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Exercise Order in Upper-Body Training

Exercise program designs are generally based on available research and applications of theoretical knowledge, but since numerous aspects of program design have not been thoroughly studied, the value of many common exercise practices is subject to debate. One such practice is the well-accepted technique of performing large-muscle group exercises prior to small-muscle group exercises during resistance training, a technique supported by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM 2000).

The rationale behind this training recommendation is based on two theories: (1) that total force production for the entire workout is greater when large-muscle groups are exercised before small-muscle groups, and (2) that when small-muscle groups are exercised first, the force production of the following large-muscle groups is decreased. These theoretical tenets support ordering resistance exercise this way for the greatest overall strength gains. In practice, however, when large-muscle groups are always exercised before small-muscle groups, the latter groups may not become as well trained. If small-muscle groups are important in the program of the exercising individual, performance may suffer. (However, see also “Another Consideration: Training for Function” on page 21.)

The Purpose

The purpose of this study was to examine the effect of exercise order on the number of repetitions performed and the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) in a resistance training session composed of five upper-body exercises. The hypothesis was that, regardless of the exercise order of the particular program, muscle groups exercised later in the session would be more fatigued than muscle groups worked earlier in the session.

The Methods

The study design utilized a counterbalanced, cross-over research protocol. In essence, using random assignment, each study subject completed both of the treatment sequences. Eighteen male and female participants (14 male, four female; average age = 20 years) who had at least 6 months of resistance training experience performed two exercise sessions 48 hours apart. Each volunteer was randomly assigned to start with a particular exercise sequence, and each then completed the second sequence 48 hours later. Both sessions consisted of the same exercises, performed in a different order. Sequence A worked large-muscle groups before small-muscle groups (free-weight bench press, machine lat pull-down, seated machine shoulder press, standing free-weight biceps curl with a straight bar, and seated machine triceps extension). Sequence B reversed the exercise order, working small-muscle groups first.

The warm-up before both sessions A and B consisted of performing 12 repetitions of the first exercise in the sequence at a weight of 40% of the 10RM (determined 48 hours prior to the two exercise sessions following standardized procedures).

Testing and training were completed on Life Fitness equipment and free weights. All exercises in both sequences were performed for 3 sets to volitional fatigue, using a 10RM weight. No pause was allowed between the eccentric and concentric phases of each repetition. Sets and exercises in both sequences were separated by 2-minute periods of passive rest.

The Results

There were no significant differences between sequences A and B in the number of repetitions performed between the first and second sets of the exercises. Nor were there any differences between the two sequences in the third set, except for the biceps curl (significantly fewer were performed in sequence A). Thus, exercise order did not significantly affect the number of repetitions performed for the five upper-body exercises. However, when the number of repetitions per set within each sequence was evaluated, there were clear trends toward decreased performance for exercises performed later in the protocol, particularly in the third set of an exercise. That is, within both sequences A and B, most subjects were unable to perform as many repetitions on the third set of most of the five exercises. There was no difference in RPE scores.


Regardless of whether a large-muscle to small-muscle group or small-muscle to large-muscle group sequence is employed with multiple-set exercise schemes, sets completed later in the sequence show the greatest decrease in performance (as measured by repetitions performed). Muscle fatigue causes a decrease in repetitions in the final set of a 3-set (multiple-set) upper-body training regime, regardless of order. This research suggests that although many fitness professionals develop exercise programs that focus on large-muscle groups earlier in the session, this technique may be too blindly followed with upper-body training programs.

In this study no single muscle group was a primary mover in two successive exercises. Thus these sequences represented common training protocols employed by many personal trainers and strength and conditioning professionals.

Practical Application

This study recommends looking at the particular functional objective of each client and tailoring the upper-body exercise sequence to best meet this end. In short, the most important muscle groups should be exercised early in the training program. This will allow the client to target the muscle groups that will help achieve his or her goals more quickly. Instead of viewing an exercise program in the traditional terms of greatest overall strength gains, we serve our clients better when we first look at which muscles and muscle groups are most important to their goals and then design programs to achieve those objectives. This study also suggests that, for variety in upper-body training plans, the large-muscle to small-muscle and small-muscle to large-muscle sequences are both viable options.

Another Consideration: Training for Function

When measuring performance, one thing to consider is functionality. How one performs during a chosen sport or physical activity or in the activities of daily living is the real issue, and we need to keep in mind that some training does not cross over to real-life performance. In essence, smaller muscles can be trained during large-muscle group training when the exercises of choice are multijoint in nature. Is it a good idea to train small-muscle groups with multijoint exercises and minimize the use of exercises that isolate the smaller muscles? Possibly. Multijoint exercises are definitely more functional and cross over better to real-life performance situations. Exercises that work smaller muscles or groups are usually isolational, single-joint-type exercises, which are limited in functionality. The key may be to train the small-muscle groups within multijoint exercises to support the large-muscle groups and enhance the functionality of training.


American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). 2000. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (6th ed.). Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.


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Phil Block, MS

Phil Block, MS, is a university educator and corporate wellness consultant specializing in sports nutrition, power training, and muscular physiology. Currently, he is pursuing a doctorate in exercise physiology at the University of New Mexico. Certification: AFAA

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