6 “This-or-That” Fitness Questions Answered

“I’m going to work out.” That seems like a simple enough statement. Throw your sneakers on, head out to your favorite running trail or your local gym and break a sweat. Just moving your body is a win. In that way, exercising really can be that straightforward. Of course, if you want to make sure that you’re approaching fitness in a way that gives you the most benefit, you may come to some common crossroads that leave you stumped as to what choices are the best to make.

If you’re new to exercising, or even if you’re a vet, let us help guide you through some common “this or that” scenarios you—like many of the guests we work with—may encounter, so you can quickly (and confidently) make wise workout decisions.

Cardio or strength-training first?

It actually doesn’t matter much. You will build muscle and burn calories from both types of workouts regardless of the order in which you do them. That said, if you find one type of exercise especially tiring—for a lot of people, that’s cardio (endurance) training—and it leaves you too fatigued to continue with the rest of your routine, try the less-taxing part of your workout first so you still have something left in the tank when you continue.

Similarly, if, say, you’re less motivated to strength train but don’t mind getting on the stationary bike with your favorite tunes, consider getting your free weight session out of the way first so you have something to look forward to.

Upper- or lower-body strength training?

There’s no need to choose between legs-and-rear and arms-and-back on a single strength day; you can incorporate all muscle groups into your routine without risking injury, as long as you don’t overdo the amount of weight/resistance or the number of sets and reps. In fact, total-body workouts are a great use of limited time (check out this 20-minute total-body strength workout), since you’ll get in the maximum amount of muscle-building.

Just be sure to take time—about one to two days—between workouts to allow your muscles to recover. If you do prefer to focus on one area of the body, however, remember to switch the next time you strength train and consider a variety of challenging exercises like these mix-and-match upper-body and lower-body moves.

Water or sports drink? 

Water is always first choice when it comes to staying hydrated and although you may be gulping it down before and after exercise, it’s important to be mindful of how much you’re drinking during your workout too.

If you’re exercising for less than an hour, three to eight ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes should suffice; but if you tend to sweat a lot or the workout warrants it, drink more. If you do feel like you need more than H2O (especially during sessions lasting two hours or longer), consider fruit, nuts or whole-food grain-based energy bars.

Fitness machines or body weight training?

Not to answer a question with a question, but which challenges you more? If, for instance, doing push-ups and pull-ups is plenty tough, then using your body weight alone could be more than enough to build strength. Though it may seem fancier than a just-your-body move, the gym’s lat pull-down machine set on a too-light level isn’t going to do much to help you get stronger.

Some beginners find bodyweight-only exercises like squats, planks and others preferable simply because there’s no need for equipment and you can do them anywhere. Machines, however, allow you to test your muscles with more weight than your body can provide (when you’re ready for that) and may help you learn good form right from the start—very important if you’re a newbie and are not working with a trainer who can teach you how to do each move properly.

But the truth is that both weight machines and bodyweight exercises (not to mention tools like free weights and resistance bands; all are different ways to strength-train) can be adjusted and modified to suit any fitness level to provide a challenging workout.

Stretch before or after my workout?

There’s no clear bottom line on this one, but the evidence points to static stretching—in which you hold a stretch for a short period of time, such as folding forward to stretch your hamstrings (the backs of the legs)—as more effective and safer after you’ve exercised, when your muscles are warmed up.

On the other hand, dynamic stretching—in which you actively simulate what your body will do during your workout (leg swings and butt kicks are good examples)—is a good way to prepare your muscles and joints for the exercise to come. Do what feels good to you; try a little of each before and after your workout and see how your body responds.

Eat before or after my workout?

There’s an expression: “food is fuel.” That link is probably most obvious when you’re exercising regularly. If you’re working out for less than an hour and a half and you’re eating every few hours, your body is likely to have what it needs.

But if you’re exercising first thing in the morning (when your blood sugar levels are low) or your stomach is rumbling, have something small—half a banana, a handful of dry nuts—10 to 15 minutes before you get moving. For 90-minute-plus sessions, eat something more substantial three to four hours before you train: Try oatmeal with milk or a turkey sandwich with fruit, for example. You may also need to eat a carb-rich snack during lengthier exercise, like a whole-food grain-based energy bar. When you’re done, replenish the glycogen stores you depleted.

Choose snacks containing a mix of carbs and protein like a peanut butter sandwich or yogurt, which will help repair muscle tissue. And don’t forget to replenish lost fluids by drinking water.

More: Nutrition for Your Best Workout

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