If you strength train regularly, your sessions probably go something like this: After a short warm-up, you start with the exercise that works the largest muscle group (like squats or lat pull-downs), or a compound, multi-joint exercise that works multiple muscle groups (like deadlifts or the clean and press). Then you progress to the next most energy-demanding move, and so on, until you finish with the simple, single-joint exercises that work relatively small muscle groups (like bicep curls or quad extensions). If you’ve ever worked with a trainer, he or she probably taught you that this order was the safest, and it is. But they might have told you that it’s also the most effective, and recent research says that actually, it isn’t.
In the latest issue of the IDEA Fitness Journal, Dr. Len Kravitz, PhD, reviews a 2012 study published in the journal Sports Medicine which examined relevant, recent research on the subject of exercise order. The study’s authors found that across a variety of strength training workout formats, muscle activity is greatest for those exercises completed at the beginning of a workout. While this might sound like an obvious finding, the design of the studies reviewed turned a couple of popular training techniques on their heads.
For example, the common body building technique of pre-fatiguing a muscle group by performing a single-joint exercise immediately before performing a multi-joint exercise was shown to be counter-productive. Rather than recruiting more muscle fibers to complete the second exercise, the researchers found that participants simply couldn’t perform as many repetitions, effectively reducing training volume (the opposite of the desired effect).
In all cases, regardless of lifting protocol or whether single-joint or multi-joint moves were completed first, the results were the same: The exercises done at the beginning of a training session saw the greatest pay-off, and those done at the end were, sadly, quite ineffective. Rest times between sets in all studies was a fairly long 2 minutes, indicating that even if the body feels ready to go again, there is an accumulating fatigue effect that seems to come into play over the course of a workout.
This gives us a few things to think about. First, it suggests that long weight lifting sessions targeting a variety of muscle groups might be a waste of time. Spreading out your strength training over the week into more frequent, shorter sessions that focus on only one or two muscle groups will likely be more effective. Also, limiting number of sets to no more than four is probably prudent.
If you’re trying to work your strength training in around other fitness goals, though, you probably don’t want to be doing it five or six days a week. In that case, simply mixing up the order of your total body circuit is a good idea. By rotating which muscle groups you target first, you’ll be getting better results for each of them at least some of the time.
Finally, if you have a particular muscle group that is under-developed, that you really want to work on, then you should obviously put the exercises that work those muscles at the beginning of your workout.
It’s important to note that for safety reasons, it’s still necessary to do very physically demanding exercises at or near the beginning of a workout. It would not be a good idea, for example, to ever do barbell squats to fatigue at the end of a long lifting session.