You already know that the sequence of certain things matters-cleanser before serum, socks before shoes, toaster before avocado mash. Well, when you’re working out in the gym, order matters too.
Plain and simple, the arrangement of your exercise movements is actually one of the defining factors in how effective your workout regimen is, according to strength and conditioning specialist Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., founder of Training2xl. Full stop.
If you remember one thing, make it this: Do more advanced, harder, full-body movements before the smaller-muscle-focused supplementary work, says Chelsea Axe, D.C., C.S.C.S., fitness expert at DrAxe.com.
However, there’s no universally “right” order. “Asking for ‘the best exercise order’ would be like asking a chess grandmaster what the best move in chess is-it’s going to vary,” says Dariusz Stankiewicz, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Body Evolved, a physical therapy and strength coaching studio in New York City. Touché. (
That said, it can be overwhelming to plan your own workout routine if have no clue where to start. These seven rules of exercise order can help.
1. Should you do strength or cardio first?
Should you do cardiovascular exercise before strength training is the million-dollar fitness question. Luciani says the answer comes down to your goals. “If you want to build muscle, you should start with 5 to 12 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity cardio to get your blood flowing.” (That may come in the form of a quick dynamic warm-up or some time on the treadmill or elliptical.) Much more than that could exhaust your muscles too much-you want to be fresh before stepping up to the dumbbells or barbell, which is where you’ll build your strength.
Research backs it up: In one study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers compared workouts of only strength training, running then strength, and cycling then strength. They found that exercisers did fewer repetitions if they had just run or cycled. Another study found that when exercisers ran on a treadmill first, they couldn’t do as many repetitions during strength training and also showed reduced muscle power. So, if strength is your goal: Warm up, do your strength workout, then finish with longer cardiovascular sessions if you want to incorporate cardio into the equation.
However, if you’re training for a race or looking to build cardiovascular endurance, start with cardio-just be cautious when you get to the weights. “Extended steady-state cardiovascular exercise or high-intensity interval training will strain your body, so only lift as much as you can with proper form,” says Luciani. Alternatively, consider doing your strength workouts on days when you don’t need to record training miles so you can increase the weight.
2. Prioritize plyometrics in your program.
Plyometrics have gained attention for their ability to enhance explosiveness and strength. Most experts recommend only doing plyometric movements twice a week. And on the days you do them, perform them after warming up but before anything else.
While these exercises are a guaranteed way to make you more toned and quicker, they should not be done when fatigued, says Luciani. “Plyometric movements require maximum effort with proper form. At the end of your workout, traditional plyometric movements simply will not be as explosive-and therefore as effective-as they would be at the start of your workout.”
What if ending your workout with a cardiovascular burn is what you enjoy? Jump wisely. “You could actually get injured if you attempt any single-legged or equipment-based exercises (such as depth jumps, single-leg hops, box jumps, jumping box step-ups, etc.) when you’re already tired,” says Luciani. Her recommendation? Stick to squat jumps and burpees, and stop when your form becomes unstable.
3. Prioritize multi-joint exercises over single-joint exercises.
If you genuinely want to reap the benefits of strength training, multi-joint-exercises, also known as “compound” exercises, are the way to go. Compound exercises like the back squat, deadlift, and push press are movements that involve multiple joints (such as your knees, hips, and shoulders) and thus engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, says Luciani. “They enhance overall strength, quickly elevate the heart rate, and improve coordination and balance as well,” explains Luciani.
But here’s the catch: Compound exercises typically require more technique than exercises that target only one muscle group, which means you want to be as fresh as possible when performing them. That’s why experts-including Luciani and Tony Carvajal, certified CrossFit trainer with RSP Nutrition-recommend starting with compound movements.
Research supports their recommendations: One study found that when a group of untrained men did strength training, they experienced greater improvements in the exercises they performed at the beginning compared to the ones they did at the end.
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Then, you can proceed to single-joint movements: “Single-joint and single-muscle exercises can typically still be executed effectively under fatigue, but the opposite isn’t usually true,” says Carvajal. (Think: Barbell back squat then leg extension machine.)
The risk of performing compound movements under fatigue is twofold, says Luciani. “If you engage in compound movements when you’re extremely fatigued, there will be a lapse in technique, which diminishes the effectiveness of that exercise for muscle development and teaching safe movement patterns, plus increases your risk of injury.” Yikes.
4. Perform high-energy bodyweight moves first.
If you’re solely doing bodyweight movements in your workout, you might believe order doesn’t matter. But it does-especially if you’re a gym novice. “Apply the same principle as mentioned earlier: Execute the exercises that demand the most energy first,” says Luciani. Ponder it this way: Which requires more energy, a push-up or a calf raise? A push-up. Which requires more energy, a crunch or an air squat? An air squat. A pull-up or a glute bridge? A pull-up.
If you’re an experienced fitness enthusiast, the risk of injury during bodyweight movements is minimal, irrespective of the exercise order. “However, individuals who are just learning full-body movements like the push-up or air squats should prioritize those movements so that they can maintain proper form and reap all the muscle-building benefits,” says Luciani.
5. Maintain safety during circuits.
What if you’re performing a circuit (e.g., this 30-minute circuit workout) where you engage in a variety of moves in succession? Good news: If you can safely complete 15 to 20 reps of all the bodyweight movements in the circuit, you can simply proceed. (
If you’ve ever taken a boot camp or HIIT-style class, you’ve probably participated in a circuit that includes weights. That’s alright, too. Just don’t allow your ego to hinder your progress, says Luciani. Select a weight that you can safely handle to perform 15 to 20 reps. (For more information on circuit training, learn how to construct the perfect circuit training workout here.)
6. Vary it up.
Many individuals structure their workout routines based on specific muscle groups. For instance, back and shoulders on Monday, chest and triceps on Tuesday, and so on. The concept behind this split is to combine different movement patterns to effectively enhance muscle growth while minimizing the risk of injury. However, if you’re consistently doing the same workout every time you have a leg day at the gym, you’re doing it incorrectly—you should be altering the order of your exercises, says Luciani.
Why? Research demonstrates that individuals can perform more repetitions of the initial strength exercise executed compared to all the other movements in that circuit or sequence. So, for instance, “if you consistently perform your push exercises (e.g., chest press) before your pull exercises (e.g., dumbbell row), your pulling muscles won’t attain the same level of strength as the pushing muscles!” says Luciani.
Her suggestion is simple: Alternate! And if you simply desire someone else to accomplish the programming for you, consider trying this four-week power training plan for women.
7. Preserve abdominal muscles for the conclusion.
There’s a rationale you normally conclude sessions scorching your core: Core circuits ought to be performed at the conclusion of the exercise, as indicated by Luciani. “Remember compound movements and full-body maneuvers like the push-up are going to engage your core even more than a crunch or plank does. You don’t want to enter into those with your core already exhausted.”
Looking for an abdominal muscles finisher routine? Give a go to these four exercises targeting the obliques.
Keep in mind: It can be enticing to assemble a workout like ingredients in a blender. But to obtain the maximum benefits from your time at the gym, allocate a little additional time devising the sequence in which you will perform your exercises. When uncertain, Luciani states there is one primary guideline: “Exercises that utilize the most energy and muscle groups should be performed first.”
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