Here’s the thing about exercise science: Sometimes it debunks gym bro opinions, sometimes it confirms them. And sometimes it supersedes them: Research demonstrates that that thing you’re doing because it feels right or focuses your mind or feeds your ego is actually most effective, too. So it is with exercise order. You may already be doing it correctly, but even so, science will tell you to keep doing it that way and how to do it even better.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
For decades, the popular rule for assembling a routine has been: Prioritize weaknesses by slotting those areas or exercises early. For example, if your upper pecs lag your lower pecs (as they almost always do, visually) hit incline presses first on chest day. Second rule: Do your heaviest, compound exercises up front when your energy and focus are primed. Both rules are correct, because research shows the earliest exercises in your routine improve the most and are the most effective for strength and muscle gains.
A comprehensive review of workout routine studies concluded that the greatest strength increases were evident in the first exercise performed and lowest strength increases came in the last exercise. Additionally, muscle growth was greater in areas emphasized by the first exercise than in latter exercises. Therefore, prioritize. Do the crucial exercises first.
A recent study focused on six exercises (8-10 reps per set) performed in circuits three times. One group did the six exercises in a particular order, the other group did them in the opposite order. One group made its greatest gains on its first exercise (last for the other group); the other group made its greatest gains on its first two exercises (last two for the other group). So, even in circuit training, where you’re not doing multiple sets of exercises in a row, exercise order still matters substantially.
HOW TO GET IN ORDER
• PRIORITIZE. It works, and not just in regards to focus. Slot your first exercise to stress the muscle(s), areas of muscles, or strength goal you most want to emphasize. For physique symmetry and/or balanced strength, stress your weakness up front.
• COMPOUND BASICS FIRST. If your goals include getting stronger in lifts like the squat, incline press, and deadlift, the best time to do them is early in your routine.
• PUMP-OUT LAST. Conversely, your ability to add progressive resistance will be lowest at the end of your workout. A bad time for low-rep strength tests is a good time to pump it up. Consider ending a body part routine with a set of 20 or more reps to maximize blood volume and eke out extra reps with a light weight.
• MIX IT UP. What preceded is the best way to do it most of the time, but not necessarily all of the time. Switching it up on occasion will keep your training fresh. Ronnie Coleman alternated between two workouts for each body part, so he began one chest routine on an incline bench and the next on a flat or decline bench. He was still prioritizing, but in different ways on different days. If you already have a balanced physique, alternating which exercises you open with will keep it that way.