Pre or Post Workout Cardio: When Is It Ideal?

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Note from TG: Theeeeeeey’re baaaaack.  The Dynamic Duo, Chris and Eric Martinez, strike again. And this time they’re setting their sites on the whole “should we or shouldn’t we perform cardio” around training time debate.

(For those out of the loop, HERE and HERE are two other previous guest posts by the Duo.)

As with everything the best answer is…..it depends.

Contrary to popular belief I’m not at all opposed to people tossing in some dedicated cardio into the mix. I recognize that it’s important, that it offers a ton of benefits, and that it serves as an ideal time to catch up on reruns of Judge Judy.

I keed, I keed.

In all seriousness, there’s a mountain of research backing up traditional cardio as a fantastic way to improve overall conditioning, heart health, hormonal profile, immune function, as well as stuff like reducing the risk of developing type II diabetes, to name a few.

My main beef is when people rely SOLELY on “cardio” to be the end-all-be-all panacea of health and performance.  As an example: If you’re trying to increase strength and are still running 20 miles per week, good luck with that.  

Alas, the point of this article isn’t to throw cardio under the bus.  Rather it’s to demonstrate that there’s a time and place for it given your goals and needs, and that WHERE you prioritize it can have a huge impact on long-term results.

Especially if you’re a performance athlete or someone who likes to lift heavy stuff.

Enjoy!

The lovely world of cardio, we have to love it right? Cardio has countless benefits for the human body, so it must be good for us, right? How else do you think all the celebrities stay so skinny and “toned?”

How many times have you seen people get to the gym and hop on a cardio machine and just gas themselves, and not to mention go do some resistance training right after. Or what about when someone gets done from an intense lifting session, then goes off and does an intense cardio session?

We know you’ve seen this before and we are not going to get into the psychology of why people do this because that could be a whole other article itself. We are more focused on is it optimal to perform cardio pre and post workout? With a specific focus on which cardio modality (type of cardio you do) is the best to perform to avoid the interference effect of strength, power, and hypertrophy gains?

But before we give you the answer, it’s vital that we always have to take people’s goals, activity level, overall health, and training experience into consideration before anything. So please read this with an open mind and a non-black and white answer, all or nothing approach.

What’s This Interference Effect Thing?

When we refer to the interference effect, we are talking about the interference of strength, power, and hypertrophy gains (muscle growth) when doing cardio pre or post workout. This topic of discussion has been floating around for quite some time now, whether concurrent training is optimal or not.

We all have our biased opinions, but what is the correct cardio modality to do pre and post workout and should we even be doing cardio pre or post workouts? That is the million dollar question that many of us would like to know.

Why continue to keep robbing your hard earned gains and progress if you don’t need to. Instead, why not continue to maximize your overall potential the correct way instead of shooting yourself in the foot? As always, we bring scientific based evidence to the table to get to the bottom of these popular topics, because the research doesn’t lie folks.

Before we delve into the research, we want to quote what Brad Schoenfeld said:

 “There is no one cookie-cutter recommendation I can provide that will be ideal for everyone. People have varying responses to exercise programs. Large inter-individual differences are seen in any research protocol. Thus, in giving advice on a topic such as this, I can only provide general recommendations that must be individualized based on a variety of genetic and environmental factors. This is the essence of evidence-based practice, which should form the basis of every fitness professional’s decision making process.” (1)

We can’t agree more with this statement and we truly feel this statement is a legitimate and valid way of viewing such a topic like this one.

Cardio Modalities

We are certain we can all agree that there are numerous different cardio modalities out there today. To name a few modalities that have more ground-reaction force with higher impact are:

    • Conventional sprints
    • Up-hill sprints
    • Resisted sprints
    • Car pushes

  • Prowler pushes
  • Sled pulls

Pretty much all the badass cardio workouts that we look forward to doing.

Cardio modalities that minimize ground-reaction forces are:

  • Cycling bikes

  • Treadmills
  • Ellipticals
  • Various machine based equipment

 The stuff we like to watch TV on or read magazines 😉

These are all great choices whether you use them in the form of HIIT or LISS, but which modality is more optimal to prevent the interference effect and when should you do these you ask? Let’s delve into some research shall we.

Should you do cardio pre or post workout?

Layne Norton and Jacob Wilson claim that when you choose a cardio modality such as running or sprinting after a resistance training bout, the ground-reaction force (think sprints) and distance causes more muscle damage as opposed to a modality with less impact such as cycling instead.

Cycling seems to be more similar to hip and knee flexion as opposed to running because it’s biomechanically interfering with squat and leg press patterns. This muscle damage seems to be coming from the eccentric components when running and sprinting (2).

Norton and Wilson make a valid point in the essence that if you are going to do cardio post workout, make sure you do it in the form of an opposing muscle group.

