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., founder of Women’s Strength Nation. This exercise is your base for chin-ups and pull-ups, and can help promote proper movement patterns when performing row variations and even isolation exercises like bicep curls.

Instructions: Sit down at a pull-down machine and grab the wide pull-down bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing you. Lean your torso back just slightly and maintain a flat back, with your core engaged. From here, pull the bar down until it just touches your upper chest, keeping your elbows tucked in close to your sides and your torso stationary. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return the bar back to starting position.

Related: The Right Way To Do A Machine Back Row


2. Plank

“The plank is perfect for people new to the gym because it teaches you how to properly brace your core—a must during every single strength-training exercise out there,” Donavanik says. “On top of that, it will help you develop your mind-muscle connection. You’ll become more aware of what’s happening in your body—where your shoulders are, if your hips are aligned, and how your core, quads, and glutes are engaged.” Once you’ve mastered that skill, you’re ready to safely perform more advanced exercises—whether they involve a plank as their base, or if, like deadlifts and cleans, they just require awesome total-body awareness to be performed safely and effectively.

Instructions: Get on the floor on your hands and knees and then extend your legs straight behind you, lowering your torso onto your forearms so that your elbows are directly under your shoulders and your body forms a straight line from head to heels. To make sure that you don’t just “hang” in the plank (a common mistake), brace your core like you’re about to be punched in the stomach, pull your shoulders down and squeeze them back as if you are trying to pull your elbows to your knees, and squeeze your glutes and quads as tightly as possible. Your entire body should feel tight.


3. Leg Press

“I love the leg press for newbies because it puts you in a controlled environment where you can dedicate all of your mental and physical energy to strengthening your legs in one movement,” Perkins says. “You don’t have to worry about balance or leaning because the machine keeps you in place, you can focus 100 percent of your attention on feeling and learning how to properly activate your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.” As you learn to better engage these muscles, you’ll be better equipped to perform both isolation moves like single-leg deadlifts and compound ones such as step-ups and split-squats.

Instructions: Sit down at a leg press machine and place your feet on the platform between hip- and shoulder-width apart, with your toes turned out just slightly. Move the safety bars holding the platform in place and, while keeping your body firmly pressed against the seat, bend at the knees and hips to lower the platform until your legs form a 90-degree angle. (If your knees extend far past your toes in this bottom position, you need to adjust your feet placement so they are closer to the top of the platform.) Pause, then push through your heels and reverse the movement to return the platform to starting position.


4. Pushup

The pushup builds total upper-body strength, while teaching your chest, deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, triceps, and biceps how to work together as one cohesive unit, Donavanik says. That way, when you progress to using more weight in exercises like the bench press or incline bench press, or take on plyo pushups and burpees, you know you will get the most out of every single rep.

Instructions: Get on the floor on your hands and knees, and then extend your legs straight behind you so that your body forms a straight line from head to heels. Your shoulders should be stacked directly above your elbows and wrists. Look straight between your hands and slowly pull your elbows back so they flare out diagonally from your body as you lower your chest toward the floor. Make sure to keep your shoulders pulled down and back, away from your ears. Once your chest comes within a few inches of the floor, push through your chest, triceps, and shoulders to straighten your elbows and return to the starting position. If you cannot keep your body in a straight line throughout the entire movement, try spreading your feet slightly wider apart or performing an incline pushup with your hands on a low bench.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Well-Being


5. Bodyweight Squat

The all-powerful squat hones in on your lower-body’s fundamental movement patterns, developing strength through all of your major leg muscles as well as smaller stabilizers, while teaching your body to transfer power between the core and lower body. Hence why the squat forms the basis of pretty much every big lower- and total-body movement out there, from dumbbell and barbell squats, to cleans, snatches, and jerks, Donavanik says.

Instructions: Stand tall with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, and toes turned out just slightly. From here, start the movement by hinging at the hips, or pushing your butt back, and then bending at the knees to lower your torso as far as you can without pain or your heels lifting up off of the floor (as if you’re sitting down in an invisible chair.) Make sure to keep your back flat and chest up as you descend into the squat. At the bottom of the movement, pause, and then push through your heels to extend the hips and knees and return to the starting standing position.