People tend to focus on a lot of silly details when it comes to designing exercise programs. Many of them don’t matter.
But some do!
One of the details that may actually matter is exercise order. A review article recently published in the journal Sports Medicine summarized the current research on this topic. 1 Most of the findings are intuitive, lining up well with conventional gym-wisdom. However, there were a few findings that go against popular belief.
Let’s quickly summarize:
The review looked at both “acute” and “chronic” responses to exercise. Basically, acute responses refer to effects within a workout (how many repetitions you can do, oxygen use, etc.), and chronic responses refer to adaptations over time (strength and muscle gains).
Effects During Workout (Acute Responses)
Generally, you will achieve more repetitions in exercises placed closer to the beginning of a workout. No surprises there. What’s interesting is that it’s true regardless of the relative amount of muscle mass involved – keep this in mind for the conclusion later.
Interestingly, the popular “pre-exhaustion” method may not be useful for increasing neuromuscular recruitment. This method involves exercising a muscle directly with an isolation exercise (for chest, the example given was “pec-deck fly”) before a multi-joint exercise (like bench press) to ensure the muscle is adequately activated during the latter. Apparently, not so useful.
Finally, it appears exercise order doesn’t have much of an effect on localized muscular endurance, oxygen consumption and ratings of perceived exertion (how hard someone thinks they are working). However, the research is limited so far.
Long Term Effects (Chronic Responses)
Typically, one will achieve greater strength and muscular size gains in exercises placed near the beginning of a program, while exercises near the end show inhibited strength gains. Again, this is true regardless of the amount of muscle mass involved in the particular exercise. Once again, this makes good sense – no surprises here.
Train the movement or exercise that is most important to you first (perhaps after a warm-up – depending on what you’re doing).
There’s an idea in the fitness community that you should always do exercises involving more muscle mass near the beginning of a workout, and that it’s “okay” to place smaller muscle groups later. Another popular idea is “switching it up”, changing the exercises and their order often to “confuse” your muscles.
However, if your goal is to improve a particular movement or group of muscles, then one should prioritize – place it near the beginning of the workout! Pretty simple.
Don’t just deadlift, squat, or bench press first because you’re “supposed to”. Do it because those are the movements you want to improve the most – if they are.
Hope that was helpful!
What do you think? How important is exercise order to you when planning your training?
Simão R, de Salles BF, Figueiredo T, Dias I, & Willardson JM (2012). Exercise order in resistance training. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 42 (3), 251-65 PMID: 22292516