I’ve always wondered what sports science has to say about doing cardio after leg day.
Leg day meaning a weight training day that includes doing lots of sets of exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc.
Are cardio workouts a good idea or not?
I decided to do the research, and in this article I share what I found out about cardio’s potential impact on strength & muscle growth, as well as cardio’s potential benefit for reducing muscle soreness in our legs.
Is it OK to do cardio after leg day?
Cardio after leg workouts has benefits.
A sports performance study demonstrated that performing moderate-intensity cardio in the form of indoor cycling significantly reduced the effects of DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness.
The cycling was done right after the leg day weightlifting workout was finished.
That’s good news we can certainly put to use, but keep in mind that that study was under specific circumstances.
And there are a number of variables at work that can affect whether cardio after leg day will be beneficial for someone or not, as far as workout goals are concerned.
So a bit later we’ll look at a few of those scenarios and also check out how a few strength & conditioning coaches treat cardio in their training programs too.
Next up let’s talk about DOMS and the muscle soreness we’ll probably have in our upper legs, thanks to all the work we just did on leg day.
Table of Contents
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Leg Day Soreness – DOMS after leg day
It’s no secret that weight training is great for improving our body’s appearance & gaining strength, but it can also cause sore muscles.
And one of the most common places to experience muscle soreness is in your legs, since a good workout focused on squats could leave you hurting a little bit the next day.
As mentioned before this type of delayed muscle soreness is called by its acronym DOMS.
How DOMS works
DOMS is a condition that can show up in your muscles a day or two after you were weight training that muscle group.
It typically lasts anywhere from twenty four to forty eight hours from when it first makes its presence felt, since it’ll take a little time for those affected muscle fibers to repair themselves.
DOMS occurs when tiny tears happen in your muscles as they are being stretched, which causes inflammation around those areas of damage…hence the muscle soreness.
The good news about experiencing DOMS is that it’s a sign that those sore muscles are being worked out and with time will become stronger.
Can cardio help sore muscles vs. DOMS?
More good news to pass along is that doing some cardio after leg day can help to reduce that delayed muscle soreness you’ll likely be experiencing in your hamstrings & quadriceps muscles.
Cardio exercise increases the flow of blood in your muscles and helps with soreness by reducing inflammation around those muscle fibers that were damaged during weightlifting.
So after your leg day workouts, give some light to moderate cardio exercise a try:
- attend a low-impact cardio class like cycling;
- walk briskly or jog outdoors or on a treadmill;
- ride your bike around the neighborhood;
- hop on an elliptical machine for 20 minutes.
All of these cardio-based activities use your legs, and will help offset a decent amount of that muscle soreness your leg day caused.
Cardio on leg day, afterwards
Recapping the sports study I mentioned earlier:
- the cardio was done on the same day as leg day;
- it was moderate in intensity & 20 minutes long;
- it was done after the weightlifting;
- Delayed Onset – Muscle Soreness pain severity was significantly reduced. (1A)
Key point: the timing of cardio
There are two main benefits of doing cardio after leg day, not before:
Less sore muscles: the pedaling stimulates blood flow to the damaged/stressed leg muscles, speeding up recovery & lessening the delayed muscle soreness (1)
Leg training goals not affected: the leg workout wasn’t impaired like it would’ve been had cardio been done prior to weightlifting.**
** – Some sports science research has shown that cardio workouts before weightlifting reduces the strength, power, velocity, & repetition ability of the person weightlifting. (2)
Over time that seems like it could slow down muscle mass gains, although I couldn’t find anyone in strength & conditioning research who had tested that idea.
What about doing cardio the day after a leg day?
Sore legs caused by a hard workout — which for most people occur in the 24-48 hours after leg day — can benefit from a little activity.
Light/moderate cardio exercise on a stationary bike (or whatever) is a good idea, since blood flow into the muscle fibers helps stimulate the healing process.
It can stimulate blood flow to your legs, burn a few calories, and won’t interfere with your weight training goals regardless of whether it’s on leg day or the day after it, or whenever.