Let’s say you did a grueling lower body workout, you would then want to do cardio in the form of using your upper body, something like rope slams because otherwise if you go and run or do sprints you are going to get a complete interference effect and possibly get injured.

After resistance training you have mTOR (cell growth) being ramped up and protein synthesis (making of new proteins) being turned on and when you do cardio after resistance training you get such high drastic rises in AMP kinase (signaling cascade for ATP production) that it ends up shutting off protein synthesis.

In easier terms, cardio after weights interferes with the muscle growth phase and a good analogy is after training you turn the faucet on for muscle growth and when too much cardio is being done or after training, it shuts the faucet off.

As for pre workout cardio, this tends to be a little trickier than post workout cardio and we say this because it really depends on a lot of factors such as: What muscle groups are you training that day? What form of cardio are you doing pre workout (low, moderate, or high intensity)? What modality will you use? Are you in a low calorie and glycogen depleted state?

A Study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise shows 30 minutes of jogging pre workout decreases volume of spinal discs and leads to a reduction in the amount of weight you can load on your back (3).

For example, if you did a moderate-high intensity cardio bout such as jogging before squats it’s probably not a good idea because it will lead to decrements in strength and negatively affect your squats. Jogging shows to have a lot of muscle damage in the quads, hams, and glutes, so this will definitely affect your squat game.

A 2012 study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition showed extended periods of moderate volume concurrent strength, power, and endurance training interferes with explosive strength development (4). This is not something you want if you’re trying to increase your 1 rep max on squats and deadlifts.

The data is pretty clear that performing moderate-high intensity cardio pre workout will lead to decrements in strength and power with your resistance training. Perhaps doing cardio earlier in the day and performing resistance training later in the day will not have a negative impact on either the performance or the measured markers of the exercise induced growth stimulus the resistance training session will have.

However, we highly encourage doing resistance training and cardio on separate days as this would be the most optimal route to go.

Is there really an interference effect?

In a study by Wilson et al. a large body of research indicates that combining aerobic and resistance exercise (concurrent training) has a negative effect on gains in muscular strength and size (5).

There is credence to the underlying concept that catabolic processes predominate to a greater extent in aerobic training, and concurrent exercise therefore has the potential to impair muscular gains. There is even evidence that cardio can blunt the satellite cell response (helps with muscle growth) to a bout of resistance exercise and therefore potentially impair the protein-producing capacity of muscle (6).

With that said, why are people still considering doing cardio pre or post workout if clearly the evidence indicates that it can potentially inhibit muscular gains, strength, and power?

What if you could avoid the interference effect?

Burn more calories, increase muscle, and acutely increase your metabolic rate, sounds good, right?

This is where the famous HIIT cardio would come into play.

When you think of HIIT, high intensity and high stress should be taken into consideration. What we have to keep in mind is that stress has to be recovered from, just like the stress from weight training. Last time we checked HIIT cardio is done during the week along with resistance training. If you are still recovering from a HIIT cardio session to the point that it affects your ability to lift weights, then it can be detrimental to your gains.

If there is a significant eccentric component (sprinting and running), or high level of impact, HIIT can cause problems in your overall training and potentially lead to chronic overuse injuries. You have to be cautious and smart when incorporating HIIT into your training protocol because it seems that the work to rest ratios in HIIT intervals are very similar to resistance training sets and your number one focus should be on progressive resistance training.

Here are some ways to avoid the interference effect:

  • Schedule your cardio around your resistance training, especially HIIT cardio
  • If your number one priority is resistance training, then perform cardio modalities that minimize ground-reaction forces
  • Perform a cardio modality that is opposite of the muscle group your training. For example, if you do train legs then do an upper body dominate form of cardio and vice versa
  • If you absolutely have to do cardio the same day as your resistance training and you can’t find a cardio modality opposite of the body part you trained then make sure to keep the intensity to low-moderate.

Wrapping this up

We believe that the research is pretty clear here when it comes to this particular topic. Clearly there is no black and white answer, sorry to disappoint, but at least we have a great indication of what to do and when not to do it.

It’s tough to predict that anyone can avoid any interference effect when it comes to aerobic or anaerobic training. Just like anything else you have to compensate something. We are not all built like machines and able to handle the same workload as others.

Genetics always play a vital role in how someone responds to training. Other factors such as nutrition, stress, sleep, occupational activity, ect. All must be taken into account. Refer back to Brad Schoenfeld’s quote if needed, it pretty much tells you there are only general recommendations that can be given here. The best thing to do is choose the correct cardio modality that suits your training and goals. Always train hard, think logically, and but most importantly train smart.

References:

(1)  Schoenfeld, AARR Research Review. Cardio Roundtable Discussion. February and March 2013.

