I wanted to write a blog on exercise order, so I literally Googled “order of exercise” to see what suggestions and websites might pop. Then I compared it to the scientific evidence to see if they matched up. They didn’t.
The first link sent me to the NSCA website which is a good reference and one that I hoped would be at the top of the list. When training all major muscle groups per workout their general consensus is large muscle groups first, and multi-joint exercises before single-joint. For power training: organize them most to least complex. If you’re using agonist-antagonist training (i.e., Arnold’s favorite chest/back workout) they suggest high intensities and reps. They also mention that it’s good to alternate in different muscle groups between sets for hypertrophy. Their guidelines for an upper/lower split are similar. Likewise are the recommendations for training individual muscles. Generally, higher intensity exercises they suggest that high intensity be done before lower-intensity exercises.
The second website was aworkoutroutine which did a decent job of explaining everything for a beginner. They advised that most people start with compound movements since they require more muscle. These movements also tend to be more demanding. Then they suggested moving on to smaller muscles and less demanding work. Whether that’s biceps & triceps after bench press, or leg extensions after squats. This is the foundation for what most bodybuilding programs are based on. The website also mentions to do bigger muscles first, and that you should alternate between two muscle groups if your workout involves multiple muscles. Most of these are in agreement with the basic NSCA guidelines. The next few websites from my search returned similar results. Not a bad start! Everything seemed to match up.
Now, let’s break it down to determine if these guidelines match the evidence.
One study was done to examine the effect of exercise order on back squat performance in the context of a whole-body workout. Nine college age males performed back squats (4 sets @ 85% of max). During one session the squat was performed first, but in another session it was performed after a whole-body weightlifting workout. All subjects performed significantly more reps during set 1 when they performed the squats first compared with those that did the whole-body workout first (duh). This makes sense from an energy standpoint since you generally have less fatigue at the beginning of your workout. However, the average power for each set was higher during the second method compared to the group that did the squats first. One explanation of this is a theory based on prior heavy loading which induces a high degree of central nervous system stimulation, resulting in greater motor unit recruitment and force, which is known as postactivation potentiation.
In a recent meta-analysis it was indicated that exercise order is an important variable that affects both acute responses and chronic adaptations to resistance training. It was found that exercise order affects the number of reps over multiple sets, indicating that when an exercise is done first more volume can be completed, regardless of which muscle is involved. We saw an example of this in the first study. This isn’t groundbreaking science nor does it unveil anything surprising. However, it does go against the current guidelines.
The next study looked at the the influence of exercise order on strength and muscle volume (MV) after 12 weeks of nonlinear periodized resistance training. There were three groups in the study. One group worked large muscles first, then small muscles (LG-SM), while another group started with small muscled and moved to larger muscles (SM-LG). The last group served as a control and did not exercise. The exercises were: bench press, lat pull-down, tricep extension and bicep curl. The LG-SM group performed the exercises in the previously listed order, while the SM-LG group performed them in the opposite order. They found that only bench press strength increased more in the LG-SM group compared to the others. Interestingly, in all other measures the SM-LG group showed greater strength increases. Tricep, but not bicep, size increased in the SM-LG group. Those results boil down to this: if you want to perform better in a certain exercise it should be at the beginning of your training session regardless of muscle size or complexity. Rearranging your workout could help improve those important lagging body parts.
There are also other techniques to manipulate training. Two of those methods are pre-exhaustion(PRE) and the priority system(PS). The priority system is what most people do, which is having complex exercises first. Contrarily, pre-exhaustion is done to exercise a muscle to the point of failure using a single-joint movement. Then a more complex exercise is done. An example would be doing dumbbell curls before barbell rows. One study compared upper-body muscle activation, total repetitions (TR), and total work (TW) during PRE and PS. This was done using a balanced crossover design and the exercises were performed at the load obtained in a 10 repetition maximum test. Therefore, chest press and peck-deck were performed with the same load during both protocols. The results showed that total work and total reps were not different between the pre-exhaust method and priority system. Moreover, there were no significant EMG changes during exercise. These findings suggest that performing pre-exhaustion exercise is no more effective in increasing the activation of the prefatigued muscles during the subsequent multi-joint exercise. Also, independent of the exercise order (PRE vs. PS), TW is similar when performing exercises for the same muscle group. Other findings suggest that performing pre-exhaustion exercise is no more effective in increasing the activation of the prefatigued muscles during the multi-joint exercise. The pre-exhaustion method might not be an effective way to increase neuromuscular recruitment for large muscle when preceded by a single-joint movement. Other studies have shown that exercise order does not appear to limit endurance, oxygen consumption or RPE. I digressed a bit in this paragraph, but I believe this study is a good comparison to show some other techniques in comparison to rearranging the order of your workouts.
The bottom line:
There are a lot of training variables, such as load, volume, rest interval, frequency, exercise modality, repetition velocity and, the focus of this post – exercise order. This is an important variable that should be thought about in any program. When prescribed appropriately with other key variables, exercise order can influence the efficiency and effectiveness of a program. It can also be used to perform better in one lift, or to enhance one specific muscle group. All you have to do is move it to the beginning of your workout. Although, if you don’t have a goal such as a better squat, or to bring up a lagging body part then there’s no need to worry about which order you do your workouts. In this case I would suggest sticking with the guidelines in the first two paragraphs.
These are just a few studies to show you how to improve your workouts. Obviously, there are a ton more that I didn’t have time to write about. I encourage you to dig deeper into the literature to see what else you could manipulate to help improve your training.
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22292516 – Simao 2012 (review)
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20938358 – Spineti 2010
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18569546 – Lloyd 2008
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20508461 – Miranda 2010
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16503673 – Spreuwenberg 2006
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18076251 – Gentil 2007