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Bodybuilding exercise order

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Now that you have your program planned out with what exercises you’re going to do on which days, you need to decide how you’re going to order them. The way most people go about the gym, they either have no plan and go from exercise to exercise as they feel like it, or just go to whichever exercise station is free.

Here is an example workout:

  1. Bicep curls
  2. Some more bicep curls
  3. Chin ups (usually with a tiny range of motion, but that’s another story)
  4. Bench press
  5. Sit ups
  6. Squats (again, usually tiny ROM, but not the point)

This is rubbish. Your exercise order is important, because your performance on any given exercise is affected by how fatigued you are by the exercises you’ve done before it. For example, how many chin ups can you do? And how many could you do if you’d just done 5 sets of heavy bicep curls beforehand? Not so many. Is this good or bad? It depends on your goals, but either way it is significant.

Now before I get into explaining your exercise order, I am aware that gyms are often busy and full of people using the equipment you want to use. When I tell you how you should order your exercises, I am assuming a best-case-scenario, where you have ready access to all the equipment – this is the internet after all, where everything is a best-case scenario, and everyone bench presses 315lbs. Anyway, in reality, you bench press 135lbs, and there is someone using the equipment you want to use next. You can change the order around a little to avoid wasting 20 minutes waiting, just keep the following rules in mind when you decide how to adjust your exercise order.

1. Do high coordination exercises before low coordination exercises

If an exercise requires a great deal of coordination, or you are specifically working on the technique, do it early in your workout. This is because it is CNS (central nervous system – the thing telling your muscles what to do) intensive, and if you’re fatigued you won’t do it well. As an example, an overhead squat (squatting with the bar overhead) requires far more coordination than curling a dumbbell as there are more muscle groups and joints involved.

2. Do explosive exercises before slower exercises

Explosive strength/power is also very CNS intensive, and burns out fast, so do it early. This includes things like the Olympic lifts, or any plyometric/jumping exercises, medicine ball throws, etc. If you try to do them at the end of a tiring workout, if you’re lucky, you will be too tired and slow to do them effectively. If you’re unlucky, you’ll injure yourself. Do them when you’re fresh.

3. Do bigger exercises before smaller exercises

Big exercises are where you get big results, so it is counter-productive tiring yourself out with smaller exercises first. When I say “bigger exercises”, I mean exercises that recruit more muscle mass. So compound (multiple joint) exercises are “bigger” than isolation (single joint) exercises. But it goes further than that, as some compound exercises are bigger than others. The deadlift, for example, recruits a lot more muscle (and is therefore more tiring) than the bench press. This is because your legs and back have much more muscle mass than your chest, arms and shoulders. If you’re unsure of which exercise is bigger than another, a general rule is this: the bigger exercise is the one in which you can lift more weight. Of course, this is assuming you are using full range of motion in your exercises, not just the top part. Side note: if you can bench press more than you deadlift or squat, it’s not because the bench press is a bigger exercise, it’s because you’re imbalanced and need to get your legs and back a lot stronger.

4. Do low-rep exercises before high-rep exercises

This goes somewhat hand-in-hand with number 3, but not always. I’ll cover this more in the next article, where I explain how to choose your sets and reps, but just briefly: when you do low reps for an exercise, generally you use more weight than if you use high reps. You should therefore do that exercise earlier than high-rep exercises, as you want to be fresher for the heavier weights. For example, even though the squat is a “bigger” exercise than the bench press, if you are doing heavy low-rep bench press, this should be done before lighter high-rep squats if you’re doing them in the same session.

5. Alternate movements

This is important and effective for increasing your recovery times to allow you to lift as much as possible. For example, suppose you do bench press, overhead press, pull ups and rows, in that order. The first two are pushing exercises, and the others are pulling exercises. This means your chest, shoulders and triceps will be fatigued from the bench press when they are immediately required for the overhead press. Ditto for your back and biceps after doing pull ups. Instead, you should do bench press, pull ups, overhead press, and rows in that order. This means your muscles will have longer to recover and be fresher for the overhead press and rows.

6. Do your top priority exercises when you’re fresh

This pretty much trumps everything else. If an exercise is a priority, e.g. you really want to improve your overhead press, or you have puny arms so you want to really hammer them, do it early in your workout. However, you still have to use a bit of sense… e.g. even if you want to focus on your arms, don’t do 10 sets of triceps extensions before heavy snatches, because you’ll drop the weight on your head. But generally speaking, if it’s a priority you should do it earlier so you can get the most out of it.

Fitting it all together

Unfortunately, some of these rules are somewhat contradictory, and you can’t perfectly satisfy every rule. But let’s give it a go, using the crappy example workout from above.

Bad order:

  1. Bicep curls
  2. Some more bicep curls
  3. Chin ups (usually with a tiny range of motion, but that’s another story)
  4. Bench press
  5. Sit ups
  6. Squats

Better order, and why:

  1. Squats – legs are biggest muscle group, and you should lift the most in this exercise. If you don’t, this should be top priority and done first anyway to bring it up to scratch.
  2. Bench press – along with the chin ups, this is the next biggest exercise. Whether you put bench press or chin ups first is really just a matter of priority
  3. Chin ups – see above
  4. Sit ups – next biggest exercise
  5. Bicep curls – don’t kid yourself, no matter how sweet you think your guns are, your biceps are a relatively small muscle group

This way you are fresh for your biggest, most important exercises, and when you get to bicep curls, you’ll be tired but still able to bang out a few decent bicep curls since they’re not a particularly taxing exercise. And all you care about is getting a pump anyway. As an example of how priority can override the other rules, if your priority was improving your chin ups, you could have placed them first and then ordered the other exercises as shown.

That was a full-body workout. If you were doing an upper-lower split, a lower-body workout might look like this:

  1. Jumping drills
  2. Deadlift
  3. Front squat
  4. Stiff-leg deadlift
  5. Lunge
  6. Front plank

Jumping drills are first because they are (supposed to be) done explosively. Then comes deadlift, because it’s your biggest exercise where you’ll want to move the most weight. Front squat, stiff-leg deadlift, and lunge are next in that order because not only does the weight you’ll be using decrease each exercise, but the exercises alternate between being quadriceps-dominant and hamstring-dominant, giving each muscle group maximum rest. Then finally, you work your abs with the front plank, which is relatively easy compared to the big leg exercises.

Hopefully you’ve got a better idea now of how to order and arrange your workouts.

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