There are so many factors to consider when planning a successful strength training session. What too many people fail to recognize is that the sequence of moves is one of these factors, and it’s an important one. Here are some things to consider:
- How do you order the exercises in a training session?
- If performing both a leg curl and a squat in the same session, should you perform the leg curl first or should you do the squat first?
- Or does it even matter which exercise you perform first? After all, you’re going to be performing them both anyway.
For those of us looking to optimize our training results (which should be all of us), we need to enter the weight room with the understanding that every decision we make affects the quality of the training session.
While the programming variables of exercise selection, training intensity, and training volume get a lot of attention when planning a training session, the important variable of exercise order often gets overlooked.
I cringe when I hear trainers tell their clients, “Well, that piece of equipment is taken, so we’ll do a different exercise until the equipment we want frees up.”
This disregard for exercise arrangement is both surprising and unfortunate, as it is well known that the way we order exercises in a training session can influence both acute and chronic adaptations to resistance training.
In fact, several studies have examined the effects of exercise order within a training session on resistance training adaptations:
- When using equal resistance, exercises performed earlier in the training session were performed for a higher number of total repetitions (3,5).
- Exercises performed earlier in the training session showed a greater amount of neuromuscular activity (2).
- Exercises performed earlier in the training session showed greater improvements in strength over the course of time than those same exercises performed at the conclusion of a training session (1,2,4,6).
Given the results of these studies, it’s clear that a lack of attention to exercise order within a training session can stunt progress in the weight room.
Multi-Joint vs. Single-Joint Moves
If you’re a student of strength training, you may know this old adage:
Multi-joint exercises—these are the ones that involve two or more primary joints, like a squat—should be performed before single-joint exercises—those that involve only one joint, like a leg curl—in a training session.
If you’re a very serious student of strength training, you probably know that most exercise textbooks will further breakdown this general recommendation and suggest that multi-joint power exercises—a snatch, power clean, or push jerk for example—be performed early in a training session.
Power exercises should then be followed by multi-joint exercises that are typically done at a much slower speed, like a squat, deadlift, or bench press. Once both power exercises and slower multi-joint exercises have been completed, single joint exercises can then conclude the training session.
You might have noticed, though, that the studies listed above don’t necessarily tell us that multi-joint exercises always have to be completed prior to performing single joint exercises in a training session.
Here’s the Real Deal – Do Your Most Important Exercises First
There is a much more important take away message from the research, and it’s thankfully really simple:
The arrangement of exercises within a training session should be completed in order of importance, with the most important exercises, as they relate to your goal, completed first.
Performing a single-joint exercise at the onset of the training program may be justified for individuals looking for isolated muscle hypertrophy—as is often the case with bodybuilders, individuals with severe movement deficiencies, or individuals with severe muscle imbalances.
After all, for these individuals, a single-joint exercise may be the most important exercise that will be performed in that day’s training session.
For instance, if development of your triceps were the goal for that day’s training session, the results of these studies would indicate that you should perform your triceps work first in the training day.
Improving Overall Strength
For most healthy individuals involved in sports other than bodybuilding, the main goal of resistance exercise is to improve both overall strength and power output.
With this in mind, ordering exercises from multi-joint exercises to single-joint exercises makes the most sense. Multi-joint exercises are highly effective at improving strength and power performance overall. This outlook validates the general idea, that old adage about putting multi-joint moves ahead of single-joint exercises.
What the studies don’t mention is that exercise order has an affect on training safety. Power exercises and slower multi-joint exercises require a greater degree of coordination, skill, and concentration when compared to single joint exercises.
- Performing these high-skill exercises in a fatigued state at the end of a training session could lead to the use of poor technique, and increase the risk of injury.
This is yet another reason for the novice and intermediate trainees to follow the general recommendation of completing multi-joint exercises before performing single joint exercises.
The Bottom Line…
As with all things programming, the training goal should always direct your programming decisions.
True optimization of performance in the weight room is a process that entails:
- taking time to learn the theory of generalized programming recommendations,
- recording your own unique training experiences,
- carefully considering the programming ideas of others,
- and being flexible enough to adapt your programs based on results.
Manipulating the order in which you perform your exercises may seem insignificant, but it could be the difference between success and failure. By performing your exercises in an order that matches your training goals, you will put yourself on the path to performance optimization.