As a personal trainer, I often get asked questions regarding all aspects of fitness. Should I do cardio or lift weights first? How long should I do cardio for? Should I increase the weight or do more reps? Often these questions are asked without any background information and the person asking expects me to have one concrete, end-all, be all answer that they will follow for the rest of their lives.
The fitness industry is constantly changing as new trends, fads, and crazes emerge, ebb, and flow. I feel guilty constantly giving the answer, “It depends,” but it’s the most honest and truthful thing I can say. I’ve put together some of my favorite “it depends” questions I get from beginners at the gym and tried to answer them a little more thoroughly after doing some more reading and research regarding what the industry is saying today.
How Much Cardio?
My answer to this question depends on what the person asking does outside of the gym. Are they sitting at home on the couch or behind a desk for most of the day? Are they chasing after a wild three-year-old or doing housework all week?
For people just beginning to get active, start with 5 or 10 minutes of walking on a treadmill or track or pedaling a bike. Starting slow is key; waking up the day after hitting the gym for the first time and not being able to get out of bed or comfortably stand up or sit down is less than ideal.
The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines states that individuals should aim for, “at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity to minimize weight gain or to prevent increases in BMI.”
Physical activity doesn’t mean you have to be chained to the “dreadmill” either. Definitely count the minutes you spent raking leaves or shoveling snow; if vacuuming the living room gets your heart rate up, include that, too!
Cardio or Weights First?
What’s your ultimate goal? Are you trying to improve your 5k time or are you looking to increase strength? Whichever is more important to you is what you should commit most of your energy to. If you’re doing cardio first but strength is your main goal, your muscles will be fatigued before their most strenuous activity.
If you are brand new to the gym and fitness life, do whichever one you DON’T like first. That way, you’ll be sure to get it done and you won’t be tempted to skip it later!
Bonus answer: if weight loss is your goal, head to the weight room before hitting the cardio equipment!
More Weight or More Reps?
Before I answer this question, your main focus should be your form. If your exercise form isn’t spot on, you really shouldn’t be adding any weight to it or repetitively training a poor movement pattern.
Once your form is on point, add some repetitions. If you can comfortably bang out some more reps without any pain, discomfort, or too much strain think about gradually increasing the weight you’re using. Increasing too much too fast or chasing a number you think you should be attaining (either weight or rep wise) is a recipe for future injuries.
Listen to your body; depending on different variables—you amount of sleep, what you’ve been eating, stress levels—your numbers may change each session. If you’re not feeling 100%, you may not be able to lift as heavy or as much.
The path to progress isn’t always a straight line, there are ups, downs, and everything in between. As long as you’re making the effort to show up, it’ll happen over time.
Should I Diet?
This question is one that is most sustainable to your daily life. If you like eating pasta and bread and hate avocados, for example, the keto diet probably wouldn’t work for you even though your best friend lost 20 pounds following it.
I wrote in a previous article on nutrition, “Find foods that you like to eat and that sustain you and make you feel good. To get lasting results, find a way to eat that you can maintain long term. Cutting entire food groups out completely and then adding them back in often lead to drastic weight fluctuations.
Not to mention feeling unhappy and deprived—it’s not easy going out to eat with friends and watching them eat everything that you’re now “not allowed.” If you know you’re going out with friends later or can’t give up having a naughty midnight snack, plan ahead for it; find a way to fit it into your new healthy way of life.”
You Can Find Your Answer
While the answer to a lot of the questions I get at the gym is “It depends,” your fitness goals and current lifestyle can sometimes help get you to a more concrete answer.
Decide what your goals are and stick with them, switching what you want to accomplish each week will only lead to frustration and disappointment. Be consistent, be honest with yourself, and set small attainable goals that will get you to your ultimate objective.