Does Exercise Order Matter? (Yes! Here’s the right way)


Does Exercise Order Matter

When designing a strength and conditioning program (or evaluating someone else’s), one of the things you have to be very mindful of is the exercise order.

Poor exercise order can lead to sub-optimal gains in power, strength and overall performance – and that’s the best case scenerio. A really bad exercise order can even lead to injury by asking an athlete to perform a complex movement in a high state of fatigue.

The order of exercises should start with speed and explosive movements first, followed by compound multi-joint exercises and finally single-joint isolation exercises.

This order allows the athlete to maximize power development while the body and central nervous system is at it’s freshest. Then, big strength movements are emphasized before smaller muscles are taxed with finishing exercises like curls and tricep pushdowns.

In this article I’m going to break down for you how to order all of your exercises not just for your daily lift, but how the same concepts apply to your overall daily and even weekly plan.

How To Order Exercises Correctly

The simplest way I know how to some up exercise order would be something like:

  • Faster Movements before Slower Movements
  • Multi Joint before Single Joint
  • Large Muscle Groups before Smaller Muscle Groups

When deciding the pecking order of everything in your strength and conditioning program, following these three rules will easily get you over 90% of the way there.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into the ‘why’ of proper exercise order.

Speed Movements First

Your lift should always start with the fastest movements first which if you incorporate Olympic lifts is snatch, clean and jerk – in that order. But, your fastest movements could also be exercises like med ball throws or weighted box jumps.

The reason is we want to maximize speed and power development while we’re as fresh as possible. Both from a muscular and central nervous system standpoint.

We inherently know that this is true and I’ll give you an example.

If I asked you to perform two tests, a vertical jump and a mile run, and the goal was to try to get the best possible results for both – you would choose the jump first (after a proper warmup of course).

Anyone is going to test poorer on a vertical jump after running a mile as hard as they can, but doing a couple explosive jumps will have zero affect on the run. This example is a bit extreme, but it shows the idea of why it’s so important for all of your explosive movements first.

Compound Exercises Second

Your compound movements for the day should follow your speed work. These are your big multi-joint exercises like squats, deadlift, bench press and pull-ups.

These are your big strength and size movements. You want to make sure to get them in before you compromise the amount of weight you can move by fatiguing smaller muscle groups.

For example, if you do a bunch of tricep pushdowns and then try to bench press – your bench press will suffer from the weakest link in the chain which is now your exhausted triceps. This will drastically effect strength gains because your chest (the biggest muscle involved in the bench) isn’t being stressed how it should.

Some workouts may call for all three categories – speed movements, compound exercises and iso lifts – in which case, compound movements will fall in the middle. However, some workouts may not include speed movements and then your compound lifts become the star of the show.

Isolation Exercises: Saving the Best For Last

Dumbbell Curls

“Saving the best for last” is a little tongue in cheek. The exercises that really move the need to improve athletic performance and the ones focusing on speed, power and strength.

Having said that, who doesn’t love doing some bicep curls.

Isolation exercises are all the single joint movements like side raises, curls and tricep pushdowns. These are the ‘feel good’ finishers that put the cherry on top of a great workout.

They should always come last though.

Towards the end of the workout, the body should be a fatigued state – both physically and mentally.

Besides not wanting to pre-fatigue the smaller muscle groups before hitting multi-joint power or strength movements, iso exercises also fit well at the end of a workout because they don’t take a lot of mental focus and physical energy to accomplish.

It’s much, much easier to roll your sleeves up and hit a set of dumbbell curls when you’re exhausted as opposed to having to mentally lock in and attack a big set of front squats.

Exercise Order Before and After the Lift

This same concept of faster to slower movements also applies to the activities you do before and after the lift.

Let’s say you want to do some speed work (sprints & sprinting technique) on the same day as a lift. Since sprinting is literally the fastest thing you can do, it should come before your lift. Exhausting yourself and then trying to work on speed will lead to poor (or no) development.

On the other hand, conditioning should almost always come after a lift. Focus on power and strength in the weight room first and then finish off the day with conditioning out on the field.

Weekly Exercise Order

You can even apply the ‘faster to slower’ exercise order to your weekly plan as well.

I like to program a four day lifting schedule.

Days 1 and 3 (Monday & Thursday) are our speed and power development emphasis days. Athletes are coming off of one or two days rest and, at least theoretically, should be at their freshest over the course of the week.

These days are our big Olympic lifting days where we will do the majority of our snatches, cleans, pulls and jerks followed mostly by single joint exercises.

Days 2 and 4 (Tuesday & Friday) are our strength emphasis days. This is when we will focus on most of our big compound lifts like squats and bench press. (Although I do usually like at least one fast twitch movement to start the day)

Final Thoughts

Whether setting up your daily or weekly plan, exercise order is critical to maximizing athletic development.

Simply lifting weights and running isn’t enough in today’s world. Everybody lifts weights and everybody runs.

HOW you structure your training, including your exercise order, can give you the edge over your competition in the off-season which leads to more success during the in-season.

Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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