There are several variables to consider when we design training programs and even individual workouts. One such variable is how you order the exercises in each workout. Why does this matter?
In short, studies show that you make the best strength and size gains on exercises or muscle groups that you train early on in a training session. Why is this the case?
There are a handful of theories why, but the one that makes the most sense for both laypersons and researchers is the accumulation of fatigue throughout a workout. On the applied side, you’re probably not going to choose the most challenging weights in the second half of the workout once you’re fatigue. On the research side, central nervous system (CNS) fatigue could also play a role. As your CNS fatigues throughout a workout, it becomes harder to activate your muscles. If you can’t activate your muscles, you can’t lift as much weight and you won’t get as effective of a training stimulus – i.e. less strength and size gains! Check out our article on CNS Fatigue here for more info.
So, what’s the takeaway for training? The order of exercises you use in each workout is entirely dependent on your goals. If your main goal is to grow your arms, then you need to be starting your upper body workouts with arm isolation exercises to support that goal. While this goes against everything you’ve ever learned in school, it’s important to remember that your school lessons didn’t care about bodybuilding. If anything, they were referencing training athletes – a population for which you should definitely start each workout with compound movements or even complex Olympic movements as these will have better carryover to sport. As long as your exercise order supports your goals, you’re doing the right thing!
Spineti, J., De Salles, B. F., Rhea, M. R., Lavigne, D., Matta, T., Miranda, F., … & Simão, R. (2010). Influence of exercise order on maximum strength and muscle volume in nonlinear periodized resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(11), 2962-2969.
Dias, I., de Salles, B. F., Novaes, J., Costa, P. B., & Simão, R. (2010). Influence of exercise order on maximum strength in untrained young men. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 13(1), 65-69.
Simão, R., Spineti, J., de Salles, B. F., Oliveira, L. F., Matta, T., Miranda, F., … & Costa, P. B. (2010). Influence of exercise order on maximum strength and muscle thickness in untrained men. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 9(1), 1.
From being a mediocre athlete, to professional powerlifter and strength coach, and now to researcher and writer, Charlie combines education and experience in the effort to help Bridge the Gap Between Science and Application. Charlie performs double duty by being the Content Manager for The Muscle PhD as well as the Director of Human Performance at the Applied Science and Performance Institute in Tampa, FL. To appease the nerds, Charlie is a PhD candidate in Human Performance with a master’s degree in Kinesiology and a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. For more alphabet soup, Charlie is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), an ACSM-certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-EP), and a USA Weightlifting-certified performance coach (USAW).