How to Order Your Exercises

how to order your exercises
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When choosing or writing your own workout program, a key factor to include is selecting the correct exercises for your goals. A lot of focus goes into exercise selection with people constantly looking for new techniques to enhance muscle growth or lose body fat, this can include fasted cardio first thing in the morning, big compound lifts for strength such as a deadlift and squat or even foot placement on a leg press to target different leg muscles.

There’s so much thought going into choosing the perfect exercises that you can often neglect the order in which you place these exercises, which can have a detrimental effect on your progress. To use an extreme example, if you wanted to get stronger in the bench press you wouldn’t train it at the end of a workout when you’re fatigued, you’d prioritise it and train it first when you fresh and warmed up.

The order of your exercises can be especially beneficial when training for muscle growth and size, you want to use exercises at times when they will have the greatest benefit to your workout. Below is one strategy you can implement to maximise the effectiveness of your workouts.

Warm Up

This is a self-explanatory part of any workout that everyone should be doing already. Training without having warmed up sufficiently (or at all) greatly increases the chance of injury, professional athletes all warm up prior to competition and training in the gym is no different. 10 minutes on the treadmill or rowing machine is enough to get the blood pumping to all muscles and raise your body temperature in preparation for weight training, dynamic stretching and foam rolling work can also be a beneficial warm up.

Just try to keep the warm up to 10 – 15 minutes, foam rolling your muscles to loosen up can soon become a workout in itself if it takes you half an hour to get out all the ‘kinks’.

Muscle Primer

For your first exercise you want to prime the muscle group for the workout ahead, if you think of the warm up as preparing the body as a whole then the primer exercise is used to prepare the specific muscle group that you will be training. I also like to think of this as a pre pump with the goal being to get blood into the muscle early so that you can really feel the muscle working for the rest of your workout.

You will want to select an exercise that is not too taxing but still allows you to feel the muscle working, so a Lat pulldown (back) or lying hamstring curl (legs) tend to work well for this. You’re going to use a moderate weight for moderate reps focusing on squeezing the muscle throughout. An example primer set can be seen below:

Lying Hamstring Curl – 4 sets of 12 reps (after finishing your 4th set you will then immediately do 25 partial reps, so you will only lift the weight 6 – 10 inches)

Dumbbell Lateral Raise – 4 sets of 12 reps (after finishing your 4th set you will then immediately do 25 partial reps, so will only lift the weight 6 – 10 inches)

Partial reps are something people tend to add near the end of a workout as a ‘finisher’ however, adding them early in a workout and feeling a burn early on means you can psychologically focus on that muscle for the rest of the workout as it already feels pumped up.

Heavy Compound Movements

Now that your muscles are primed you can go into the heavy lifting portion of the workout. Here you are using the exercises that work multiple muscle groups (squat, deadlift, bench press, barbell row, overhead press) and will lead to the most total muscular growth. For these exercises you are going to want to choose two per muscle group, so deadlift and barbell row for back as an example and focus on getting stronger on these movements each week.

Look to stay in the 4-8 rep range whilst aiming to increase the weight over time, you could structure this by using set structures of 4 sets of 6 reps, 5 sets of 5 reps or 3 sets of 8 reps. There are no fancy techniques involved in this section of the workout, just use good form and aim to lift more weight each time (this will get harder the stronger you get) and you will see progress.

Placing these exercises near the beginning of your workout means you can handle more weight as you are fresh and warmed up and can then leave the accessory work till afterwards.

Pump Work

This is basically the accessory work to go alongside your heavy compound movements, each exercise should be selected based on individual goals. If you feel legs are a lagging body part and in particular your quadriceps then you could include narrow stance leg presses and leg extensions.

The focus here is not necessarily all about getting stronger, you want to place a greater focus on muscle contraction and recruiting as many muscle fibres as possible. Using a moderate weight for 8 – 12 reps tends to be a good guideline to aim for. This is where you can also use more advanced techniques to really fatigue the muscle however a key point to remember is to use these sparingly, the aim is to stimulate the muscle and not annihilate it!!

Advanced techniques could include extended negatives, drop sets, isometric holds or partial reps. Using legs as an example your exercises for this section could look something like this:

Narrow Stance Leg Press – 3 sets of 12 reps (after finishing your last set you will then immediately go into a drop set. After your last set drop the weight 30% and do as many reps as possible, drop the weight 30% again and do as many reps as possible, this should be enough however if you are feeling up to it drop it 15% one final time)

Leg Extension – 3 sets of 12 reps (include a 4th negative loading set, for this lift the weight with both legs but lower it with one leg)

Overloaded Stretch

At this point of the workout you will be pretty pumped and fried at the same time and ready to finish up. This is the point where I like to include a stretch, though not a stretch in the typical sense. Here you will look to get a deep stretch to the muscle fascia (basically connective tissue), contracting the muscle during training will tighten muscles so looking to stretch them again at the end of your workout will leave more room for future growth.

To do this you simply select an exercise that puts you in a deeply stretched position, an example would be hanging from a bar as though you are ready to do a pull up. For this you can utilise simple progression techniques, start by hanging for 20 seconds and then finish, look to build up to one minute over time, once you can hang for one minute start to add weight.

Take Home Message

There isn’t a guaranteed formula for producing results because everyone is different and therefore responds to different stimulus. It will come down to trial and error and discovering what works best for you.

If however, you apply a similar thought process to the above and structure your workout with a purpose rather than doing a random assortment of exercises then you will find progress will come much quicker.

Example Workout

Below is a sample back workout following the structure set out earlier.

Lat Pulldown – 4 sets of 12 reps (after finishing your 4th set you will then immediately do 25 partial reps, so you will only lift the weight 6 – 10 inches)

Deadlift – 4 sets of 6 reps

Barbell Row – 3 sets of 8 reps

Dumbbell Row – 3 sets of 12 reps (add a 4th set, for this set drop the weight used 20% and do as many reps as you can)

Straight Arm Cable Pulldown – 3 sets of 12 reps (after finishing your last set you will then immediately go into a drop set. After your last set drop the weight 20% and do as many reps as possible, drop the weight 20% again and do as many reps as possible)

Hanging Stretch – 1 minute hang from a pull-up bar

About the Author

Simon Byrne is a health and fitness writer covering a range of subjects including training, nutrition and supplementation. Whilst currently a certified nutritionist, he is also studying towards a degree in sports nutrition. Outside of the fitness industry Simon’s career is in venue and events management.

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