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Does exercise order matter? Reviewing the research

what should you do first? last?

what should you do first? last?

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.

Conclusion

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?

Peace!


References

ResearchBlogging.orgSimão 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

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    18 Responses to Does exercise order matter? Reviewing the research

    1. darius says:

      Probably makes more sense to include discussion on what exactly a “warmup” is supposed to accomplish, and how the cns and ans work, and many times obstruct us.

    2. James Steele says:

      If you haven’t already spotted it you may be interested also to read the following critique of the Sports Medicine piece.

      http://www.medicinasportiva.pl/new/pliki/ms_2013_01_08_Carpinelli.pdf

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thanks James –
        hmmmm I typically don’t read much of Carpinelli anymore. Strikes me as a bit of a contrarian! But he often has good points. I’ll read this and let it sink in and process. Always good to be aware of all perspectives.
        Cheers!
        Tony

    3. Gary Peters says:

      Interesting a study by Simao et al (2013) in a related study showed (in upper body exercise at least), that performing large muscle group compound exercise first promoted leads to a significantly greater growth hormone response.

      The abstract concludes “This may have been due to the significantly greater exercise volume accomplished. In summary, the findings of this investigation support the common prescriptive recommendation to perform larger-muscle group exercises first during a resistance-exercise session”.

      I haven’t read full paper yet, but food for thought.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Interesting, looks like they changed their tone a bit. I’d have to read the full paper before saying too much.

        However, we must keep in mind that growth hormone is a surrogate outcome – what I presume people want to know is whether they will literally grow and get stronger. Surrogate outcomes can be misleading (perhaps growth hormone increase but at a cost that leads to no overall benefit).

        I really thought the whole “more growth hormone from working large muscle groups” thing was shown to be irrelevant anyway: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19736298, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19910330. So I feel this is a moot point.

        Still, I’ll read that paper as well and weigh the total evidence.

    4. Tony Ingram says:

      I just have to say – I’m quite happy that such intelligent people read this blog – making the comments section extremely informative!

      I am noticing many people are coming from the weight training world. I’d like to ask – when it comes to training in general (for example, myself practicing as a dancer), do you not think I should practice my most important / difficult movement first, especially if that’s my goal / priority?

      Perhaps I should differentiate between skill training and physical training – but how different are they really? A large part of getting stronger involves motor control / learning effects too. And what’s the point of physical training in an athlete if not to support sport specific skills?

      Hope this fosters good discussion.

      • Scot says:

        Tony, I would say the difference between skill training and physical training depends a lot on the sport. As Rob Panariello has said nothing we do in the gym is really sport specific. We are just looking to develop specific biomotor abilities. The most sport specific thing you can do is play your sport.

        So – yes strength has a motor control aspect that is developed through specific skill training. The gym to me is the place to cause peripheral and central adaptations that reflect the demands of the sport.

        I can’t really think of a reason not to prioritize based on your goals within session or over a period of time.

        • Tony Ingram says:

          “The most sport specific thing you can do is play your sport.” Agree 100%. And, as you said, gym training (for athletes at least) is meant to build capacity (or biomotor abilities, or whatever you want to call it) for the sport.

          For my dancing, I spend a lot of time balancing my bodyweight over my hands, and shoulder strength is often the limiting factor for many movements. As you said, I can’t think of a good reason not to prioritize shoulder strength, regardless of the putative benefits of prioritizing squats and deadlifts (just using this as an example).

    5. Eric says:

      Whether it’s for the reason alluded in Tony’s last comment (working on higher-end skills when fresher) or because of actual energy/attention one can allocate to lagging body parts in the earlier portion of a session, it makes perfect sense to prioritize according to one’s specific goals (rather than to think in broad general sweeping assumptions). I sincerely fail to see why this is would be such a controversial topic… Gymnasts do it with stretching and high-skill work, Olympic lifters with lagging portions of their respective movements and ones requiring more skills, triple/high jumpers and sprinters all the same, baseball and basketball players too. Why not “bodybuilders” then? As with any training variable, this is an important one to consider and, depending on one’s goal and progress, one that should also not remain fixed.

