By Bryan Haycock, M.S.
It feels pretty rewarding to look big enough in clothes that people don’t have to ask, “Do you work out?” At the same time, when you’re invited to a pool party and you look so cut that people again don’t bother asking if you work out, it feels pretty good. What most people don’t realize is how hard it is to get big and cut at the same time.
To get big and cut, you are going to have to do a little cardio in addition to your training. The question inevitably comes up, “Which should I do first?” Do you train first and then do some cardio? Or is it better to get the cardio out of the way first so you can put all you’ve got into your training without dreading the cardio you still gotta do? A new study out of Brazil sheds some light on the issue. Scientists tested the effect of exercise order on testosterone and cortisol levels.
Before going into detail about the study, I have to tell you up front, it is a fairly small study using only 10 subjects; nevertheless, their results seem to favor one sequence over the other. The exercise regimens looked like this: In the cardio-first group, they did 30 minutes of cardio on a stationary bike at 75% of maximal heart rate followed by three sets of eight repetitions at 75% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) in four strength exercises. Strength training lasted 30 minutes and consisted of three sets of eight repetitions at 75% of 1RM with 90 seconds of resting between sets. Strength exercises were performed in the same order: bench press, squat, lat pulldown, and leg extension. The strength-training-first group did the same workouts, only with strength training first, followed by cardio. The researchers found that after the first half of the workout, it didn’t matter whether the subjects did cardio or weight training, as testosterone and cortisol both went up. Now here’s the part where you need to pay attention. In the strength-training-first group, testosterone then began to fall after the first half of the workout and was back at baseline by the time the participants were finished with their cardio. In the cardio-first group, however, testosterone continued to climb ever so slightly right on through the weight-lifting portion and was at its highest when they finished—and significantly higher than the strength-training-first group. Cortisol peaked at the midpoint and then either remained stable or declined slightly in both groups.
Some of you might remember that previously I’ve written about research that called into question the importance of temporary spikes in anabolic hormone levels during your workout. With that taken into consideration, don’t we still want to maximize our testosterone levels regardless of how long it may last? Of course we do! So, when you know you’ve got to do a little cardio to keep the abs peekin’ through, do your cardio first and then hit the weights. Of the two choices you have, that order of doing things seems to keep testosterone levels higher longer throughout your workout.
REFERENCE: E.L. Cadore et al., J Strength Cond Res., E-pub ahead of print, Jan. 3, 2012.