The Best Way to Combine Strength and Cardio Into One Workout

Combining cardio and strength into one workout is a great way to multitask.
Image Credit: Inti St Clair/Tetra images/GettyImages

While multi-tasking might not be the best approach to your work day, it can do wonders for your workouts. Combining cardio and strength in one session is a convenient and time-efficient way to burn calories and build muscle.


But it can also be more effective when you're looking to lose weight or boost your power and speed, says Greg James, NASM-certified trainer at Tone House in New York City and RSP Nutrition.

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A study from the February 2020 issue of ​Obesity​ found that workout routines that included two strength-training sessions and at least 150 minutes of cardio each week were associated with lower rates of obesity.

More than that, this approach can help manage risk factors for heart disease. In a study that looked at inactive adults who had high blood pressure or had overweight or obesity, a combination cardio-and-resistance program reduced cardiovascular risk factors better than aerobic or resistance training alone, according to a January 2019 study in ​PLOS One.

Cardio vs. Strength: Which Comes First?

So should you do cardio or strength first? If you're new to working out and/or just want to improve your overall fitness level, the order doesn't matter, according to a July 2014 study from the ​Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research​.


However, if you want to emphasize one over the other, start with that one, since you'll have more energy for it at the beginning of your workout. If you don't have a preference, James suggests starting with strength, focusing on exercises that target big muscle groups, like squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, bench press and bent-over row.

"Doing standard strength lifts first promotes muscle growth and development, while cardio can be done as a finisher," he says. Putting resistance exercises up front allows you to perform them with a full tank of gas, if you will, rather than approaching it already fatigued from cardio and having to go lighter in weights or not at full effort. A review in January 2018 in the journal Sports Medicine also found that resistance exercise first boosts gains in lower-body dynamic strength.


After hitting the big muscles, you'll tackle moves that work smaller muscle groups using equipment like dumbbells or cables. These are called "accessory exercises," as you'll either work the muscles that you just hit in new ways or recruit stabilizing muscles for a well-rounded routine.


Next up: cardio. You're probably used to seeing cardio as something you do for a fixed amount of time on a machine like the elliptical or treadmill or running outside. However, while steady-state cardio has a place in your weekly routine, you'll maximize your efforts by tailoring cardio to your goals, James says.


For instance, if you're training as a runner, you might finish with a one-mile run and stretch. Or if your goal is weight loss, James suggests metcon (short for metabolic conditioning) that's made up of three cardio-based exercises — ex. burpees, high knees and mountain climbers — performed back-to-back at the end of your workout.

Read more:Weights vs. Cardio: Your Guide to the Perfect Workout


The Ultimate Strength and Cardio Workout

Ready to try this multi-tasking method for yourself? This strength and cardio workout James created may be challenging, but it's set up to effectively build muscle and burn fat.


Starting with these mobility exercises to help increase your joints' range of motion and ultimately, engage the right muscles with proper form in the strength portion. All you'll need is a light resistance band.


Do:​ Two sets of 10 reps of each of the following moves.

  • Banded lateral steps
  • Banded hip bridge
  • Banded high pulls
  • Good morning to squat
  • Reverse lunge to side lunge

Move 1: Banded Lateral Step

  1. Place a resistance loop just above your knees.
  2. With knees bent in a "squat-like" position, take a wide step to your right.
  3. Step your left foot in to meet your right, keeping tension in the band.
  4. Take 10 steps to the right.
  5. Switch direction to lead with the left foot and take 10 steps to the left.



Move 2: Banded Glute Bridge

  1. With a resistance band just above your knees, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
  2. Engaging your glutes, raise your hips toward the ceiling.
  3. Pause for one to two seconds.
  4. Lower back down.

Move 3: Banded High Row

  1. Step in the middle of a long resistance band.
  2. Grab one end in each hand.
  3. Pull hands toward your chest while bending your elbows out to the side. Hold for a second.
  4. Lower arms back down.

