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Exercise Order: 3 Ways the Order of Exercises Effects Muscle Growth

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calendar-iconFebruary 14, 2019

Foundational Training Series

Training

In the training series, we've covered the factors in choosing the right exercise for your workouts, but another important pice of your workout plan is picking the order of those exercises.

While this may seem like a minor detail, research has shown that the order you do your exercises in can have significant implications on your muscle growth and overall performance.

So how does exercise order affect your workouts? How can you order your exercises for optimal fitness? Below we break down the 3 variables affected by exercise order and how to choose the right exercise order for you.

Order Effects Muscle Growth

First and foremost, order affects the rate of muscle growth you'll experience from any given exercise. Research has shown that greater muscle growth occurs in muscles utilized by exercises performed earlier in workouts.41-46

In terms of chronic adaptations, greater strength increases were evident by untrained subjects for the first exercise of a given sequence, while strength increases were inhibited for the last exercise of a given sequence.

Soncin et al.

In other words, if you perform your bench press before your overhead press on an upper body workout, you can expect greater muscle growth in your chest than in your shoulders.

Order Effects Performance

Moreover, the order of exercises also affects your level of performance for any given exercise. Studies show that the volume of any given exercise decreases the later that exercise is performed in a workout.

These results suggest that upper-body exercises involving similar muscle groups and neural recruitment patterns are negatively affected in terms of repetition performance when performed at the end vs. the beginning of a session

In other words, the later you perform an exercise in a workout, the fewer repetitions you'll be able to perform.

Furthermore, the order you perform an exercise also affects the amount of repetitions you are able to complete.

Performing the barbell back squat first in an exercise session allowed the completion of more total repetitions.

Spreuwenberg LP et al.

This quote explains that the neural activation of muscles goes down the later the exercise is in a routine. This translates to lower overall muscle activation and overall output of strength.41-46

These studies also noted that the performance of an exercise is negatively affected even if none of the exercises before it involved the same muscle groups.41-46

In practice, this means that if you do a ton of leg exercises and then attempt to work your biceps, you will have lower performance.  This is due to overall fatigue on the body.41-46 

Order Effects Perceived Difficulty

Lastly, the order of exercises can affect the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of an exercise. In other words, where an exercise falls in a routine can affect how difficult the exercise feels.

It is generally recommended that you perform exercises for large muscle groups before small muscle groups. This is because you are likely to feel more tired when you are working the big muscle groups if you have already done a bunch of exercises for smaller muscles.

The average rating of perceived exertion was higher for protocol B (small-muscle group to large) in both groups.

Dariush, Ahmadi, & Salavati

The overall perceived difficulty of workouts will be greater if you perform your isolation/small muscle group exercises before compound/large muscle group exercises.41-46

An example of this is if you start your workout with bicep curls and finish it off with squats, your workout will seem more difficult overall than if you had started with squats and moved onto bicep curls.41-46

The Takeaway

It is important to keep in mind that exercise order affects:

  1. Muscle growth
  2. Performance
  3. Perceived difficulty

When it comes to exercise order, the general recommendation is to prioritize exercises that you want the most gains for.  If you want bigger legs, squat first in your day's routine.  If you want bigger biceps, do curls before other exercises.

In order to promote optimal muscle growth, do your compound exercises before isolation exercises.  For example, if you want a bigger chest, prioritize bench press earlier in your workout before something like dumbbell fly.

Perform exercises that involve muscles that you would like to grow early in your exercise regimen.41-46

References

  1. Spreuwenberg LP, Kraemer WJ, Spiering BA, et al. Influence of exercise order in a resistance-training exercise session. J Strength Cond Res. 2006;20(1):141-4. Link
  2. Miranda H, Simão R, Dos santos vigário P, De salles BF, Pacheco MT, Willardson JM. Exercise order interacts with rest interval during upper-body resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(6):1573-7. Link
  3. Simão R, De salles BF, Figueiredo T, Dias I, Willardson JM. Exercise order in resistance training. Sports Med. 2012;42(3):251-65. Link
  4. Soncin R, Pennone J, Guimarães TM, Mezêncio B, Amadio AC, Serrão JC. Influence of exercise order on electromyographic activity during upper body resistance training. J Hum Kinet. 2014;44:203-10. Link
  5. Romano N, Vilaça-alves J, Fernandes HM, et al. Effects of resistance exercise order on the number of repetitions performed to failure and perceived exertion in untrained young males. J Hum Kinet. 2013;39:177-83. Link
  6. Dias I, De salles BF, Novaes J, Costa PB, Simão R. Influence of exercise order on maximum strength in untrained young men. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(1):65-9. Link
Date Created: February 14, 2019

Last Updated: April 2, 2020

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