Cardio exercise on off days can work fine too
And programming cardio on an off day (if you’re sure you need it) makes sense, as long as it’s there to complement your weightlifting program, not compete with it energy-wise & muscle strength-wise.
(This only applies if building muscle & gaining strength are more important training goals than whatever you’re going for with your cardio program.)
The Concurrent Training Effect: Does Cardio Kill Gains?
Does a lot of cardio hurt muscle & strength gains?
Concurrent training is the term used when a person has both fairly intense cardio & strength training programs going on at the same time in their overall workout routine.
Many strength & conditioning researchers are focused on what they call the concurrent training effect, which is the influence that endurance training (heavy cardio) has on resistance training (weightlifting), and vice versa. (4)
And though there isn’t a real cut & dry explanation as to why, it appears that the more time per week someone who is lifting weights spends time on doing cardio workouts, the more they may be likely to lose some of their hard-earned gains. (5)
Leg workouts affected by intense cardio
The exception to this is if the cardio you intend on doing before your leg training is anything more than a light warmup.
This is because intense cardio beforehand could pre-exhaust your leg muscles, making your leg day workout less effective as far as building muscle mass goes.
Don’t do too much cardio per week if you’re weight training
If you have weight training goals &/or muscle-building goals, you may want to be careful of going hog-wild with your weekly cardio sessions.
Research evidence exists that shows how concurrent endurance training (i.e., frequent heavy cardio done while you’re also on a muscle & strength-building program) reduces “gains in muscle mass, strength, and power”. (3)
You can see that in the table below, taken from the study Concurrent training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises.
Negative concurrent training effects aren’t the same for everyone, though
Another large meta-analysis on concurrent training effects found that weightlifting muscle development was impaired slightly, but only affected well-trained people to any degree.
I say slightly because this 2021 analysis found that these advanced strength trainers only had negative effects when they did cardio in the same workout as their lifting.
But they had no strength loss when they did their cardio on off days from the weights.
This research that combed through 25+ sports studies found that the participants who don’t strength train at all didn’t suffer any strength loss from doing cardio.
And that those people who do lift but aren’t real muscular had almost negligible effects from doing regular cardio workouts.
You can read an “almost in plain English” breakdown of this sports science work (for free) over at Examine.com.
The flip side is true for runners who lift
It has also been observed that weightlifting has a negative effect on running economy, which measures how efficient & productive a runner’s use of their energy is. (6)
Sports studies have shown that a runner’s performance is impaired for up to six hours following a resistance/strength training workout.
And if the runner is training both weightlifting & running on the same day, then their performance will be poorer than normal the following day too.
Is it better to do cardio before or after a leg workout?
Sports performance studies have shown that cardio after a leg workout can be helpful, since it can be used to help with the recovery of sore muscles.
But it has been shown that doing cardio before weight training on the same day can interfere with your muscle-building goals.
Studies demonstrated that cardio beforehand reduced the strength of the lifters thus stunting muscle growth, and that it fatigued them so their workouts were shorter than normal. (10)
What to do after leg day?
People also ask advanced lifters “What do you do after leg day?”
It depends, which isn’t the one-size-fits-all answer some people hope for, but it’s true.
Asking a few experienced weightlifters these questions will get you a few different answers.
Like I said, it depends.
So you’re likely to hear that after leg day:
- one person takes a rest day
- another does cardio
- someone else works out their other muscle groups
- another does abs & core
There are several factors that are unique to everyone’s individual workout plans that dictate what ought to be done after leg day:
- Days per week in the workout schedule
- Strength training program volume & intensity specifics
- Other athletic activities outside the gym?
- Quality of recovery, sleep, nutrition
How To Reduce DOMS Soreness
Earlier I mentioned how delayed onset – muscle soreness is a common problem following leg day.
Well, I found some things that can help ease the discomfort of sore muscles, besides doing some cardio to get the blood flowing into those areas.
