Research suggests focusing on what the client needs and doing the most important exercise first.
Simao, R., et al. 2012. Exercise order in resistance training. Sports Medicine, 42 (3), 251-65.
Research on resistance training design finds that the chief variables include intensity, volume, recovery between sets and exercises, workout frequency, equipment and speed of movement (Simão et al. 2012).
Less researched—but also decisive— is the role of exercise order in resistance training. The 2002 and 2009 ACSM position stands on resistance exercise suggest that, generally, large-muscle-group exercises be performed first in a training session (Kraemer et al. 2002; ACSM 2009). Simão et al. put this assertion to the test, methodically evaluating all of the research on training order to see what the evidence says about training outcomes.
How Does Exercise Order Influence Acute Responses?
Researchers exploring acute responses have tried to determine whether exercise order influences immediate workout performance. Studies in this area use total repetitions, total force or a calculated fatigue factor as the measurement criterion.
One of the first well-conducted studies (Sforzo & Touey 1996) investigating this question had 17 trained men perform two workouts of four sets of six exercises with an eight-repetition maximum intensity (participants completed all exercises at the load where they reached momentary muscular fatigue on repetition 8). Participants rested 2 minutes between consecutive sets, 3 minutes between exercises and 5 minutes between the upper- and lower-body sections of the workout.
The men completed two randomized assigned workouts separated by 48–72 hours. One session progressed from a large muscle group (multijoint exercises) to a small muscle group (single-joint exercises); the other session went in the opposite order.
Session A: Squat, leg extension and leg curl followed by bench press, shoulder press and triceps extension.
Session B: Leg curl, leg extension and squat followed by triceps extension, shoulder press and bench press.
Results indicated that training with a larger (multijoint) to smaller (single-joint) progression maximizes the total resistance lifted during a training session. However, further analysis of the data led the authors to conclude that if you want to maximize the stimulus for a particular muscle group, then the exercises for that group should be completed first. Exercises performed early in a workout respond best to the resistance training stimulus, regardless of whether they are single-joint or multijoint.
Simão et al. (2012) recap other studies that concur with Sforzo & Touey (1996) on acute responses to exercise order: Irrespective of whether an exercise is multijoint or single-joint, when it is performed later in the workout sequence— and intensity remains constant—fewer repetitions of that move are completed (Simão et al. 2012).
How Does Exercise Order Influence Neuromuscular Activity?
Augustsson and colleagues (2003) compared the neuromuscular activity of the lower-extremity musculature for the leg press when it was performed alone versus when the pre-exhaust technique (PRET) was used (see Figure 1).
PRET, which is popular with bodybuilders, involves performing a single-joint exercise immediately prior to a multijoint exercise (such as a knee extension prior to the leg press). Augustsson et al. had 17 trained men perform two resistance training trials (separated by 5 minutes), each involving one set with a 10-RM load. In the first trial, the leg press was performed alone; the second trial used a traditional PRET order (leg extension exercise immediately prior to leg press).
Total number of repetitions and electromyographical data (of rectus femoris, vastus lateralis and gluteus maximum) indicated that PRET was associated with fewer leg press repetitions and less activation of the quadriceps muscle than the leg press alone. Interestingly, the very popular PRET technique was found to have shortcomings on performance and strength during the multijoint exercise.
Gentil et al. (2007) investigated the PRET technique with the upper-body musculature using a 10-RM load intensity. The researchers had 13 male subjects perform one single-joint chest fly exercise set immediately before one multijoint bench press set. In the second trial, the exercise order was reversed. Total repetitions completed of both exercises were not significantly different.
However, Gentil et al. observed that subjects could always perform more repetitions for a specific exercise when it came first. This concurs with the Augustsson et al. (2003) study, which found PRET was less effective at increasing activation of prefatigued muscles during the multijoint exercise. Gentil et al. concluded that if an exercise is critically important to a training goal, then that exercise should be placed at the beginning of the training session.
How Does Exercise Order Affect Oxygen Consumption?
Farinatti, Da Silva & Montiero (2013) investigated the influence of exercise order on oxygen consumption in 10 younger (average age 22) and eight older (average age 69) trained women. The women randomly performed two exercise sequences, each consisting of three sets at a 10-RM intensity with 2 minutes’ rest between sets.
Sequence A was performed in this order: bench press, shoulder press and triceps extension. Sequence B was performed in the opposite order after a 48-hour rest. The study found that exercise order did not affect energy expenditure in younger or older trained women.
According to Simão et al. (2012), evidence to date has not shown that exercise order has any effect on postworkout oxygen consumption either. However, they say more research is needed to confirm or refute this data.
How Does Exercise Order Influence RPE?
Simão et al. (2012) say five studies have investigated the effect of exercise order on rating of perceived exertion, with subjective intensity scores collected (and then averaged) for the resistance training workout.
Four of the five studies do not show any difference in RPE scores between opposing exercise order sequences.
How Does Exercise Order Affect Chronic Adaptations?
Dias et al. (2010) investigated the effect of exercise order in an 8-week training study. Forty-eight untrained male subjects were randomly assigned to Group 1 (n = 16; large muscles progressing to small muscles), Group 2 (n = 17; small muscles progressing to large muscles) or Group 3 (n = 15; a nontraining control group). The Group 1 exercise order was bench press, latissimus dorsi pulldown, shoulder press, biceps curl and triceps extension. For Group 2, the order was reversed. Subjects attended three training sessions per week, with at least 48 hours between sessions. Rest between sets was 2 minutes.
The men completed exercises at an 8- to 12-RM intensity throughout the study. A 1-RM was assessed on each exercise for pre- and post-test analyses of the data. Both training groups demonstrated significant strength increases ranging from 16.3% to 77.8% in all of the exercises. However, researchers concluded that if an exercise is important for training goals, it should be placed at the beginning of a training session.
Simão et al. (2010) investigated exercise order in a linear periodized 12-week study with 31 men (average age 28). Subjects were randomly assigned to Group 1 (large muscles progressing to small muscles, n = 9), Group 2 (small muscles progressing to large muscles, n = 13) or Group 3 (n = 9; a nontraining control group).
The men trained two times a week with at least 72 hours separating workouts. Exercises for Group 1 were bench press, latissimus dorsi pull-down, triceps extension and biceps curls. Group 2 did these exercises in the opposite order. Compared with the control group, both Group 1 and Group 2 demonstrated significant strength improvements except in the biceps curl (Group 1) and the bench press (Group 2).
Notably, exercises placed at the end of the sequence showed the least improvement in both groups. This study clearly shows an unfavorable influence on exercises completed at the end of a workout.
Summarizing other training studies on the chronic effects of exercise order, Simão et al. (2012) conclude that order should not always follow the conventional sequence of large muscle groups before small muscle groups. The most important determinants of exercise order should be client needs and/or movement patterns requiring improvement—with priority exercises going first in the workout (Simão et al. 2012).
The research challenges anecdotal recommendations to progress from large muscles to small muscles in all training sessions. Simão et al. (2012) found that the chief factor determining exercise order should be the movement pattern needs of the client (see Figure 2). Also, it appears that for the upper-body and lower-body musculature, evidence does not support the popular bodybuilding pre-exhaustion training technique for strength improvement or neuromuscular activation.
However, from a safety stand- point, which no published studies have addressed, it may be prudent for personal trainers to train some clients with a multi-joint to single-joint workout progression to prevent any undue consequences of muscle fatigue at the end of a workout.