How Does Exercise Order Impact the Results?
So many factors impact the gains you get from strength training. Muscles grow in response to progressive overload. To progressively overload of muscle, you must increase the stress you place on that muscle over time. You can do that by:
- •Increasing the resistance
- •Boosting the number of reps
- •Increasing the total training volume
- •Altering the tempo of the reps
- •Increasing or decreasing the rest period between reps
- •Changing the exercises
- •Frequency of training
Another variable you can alter is the order in which you do the exercises. Exercise order is a variable that doesn’t get as much attention as factors like increasing the resistance or the volume of training. How does altering the order of the exercises you do impact gains in strength and muscle size?
Strength building exercises can be roughly divided into two classes. One class is called compound exercises. These are exercises that work for more than one muscle group at a time. They also entail movement around more than one joint simultaneously. In contrast, isolation exercises involve movement around a single joint. For example, squats are a compound exercise while leg extensions is an isolation movement.
Most fitness trainers will tell you to do compound exercises first. That’s because these exercises are the most demanding on the body but also offer the most potential benefits. Therefore, it’s best to do them while your muscle’s glycogen stores are high & you can give these movements your best effort and focus. Compound exercises, like deadlifts, squats, push-ups, bench press, and lunges should be the workhorse exercises of your training, so it makes sense to do these exercises first.
In support of this, studies show subjects complete fewer reps for exercises they do at the end of a workout as opposed to doing the same exercises at the beginning. That’s mostly due to the fatigue factor. Another study published in the Journal of Sports and Science in Medicine showed that exercises performed early in a workout, whether it’s a compound or isolation movement, are linked with greater muscle gains. So, you have to ask yourself which exercises are most important. For most people, compound exercises offer more return on training time than isolation movements. Therefore, it makes sense to begin a workout with squats, deadlifts, push-ups or bench press than to start a workout with biceps curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions or other exercises that work a single muscle group.
If you’re limited on time, your entire workout might consist of compound exercises. Even when you have more an abundance of time, fitness trainers often recommend devoting at least 75% of training minutes to compound exercises. These are the exercises that build strength and muscle size the fastest and burn the most calories and body fat.
Are There Exceptions to Doing Compound Exercises First?
One situation where you might start with an isolation exercise is if you have a lagging body part. For example, you have good development of your chest and shoulders, but your biceps or triceps could use more work. In that case, you might specifically target those lagging muscle groups by working them first before you become fatigued.
Exercise order will likely have less impact on strength training than factors like total training volume and the resistance you use. But, in general, starting a workout with high-priority exercises is the best approach based on current research. In most cases, that will be compound exercises, but if you have a single muscle group that needs extra work, you might begin with an isolation exercise that specifically targets that muscle.
Also, if you’re trying to gain strength and muscle, do strength training before a cardio workout. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that strength training before cardio was associated with a significantly greater release of anabolic hormones, like testosterone, that boost muscle growth. Even better, do cardio and strength exercise on separate days or at least 8 or more hours apart. For example, you could strength train in the morning and do cardio in the evening. The more intensely you train, the greater benefit there is to doing strength and cardio on separate days.
Regardless of how you order the exercises, start with at least a 5-minute warm-up before getting into the meat or your workout. The warm-up will raise your core body temperature and make your muscles more pliable and ready-to-work. Don’t skip this step!
Now you have a better idea of how to order your exercises. It’s a small tweak you can make to your routine to get better results!
J Sports Sci Med. 2010 Mar; 9(1): 1-7.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 12. 3281-3288.