    6. Jason Silvernail DPT, DSc says:

      Ex Sci research is a bit like physical medicine and behavioral health research. Small Ns, limited effect sizes, huge variation between individuals in terms of response, and overall fairly difficult to make strong claims about much of anything. So often we end up arguing over small size effects and what is/isn’t clinically or statistically signficant. I think its important to acknowledge that this kind of uncertainty isn’t unique to physical medicine – that ex sci and behavioral health deal with conditions and interventions that are just difficult to study in a long term highly controlled environment. Some take that as a reason to do whatever they want, but those of us here use it as a reason to be more judicious with what methods and techniques we use by paying more attention to prior plausibility and basic science.

    7. Israel Halperin says:

      Perhaps when it comes to strength and muscle growth the jury is still out there, but when it comes to skill acquisition (and isn’t stength also a skill?), To me there is no question that exercise order matters. Regardless of the body part being trained, towards the end of a training session humans will fatigue, and fatigue leads to decreases in pretty much every parameter related to movement: proprioception (1),balance (2), reaction time (3), altered biomechanics which increases the possibility of suffering an injury (4), and increases in movement variability (5). Accordingly, I would prefer teaching/rehearsing a new or extremely technical move when the trainee is fresh, or put differently, at the beginning of the workout.

      1- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9548121
      2- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9861603
      3- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8883681
      4- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19568192
      5- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21331526

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful response Israel! And especially the references to back up your assertions. Great material for us to review. Fatigue is such an important factor in this discussion!

    8. Hi Tony,

      I agree that the hardest movement should come first, whether you are talking about strength training or skill acquisition. Either way, you will deplete some of your energy by doing a difficult move, whether that is the mental energy required to pay attention to a skill, or the physical (and mental) energy required to perform some serious strength training.

      There is quite a lot of interesting research showing that the attention, or executive control, or willpower required to do anything difficult is in the nature of a muscle which gets tired after being used. For example, if you use some of your willpower to try not to show any emotional expressions during a funny or sad movie, you will be more likely than controls to eat donuts in the waiting room afterwards. A lot of this research is discussed in the book Willpower. I assume that someone who uses a lot of their willpower to not wuss out on squats will have less available to complete a set of bench presses. Again, this squares well with common sense.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Good point Todd – mental fatigue is something I’ve become very interested in lately. Anecdotally I’ve noticed, for example, that after exercise that doesn’t involve too much thought I usually feel invigorated (although my body is tired), but after a solid dance training session where I am trying to learn a new movement, or create something, I usually end with a sort of mental fog… It’s something I want to read more about. But definitely relevant in this discussion of exercise order as well!

    9. Eric Troy says:

      Getting stronger is a different goal that getting bigger. They overlap but the point is the goals dictate the parameters, including the importance of exercise order. I agree with you Tony, that the priority exercise should come first. Or the most technically, or physically demanding…whichever one you have (most slow big maximum strength lifts are not technically demanding, just physically demanding).

      For the sole purpose of building muscle, people do place a lot of emphasis on exercise order. For many years bodybuilders used “pre-exhaustion” techniques where an isolation exercise would be used to pre-fatigue some target muscle before the main exercise was done. Then emphasis switched to doing big compound lifts first, and some of that was because of these growth hormone ideas. However, for the most part, many different strategies can be effective for muscle building.

    10. Israel Halperin says:

      Eric, how do you differ between physically and technically demanding ? Why, for example, is a heavy deadlift not also technically demanding ?

    11. Juan José Farina says:

      First comment in your blog, I’m from Argentina and I’m a Breaking Teacher. It’s really nice to see a bboy who really studies and brings up knowledge to the bboy world. I love to study and I love training, my classes always start with warm up then physical conditioning, mostly shoulders, arms, abs and legs strentgth. Then I go on to choreographies or perhaps Footwork techniques, or perhaps Freezes and Powermoves. Guess I’m right by doing so, it’s always nice to see the common sense be scientific proved. Thanks for the blog, keep up !

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