by Chad Kerksick PhD April 14, 2011 5 min read
Welcome to installment number two of this six part series that will focus on the acute resistance training variables that are paramount to any resistance training workout (Kerksick 2011; Spiering et al. 2008). The first article highlighted the importance of exercise choice whereby this article will focus upon exercise order. Much like exercise choice, exercise order is as simple as it sounds. Because of its simplicity this article will be relatively brief, a lot of this may seem elementary to an experienced lifter…but nonetheless very important to consistent progress.
Two major schools of thought exist for manipulating the order in which exercises are completed. The primary aspect involves performing the exercises that require the biggest amount of weight and the most muscle early or first in your workout and then progressively following them with “smaller” and “smaller” exercises. Why? The thought behind this is that those exercises which require greater amounts of muscle involvement are the most energy taxing and will result in a reduction in stored fuel inside your muscles. To get the greatest training stimulus you should do the exercises that requires lots of energy and muscle early in your workout. Remember applying a level of stimulus that overloads your body (whether it’s for strength, running distance, maximal repetitions) is what drives all positive adaptations to your exercise. If you don’t work hard and provide some level of overload your body won’t advance and get better. In fairness it won’t digress either, but if your busting your tail and make it to the gym, then for goodness sake work hard and reap some benefits. I liken this to students in my classes. Showing up to class doesn’t help you learn if you sit there and don’t pay attention, ask questions and engage yourself and you’ll learn. The point is…overload is important!
Typically, but not always, this school of thought would mean you may end up completing most or all of your multi-joint movements first. If you are following some form of a split routine (chest/tris or back/bis) or push/pull you would often do exercises like your chest presses, rows and pulldowns before chest flys and such. Ultimately, this approach boils down to available energy, both mental and chemical energy. You have more of both of these early in your workout and as a result do them first.
The other school of thought, in my mind, most often applies itself to a rehabilitation or therapy scenario, but I do know people interested in body building who have adopted this philosophy for certain body parts and that is to perform your “weak” or “less developed” muscles first and then follow these exercises up with larger muscle group exercises. Essentially this approach is the opposite of the previous approach we discussed. If a person has a bad shoulder that you could some special attention, it is wise and I would recommend someone perform therapy style exercises that target the very small muscles that surround the shoulder first before moving on to exercises like chest presses, shoulder and rows. Simple reason is because these big muscles will over power these other muscles when completing the exercise. Oftentimes this can be frustrating because you have to “waste” energy on smaller exercise muscle groups that may have little payoff, but in the end it’s the best thing to get full recovered so you can get back to slinging around your maximum weights as soon as possible. In a bodybuilding scenario, if an athlete has a body part that lags behind other body parts, it is wise to perform exercises targeting these muscle groups first and the reason why all goes back to available energy. Exercises performed early in a workout (no matter what exercise it is) will be completed when there is a greater amount of energy stored in your muscle and your mind will be fresh likely allowing for greater focus and drive. Both of these combined should result in greater amounts of weight to be moved.
What does available research say on this?
As one would expect, when the sequence of exercises would altered and studied, the sequence of exercise affects exercise performance, force production and the rate of muscle fatigue which was seen during a resistance workout (Hakkinen et al. 1985; Spreuwenberg et al. 2006). For example, in one study, when the squat exercise was performed first vs. last in an exercise session, the numbers of reps performed was significantly reduced (Spreuwenberg et al. 2006).
As discussed previously, these authors concluded that alterations in your ability to activate the muscles involved and the amount of metabolic fatigue would result were likely the primary reasons that caused reductions in performance. Also, no studies have examined how changes in exercise order may impact the activation of key proteins associated with muscle hypertrophy, but it is safe to speculate that if alterations in exercise order results in significant reductions in the amount of weight used, volume completed or the rest needed for recovery, changes inside the muscle are likely going to result.
In summary, exercise order is a key variable that one can manipulate and manipulate very easily. If you are running late to the gym or tired from your work day and don’t want to think of different exercises to do (exercise choice), then take your workout a week ago and switch up the order. This is a simple variation that will completely change the “feel” of your normal workout. As I teach and lecture, changing your workout doesn’t need to be so complicated you don’t do it, just add one replacement exercise and switch the order and that’s great for today. Keep your body guessing and it will keep responding.