Inhibiting Strength, Power, & Hypertrophy with Pre/Post Workout Cardio

by on July 1, 2014

Cardiovascular training (“cardio”) has countless benefits for the human body, but many times have you seen people get to the gym, hop on a cardio machine, gas themselves, and then do resistance training right after? Or what about when someone finishes an intense lifting session, then does an intense cardio session?

Is it optimal to perform cardio pre- and post-workout? Which cardio modality (type of cardio) is the best to perform to avoid interfering with strength, power, and hypertrophy gains? First, it’s vital to take goals, activity level, overall health, and training experience into consideration before starting. So please read this with an open mind—there isn’t a black-and-white answer or an all-or-nothing approach.

Interference on Strength, Power, & Hypertrophy?

The interference of strength, power, and hypertrophy gains (muscle growth) when doing cardio pre- or post-workout isn’t a new topic of discussion, what is the correct cardio modality to do pre- and post-workout or should we even be doing it at all?

Fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld says, “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.”

Cardio Modalities

There are numerous cardio modalities. Examples of high ground-reaction force forms (those with higher impact) include:

  • Conventional sprints
  • Up-hill sprints
  • Resisted sprints
  • Car pushes
  • Prowler pushes
  • Sled pulls

Examples of cardio modalities that minimize ground-reaction forces are:

  • Cycling bikes
  • Treadmills
  • Elliptical
  • Various machine-based equipment

These are all great choices whether you use them in the form of high-intensity intervals or low-intensity, but which modality is more optimal to prevent the interference effect and when should you do them?

Evidence behind this Interference Effect

Layne Norton, PhD, and Jacob Wilson, PhD, 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 cause more muscle damage as opposed to a modality with less impact such as cycling. 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.

Norton and Wilson make a valid point 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 or a rowing machine to avoid an interference effect and possibly get injured.

After resistance training, mTOR (cell growth) is ramped up and protein synthesis (making of new proteins) is stimulated. Cardio after resistance training results in elevated AMP kinase (signaling cascade for ATP production) delaying protein synthesis. In easier terms, cardio after weights interferes with the muscle growth phase.

Pre-workout cardio tends to be a little trickier than post-workout cardio because it depends on factors such as muscle groups trained that day, intensity of cardio, modality used, and nutritional status—being in a calorie surplus or deficit…trying to lose weight or working for performance only.

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. 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 causes muscle fatigue in the quads, hams, and glutes, so this will definitely affect your workout.

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. This is not something you want if you’re trying to increase your deadlift or squat max.

The data is clear that performing moderate-high intensity cardio pre-workout will reduce strength and power within that immediate bout of 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, however, we encourage doing resistance training and cardio on separate days if maximum strength and muscle gain is your goal.

What if you could burn more calories, increase muscle, and acutely increase your metabolic rate with cardio? This is where high-intensity interval cardio comes into play. When you think of high-intensity, high stress should be taken into consideration. The stress of high-intensity cardio has to be recovered from, just like the stress from weight training. If you are still recovering from a high-intensity cardio session to the point that it affects your ability to lift weights, it can be detrimental to your gains. If there is a significant eccentric component (sprinting and running), or high level of impact, high-intensity cardio can reduce the effectiveness in your overall training and potentially lead to chronic overuse injuries.

Here are some ways to avoid the interference effect:

  1. Schedule your cardio around your resistance training, especially high-intensity cardio.
  2. If your number one priority is resistance training, then perform cardio modalities that minimize ground-reaction forces.
  3. 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-dominant form of cardio and vice versa.
  4. 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 keep the intensity to low-moderate.

Our Top 3 HIIT Exercises and Protocols to try

Car pushes

Yes! You heard us…Car pushes! If you have never tried car pushes then you are missing out on one of the best HIIT cardio workouts around. This is one of the best ways to improve cardio conditioning, leg drive and power, some upper body pressing power and build a great physique. Car pushing is very underrated for strength training and power in our opinion. The cool thing about car pushing is that there are literally hundreds of yards of empty space around somewhere near you, so all you have to do is put it in neutral, drop your head down, arms straight, get low and push with all you’ve got for 10-30 seconds. Now depending on if you’re a newbie or advanced trainee, choose the car you push wisely. If you weigh 100 pounds you probably don’t want to push a Hummer. If you’re 200 plus, you probably don’t want to push a slug bug. You get the point!
The Protocol – 10 minute brisk walk or slow paced jog for warm up, 4 intervals of 10-30 second all out pushes and 3-4 minute brisk walk in between intervals, then 10 minute brisk walk to cool down.

Sled Drags

We’re sure some of you are saying what the hell are sled drags? Sled drags are very effective for the athlete, power lifter, or down-right bad ass that wants to get in tip top shape. Dragging a weighted sled by using a harness tied to your waist allows you to activate the core to work harder as well as your glutes and hams. The harness also forces you to keep a straight, stiff spine throughout the exercise, regardless of how tired you get. The great thing about sled dragging is it can have a carryover effect to many things, such as: Football, athletes learning how to explode when moving. Powerlifting, sled dragging strengthens your posterior chain and that can help with deadlifting. Track and field, overloading your waist and sprinting with weights can lead to more explosive movements when you train without them. If you aren’t sled dragging, then you are missing out on superior strength gains and conditioning. If you decide to sled drag, a good rule of thumb is “you’ve got too much weight when you’re walking like you’re drunk.”-Louie Simmons
The Protocol – 10 minute brisk walk or slow paced jog for warm up, 5 intervals of 10-30 seconds all out sled dragging and 2-3 minute brisk walk in between intervals, then 10 minutes brisk walk to cool down.

Heavy Rope Training

Heavy rope training was originally developed for specific combat sports such as football and Mixed Martial Arts; it is now becoming very popular for conditioning work and HIIT cardio. If you’re looking for a new twist to your fitness routine or if you’re one of those that complain about other HIIT cardio workouts being too demanding on your legs the day after a leg session, then this is what you’re looking for. Along with increasing your strength, power, and endurance, the constant motion of rope battling will give you a hell of a workout. Some common movements include waves, slams, throws, spirals, and whips. All involve swinging your arms up and down (or side to side) for timed intervals. With each of these exercises, you want to create a solid base by planting your feet in a shoulder width stance and stabilizing your core, think of an athletic stance. You’ll quickly discover that these exercises engage not just your arms and shoulders, but your whole body.
The Protocol – 5 minute moderate jump rope for warm up, 3-5 sets of 10-30 second intervals (waves, slams, throws, spirals, whips) and 45-60 seconds of rest in between intervals, then 5 minutes of moderate jump rope to cool down.

Wrapping All This Up

We believe that the research is clear when it comes to the potential for cardio to negatively impact maximum muscle size, strength, and power. Clearly there is no black and white answer, but at least we have a great indication of what is happening at the tissue level. Like anything else, there is a tradeoff. Genetics always play a vital role in how someone responds to training. Other factors such as nutrition, stress, sleep, and occupational activity must be taken into account. The best thing to do is choose the correct cardio modality that suits your training and goals. Do the type of cardio that you have a personal preference for. Whichever one fires you up the most because you’ll most likely work harder at it. Always train hard but, most importantly, train smart, listen to what your body and CNS is telling you, and do not let the interference effect impact your overall results.

About The Authors:

Chris and Eric Martinez, CISSN, CSCS, CPT, BA, also known as the “Dynamic Duo” operate a world class online training and nutrition consulting business “Dynamic Duo Training.” They’re also fitness and nutrition writers, Diet Doc permanent weight loss coaches, and exclusive Team K Peaking Directors that love helping people reach their goals. Their philosophy is “No excuses, only solutions.”

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