Move 4: Good Morning to Squat

  1. Place hands behind your head, elbows out.
  2. Push hips back and lower your torso until you creates almost a 90-degree angle with the floor.
  3. Lift up to return to standing.
  4. Bend your knees and hinge your hips down into a squat.
  5. Pause for a second, then push back to standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.

Move 5: Reverse Lunge to Side Lunge

  1. Stand with feet together, then step backward with your right foot.
  2. Bend both knees to lower toward the ground until legs form a 90-degree angle.
  3. Press through the back foot and start to stand back up.
  4. Without letting your right foot touch the ground, step out to the right side.
  5. Bend your right knee and sit back into your hips.
  6. Push through your right foot and step back to start.
  7. Repeat with your left foot.

Strength Exercises

For each of the below exercises, James suggests using weight that's a percentage of your PR (personal record, or the most amount of weight you can lift successfully and with proper form). So, if you're able to do a military press with a 50-pound weight, 60 percent of that is 30, and the weight you'd use. Structuring a strength workout this way helps boost performance, he says.


Or if haven't tested your max yet, choose a weight you can safely do all reps with while still being challenged. A good rule of thumb is that the last two reps should feel difficult, but all reps should be done with good form.

Do:​ All sets and reps of the following exercises, taking a 90-second to two-minute break between each set.

  • 6 sets of 5 back squats at 80%
  • 6 sets of 5 deadlifts at 80%
  • 5 sets of 8 to 10 military presses at 60%

Move 1: Back Squat

  1. Grab a barbell. Hold it behind your upper back at your shoulders. Hands should be just outside of shoulder width.
  2. Bend your knees and hinge your hips to lower into a squat. Pause.
  3. Push back up to stand.

Move 2: Deadlift

  1. Place a barbell on the ground in front of you. (You can also do this move holding a dumbbell in each hand.)
  2. With feet hip-width apart, squat down to grab the barbell, keeping your back flat, chest up and neck neutral.
  3. Pull the barbell up as you stand, pressing your hips forward and squeezing your glutes.
  4. Pressing your hips back, squat to lower bar back down to the ground.

Move 3: Military Press

  1. From a standing or seated position, hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. With palms facing out, raise the weights to your shoulders, elbows pointing down.
  3. Press your hands above your head and straighten arms, engaging your core to avoid arching your back.
  4. Lower back down to shoulder height with control.

Read more:The Best Strength-Training Exercises for Weight Loss


Accessory Exercises

Do:​ 4 sets of 10 of both of these exercises.

  • Seated row
  • Reverse lunge

Move 1: Seated Row

  1. Using a cable machine, start in the seated position and grab the handle.
  2. Pull the handle toward your abdomen, squeezing shoulder blades together.
  3. Slowly extend the arms again.

Move 2: Reverse Lunge

  1. Stand with feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Step backward with your left foot.
  3. Bend both knees to lower toward the ground until legs form a 90-degree angle.
  4. Push off with your left foot to come back to standing.
  5. Repeat for 10 reps on each leg.


Last but not least, cardio. James recommends hopping on an air bike (the front wheel looks like a big fan), which uses air to generate the resistance. And you'll end with burpees — the cardio exercise we all have a love-hate relationship with.

Do:​ Each of the following exercises as a circuit and repeat five times total without breaks.

  • 1 minute on the air bike
  • 10 burpees

Move 1: Air Bike

  • Pedal as fast as you can for one minute, working to maintain an even pace rather than burning out at the beginning.

Move 2:​ ​Burpee

  1. From standing, reach down to place your hands on the floor in front of your feet.
  2. Jump back with both feet into a high plank.
  3. Jump your feet back toward your hands.
  4. Jump up, reaching toward the ceiling.
  5. Land with knees slightly bent and repeat.

Read more:How to Lose Belly Fat With These 7 Cardio Workouts




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