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Cardio before weightlifting may help boost muscle

Riding or running before you lift weights could amplify the effects of the lifting, according to a helpful new study of the molecular effects of combining endurance and resistance exercise in a single workout. The study, which involved eight physically active men, found that 20 minutes of intense cycling right before an upper-body weight routine alters the inner workings of muscles, priming them to change and grow more than with lifting alone.

The new paper, published in Scientific Reports, offers practical guidance about how you might structure a gym workout for maximal benefit. It is also a bracing reminder of how potent and wide-ranging the effects of exercise may be.

A new study reveals riding or running before weights intensifies the expected benefits from resistance training.Credit:iStock

For decades, trainers and scientists have debated whether and how to mix cardio and resistance exercise. Some small studies suggest combining the two might up the likely gains from each, especially the resistance training. (Almost all of these experiments have been conducted in men.) But other research indicates sweaty aerobic workouts beforehand could reduce strength improvements from lifting.

The authors of some of these studies speculate that molecular changes within muscles, caused by riding or running, wind up hindering some of the other desirable outcomes from lifting, an effect called exercise interference. Muscle fatigue might also play a role since, in most studies that pair cardio and resistance, volunteers exercise only their lower bodies, using their legs both for the endurance and strength training. Tired from the endurance work, the thinking goes, their leg muscles could have become unable to respond ideally to resistance training.

But what if the two types of exercise targeted completely separate groups of muscles, such as legs during the cycling and arms during the weight routine? That was the scenario posed by Marcus Moberg, a professor at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm, who studies muscle health, exercise and metabolism. In that case, would the lower-body endurance exercise augment the benefits of the upper-body weight training? Or would exerting your legs and lungs have zero — or even an unwelcome, counterproductive — effect on the muscles in your arms?

To learn more, he and his collaborators recruited eight active adult men in Stockholm and invited them to the lab for measures of their current aerobic fitness and strength. Then, after the men had familiarised themselves with the lab’s workout equipment, the researchers asked them, on a separate visit, to complete a two-part workout.

The men began with intense interval cycling. During this endurance exercise, the men pedalled hard for four minutes, rested for three and repeated that sequence five times. After a few minutes of rest, they next moved on to upper-body weight machines that strenuously worked their arm and shoulder muscles.

During a different lab visit, the men completed the same weight routine, but with no cycling first.

The researchers drew blood and took tiny tissue samples from the men’s triceps muscles before, immediately after, 90 minutes later and then three hours after each workout. (The primary reason women were not included in the study, Moberg said, was that women’s less-developed triceps muscles make such repeated biopsies difficult and possibly injurious.)

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