The head of the International Fitness Professionals Association recommends that, in addition to moderate cardio, the following remedies could be used to help reduce DOMS: (7)
- spot-on nutrition
- lots of water
- adequate sleep/rest
- massage or a foam roller
- keep workouts under 90 minutes to avoid a cortisol spike
More on foam massages
Foam rolling has been proven to reduce the various negative effects of sore muscles caused by the previous day’s weightlifting. (8)
The protocol was 20 minutes of foam rolling every 24 hrs. following resistance training.
Here are a couple of other benefits foam rolling provides that have been found in sports science studies:
- it can increase the range of motion of certain muscles
- it can improve muscle performance both pre- & post-exercise (9)
Last update on 2022-10-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Are you familiar with weightlifting training splits?
There are a lot of ways to program weight training, because there are different goals & experience levels amongst lifters.
A training split divides up your lifting schedule over the course of a week so your muscles can recover properly.
This includes your legs of course.
So you can put your leg workout wherever it best suits your schedule, your training program & goals, & your body’s ability to recover.
I wrote an article covering the most common weight training workout splits used by strength coaches, bodybuilders, & weight lifters of all levels.
You can read it here on heydayDo.
What to do after leg day: strength & conditioning coaches opinion
Here’s what a few strength & conditioning coaches do after leg day in some of their weightlifting programs they recommend to their clients.
I’ve participated in a couple of Jeff’s training programs.
And regardless of the changing volume & intensity over the courses’ several weeks, leg day was mostly followed by a rest day.
And typical cardio was not programmed, until a little was added in the final weeks.
(Note that the programs I was in were focused on muscle building, not his courses on athletic performance training.)
The well-published though anonymous “Jay” has two different lifting programs he freely provides his 200,000+ subscribers.
One is a M-W-F (or a similar 3 days/week) beginners’ routine that features two workouts that alternate, A & B.
So week 1 would be ABA, week 2 BAB, and so on.
The other program is an Upper/Lower 4-day split, working each half twice per week, with rest days in between according to your “life” schedule.
In both the 3-day & 4-day splits, no cardio is programmed or even mentioned.
So any day after a leg day is a day off.
- In the 5-day program, leg day finishes with cardio.
- In the 4-day program, leg day has cardio the day after.
- In the 3-day program, leg day is followed by 2 days of rest.
So as you can see, he uses three different approaches for programming cardio & leg day.
My “after legs” plan
It’s only worth a penny or two, but I’ll share with you what I’ve done over the past 40 years while deploying a handful of different training programs along the way.
I almost always took a rest day from heavy lifting after legs day.
It didn’t matter if I was on a 4-day workout split (M, T, Th, Fr), a 3-day full body, a 5-day Bro Split, or whatever other type of training schedule I was on.
The off days usually would include light cardio to get my legs moving for 15 minutes or so just to get the blood flowing in them, since they were always sore as heck.
Sometimes I’d do abs on those days too. I only did/do light cardio, because heavy cardio training can sometimes interfere with muscle building success. (15)
I learned to keep any intense aerobic workouts away from my lifting schedule because it affected my strength & fatigue level. But I might be an outlier situation since I’ve had to deal with a cardiology issue since birth.
Here are answers to a couple of the commonly asked questions regarding concurrently doing cardio & strength training programs.
Is it bad to do cardio on rest days?
A rest day in between your weightlifting workout days is a great time to fit in a cardio workout, as long as it doesn't deplete your energy for tomorrow's strength session.
What exercise should I do on rest days?
Rest days provide you with quality time to work your abs & core muscles, do yoga or dynamic stretching routines, do some structured cardio, or get outside and play an athletic sport you enjoy.
I enjoyed digging up the facts for this topic — especially the info on reducing DOMS after big leg days.
Since I found out about that study I mentioned earlier (where moderate cardio right after your leg workout helps reduce soreness), I’ve been doing that too.
I hope that my article on leg day & cardio programming is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.
Last update on 2022-10-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API