(2)  Norton, L & Wilson J. Muscle college radio with Dr. Layne Norton & Dr. Jake Wilson. http://www.rxmuscle.com/2013-01-11-01-57-36/muscle-college/7694-muscle-college-3-12-13.html

(3)   Kingsley, MI., et al., Moderate-Intensity Running Causes Intervertebral Disc Compression in young adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2012.

(4)  Mikkola, et al., Neuromuscular and cardiovascular adaptations during concurrent strength and endurance training in untrained men. Int J Sports Med. 2012.

(5)  Babcock, L, Escano, M, D’Lugos, A, Todd, K, Murach, K, and Luden, N. Concurrent aerobic exercise interferes with the satellite cell response to acute resistance exercise. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. 302: 2012.

(6)  Wilson, J.M., et al., Concurrent Training: A Meta Analysis Examining Interference if Aerobic and Resistance Exercise. J Strength Cond Res, 2011.

About The Authors:

Chris and Eric Martinez, CISSN, CPT, BA, also known as the “Dynamic Duo” operate a world class personal training and online training business “Dynamic Duo Training,” They’re also fitness and nutrition writers, fitness models, and coaches that love helping people reach their goals. Their philosophy is “No excuses, only solutions.”

Visit them at:

Dynamic Duo Training

Blogsite

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  • Andy

    Good article, a lot of good info. I’m confused because I was always told to push my prowler after a heavy leg day, any reasoning behind this?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Andy –

      I wouldn’t take the above article as all encompassing. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with pushing the Prowler the day after a heavy leg day. I just wouldn’t take it to the extreme. If, however, the purpose was to perform some conditioning, I’d probably lean more towards doing them the day of if for nothing else than to “condense” your training stress.

    • Eric and Chris

      Thanks for reading Andy! Not sure why your coach or trainer recommended you to push a prowler after a heavy leg day. Possibly he wanted you to get some metabolic training in or conditioning? Also, we aren’t sure what your exact goals are so it’s hard to specify. But usually after a heavy leg day we recommend you go rest up 🙂

      • Andy

        Thanks for the response guys! Really appreciate it. I wasn’t told by a trainer, read an article on Jim Wendlers’ website when I first got my sled and he recommended doing the “heavy” prowler workout after your squat/deadlift day. Didn’t really research it, just figured since the dude squatted a grand he knew what he was talking about. The “condensing of training stress”(love how you guys word things) actually makes a lot of sense to me. Again, appreciate the time.

        Here’s the link to that article

        http://www.jimwendler.com/2012/10/3-prowler-workouts/

        • Eric and Chris

          Thanks for the kind words Andy! We will checkout the link.

        • Steve Lee

          He said to do the hard prowler workout on the leg days because it is basically highly CNS focused, it is complimentary training, not concurrent training. Not really aerobic training, though with an aerobic benefit through anaerobic work. True, pure aerobic is oxygen only, like jogging or easy running. With heavy weight, you’d be pushing the prowler much like squatting heavy weight, just bent over and puking afterwards. LOL

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  • Great article. The level of interference also largely depends on the total volume of both strength and endurance training. If someone is only lifting three times per week, and they throw in an extra cardio session, it’s probably going to do a lot less harm. As the volume of both increases, problems start to become more severe.

    Another viable option is to space the cario and strength training out as much as possible. E.g. some light cardio in the AM and 5-6 hours later or more, your heavy strength training.

    • Eric and Chris

      Great points here Armistead! Although we would much rather save our energy for the strength training session and focus on that as opposed to doing light cardio several hours before hand. What you really have to consider is even if it’s LISS cardio, there is still going to be some muscle damage done. So why not utilize all your energy for the weights. Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Brett

    I feel like Tony’s comment contradicts Eric and Chris. Is that just me or am I missing something here? Tony said to do it “day of” but Eric and Chris say no to the option.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I think it depends on the “effort.” I see no issue with performing some LIGHT GPP the day after (to promote blood flow, etc). But if it’s going to be a ball buster of a session, I’d rather it be the day of (or as close as possible).

      • Steve Lee

        Exactly, if you’re going hard on the weights and then a hard conditioning (HIIT, anaerobic) they should be the same day. If light conditioning, then off day. Helps with recovery

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  • Wendy Moore

    I worked with a trainer who recommended some treadmill sprints (5-ish) prior to doing deadlifts or squats to “wake up” the posterior chain. That, plus some monster walks with a band, plus 3 sets of pistols, have been my leg-day warm up. Overkill?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Wendy –

      I do the same thing albeit I perform some jump training prior to DLs. I wouldn’t say it’s so much to wake up the posterior chain as it is to fire up the nervous system.

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  • Sravanthi Reddy

    I am now doing HIIT upper body workout at home , but these exercises seem to be more challenging and fun, would love to try them.