Fitness centers have so much equipment that it can be daunting to decide where—or how—to begin. If all those barbells and kettlebells leave you feeling more like a dumbbell, don’t worry! Robert Gillanders, a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association and a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist, answers three common questions about what works for a workout.
Which Comes First: Cardio or Weights?
“Muscles are better able to tolerate a workload after they’ve had blood pumping through them, which is the point of cardiovascular exercise,” says Gillanders. Doing cardio also helps increase flexibility in joints, priming them for the larger range of motion involved when working with weights.
But don’t overwhelm your body with high-intensity cardio and a hard-core weights session on the same day. “Stacking two hard workouts back to back isn’t the way to go,” Gillanders cautions. Instead, modify one component to be less extreme.
Which Cardio Machine: Treadmill or Elliptical?
If your sole concern is burning calories, the elliptical machine adds an upper-body push-pull resistance that requires more work, Gillanders says. And people with or recovering from knee problems will benefit from how the elliptical eliminates the shocks and stresses that occur each time their feet hit a treadmill.
Gillanders recommends that runners head outside as much as possible, where their energy is used for propelling their bodies forward instead of hovering atop a moving surface. “You’re activating your muscles versus ‘flying,’ ” he says.
Should I Use Free Weights or Machines?
Free weights and machines each have distinct benefits, says Gillanders: “I’m a fan of both, usually one as a lead-up to the other.”
He often suggests that new clients begin on machines, which limit and control movements. Most novice exercisers don’t know what to look for when lifting weights, “but once they do, it’s not rocket science,” he says. “It’s about knowing your form.” At that point, barbells and dumbbells offer a freedom that challenges exercisers to not just perform movements but also control them.