Ask An Expert·4 min read

What’s Better, Cardio or Strength Training? An Expert Explains

A woman lifting a kettlebell at the gym
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
September 26, 2023

With so much information out there on the “right” way to exercise, it’s hard to know if what you’re doing is the best for your fitness goals. Should you do cardio every day? And should you do cardio before or after weights? And which is better for overall health: cardio vs strength training?  Here, Danielle Gray, NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Train Like A Gymnast, breaks down how to decide what type of exercise to prioritize, plus the health benefits of both cardio and strength training. 

Cardio vs strength training: Which is better?

It depends on your fitness goals and your personal preference, says Gray. “I am not a fan of labeling [either] as bad or good,” she says.

“My motto is [to] train with intention,” says Gray. “If you're trying to build muscle, strength training is going to be better. If you're trying to [run] a marathon or a hundred-miler, cardio is going to be better.” Knowing your “why” will help keep you motivated and interested in your exercise, she says.

When it comes to cardio vs. strength training, both offer health benefits. So if you don’t have a specific goal or event that you’re training for, Gray recommends finding a balance between the two. 

Featured Expert:

Danielle Gray

Danielle Gray - Certified personal trainer and founder of Train Like A Gymnast

What are the benefits of cardio?

As the name implies, cardiovascular training — movement that increases your heart rate and respiration for a sustained period of time — is great for your heart health, says Gray. “[It] helps your heart pump blood through the rest of your body, and it helps with your endurance so that you can do things for longer,” says Gray. Whether these “things” are hiking up mountains or carrying groceries into the house is all the same. Plus, cardio training can reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Not to mention how it can also help your mental health.

What are the benefits of strength training?

Unlike cardio training, strength training involves contracting your muscles against an external resistance (such as weights). Strength training is protective for your joints and bones, says Gray. That padding can help with your muscular strength, range of motion, and it can reduce your injury risk during other activities. 

Strength training also has long-term health benefits such as reducing back pain, helping manage chronic conditions such as arthritis, and improving balance and posture. 

And while cardio can help burn fat, she says strength training may actually be more effective, if that’s your goal, since it helps get your heart rate up and “put yourself in a state of excess post exercise oxygen consumption [EPOC],” says Gray. “Essentially, strength-training will have your body burning calories even after you're done exercising,” she says. You can do that by circuit training, shortening your rests between strength exercises, or alternating between strength and cardio exercises, says Gray.

Should I do cardio before or after weights? 

There’s no right or wrong answer here, but Gray recommends weights first, cardio second. “I will have [my clients] do a really short cardio warmup, then do their strength [training], the big meat of the session, and then finish with cardio,” she says. “Cardio is a lot easier to do when you're tired. If you are already fatigued, lifting heavy [weights], [especially] overhead, is not smart.” 

Whether you’re just getting into cardio or strength training, “don't be afraid to be a beginner,” says Gray. While she notes that there are plenty of resources for training available online, she recommends getting the help of a trainer if you want personalized guidance.

Ask an Expert is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a question, you are agreeing to let theSkimm use it—in part or in full—and we may edit its answer for length and/or clarity.

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