Does Exercise Order Matter?

The short answer? YES! Exercise order matters quite a bit if you are looking to get the most out of your workouts. Follow the order given below to make the most out of your time in the gym.

  • Muscle Activation and Stabilization Drills. Any muscles you are not regularly using throughout the day tend to shut down and become inactive. What does this mean for you and your workouts? Here is an example: Those who have desk jobs often have inactive glutes, upper backs, and rear shoulders because they sit at a computer the majority of the time. If these people went from the office to the gym and jumped right into their workouts, these same muscles are going to have a hard time working correctly because they haven’t been asked to do any work all day. Spending about 5 minutes before each workout to get your muscles firing again helps to remedy this. Activation and stabilization drills make your workout more effective by getting your muscles ready to handle the work you are expecting them to do. Some great drills include glute bridges, banded glute walks, band pull aparts, and planks.
  • Dynamic Warmup Movements. A dynamic warmup is a series of movements that increase body temperature, activate the nervous system, and increase your range of motion. Examples of dynamic warmup drills included arm circles, body weight lunges and fire hydrant circles. Here a great blog post which outlines several dynamic exercises.
  • Compound Movements and/or Movements You are Learning or Perfecting. A compound movement is an exercise that requires two or more joints working together to complete the action. Examples include squats, deadlifts, chest presses, and bent over rows. Because these exercises are typically more complex and require more energy, you want them to be the first exercises you perform after your warmup. Other movements that should come first in your workout are those that you are learning and perfecting, since again, you want to be the freshest to practice them correctly. For example, if you are learning how to do a full body pushup, you typically wouldn’t want to work your triceps first (an isolation movement), because you use your triceps in a pushup. If you pre-fatigue your triceps, practicing your pushups will be significantly more difficult.

  • Isolation Movements. Isolation movements are single-joint exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, and shoulder flys. Because these movements typically require less technique and therefore less energy, they should be done after your bigger, compound movements or after the movements you are working on perfecting. Also, the majority of muscle groups that are part of a single joint system are also used in compound movements (such as the pushup/tricep example given above). This means you have already worked these smaller muscles to some degree when you completed the bigger, more technical movements. Isolation movements are optional and are meant to give focused attention to those smaller muscles that might still have a bit more energy left in them after the bigger movements are completed.
  • Finishers. A finisher is a short conditioning workout completed after a lifting session to help promote fat loss and cardiovascular function. Finishers are typically 5-10 minutes long and are performed HIIT style – all out, high intensity movements followed by a short period of rest. Almost any exercise can be formed as a finisher as long as the weight is manageable enough. Other examples also include kettlebell swings, sled pushes/pulls, and battle ropes. Like isolation movements, finishers are optional add-ons to a workout if you have a bit more energy left in the tank after you have finished your compound movements.

  • Stretching/Foam Rolling. Static stretches should be saved for the end of your workout. They are a great stress reliever and help your body relax after exercise. Each stretch should be held for 30 seconds to the point of mild discomfort, say a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-10, being careful not to overstretch. After 30 seconds, you will most likely find your range of motion has increased, and you can then deepen your stretch for another 30 seconds or so. Incorporating deep breathing will also help get your muscles to relax so you gain greater ranges of motion in your stretches. You can also add in some gentle foam rolling, focusing on sore/tender spots to help relieve tight muscles or trigger points. Like with stretching, you want to be careful to not be overly aggressive as this can just make your muscle tightness worse. The goal is to work with your muscles to get them to relax, not trying to force them into a relaxed state.

Following this order for your exercise programming will ensure you get the most out of your workout. If you would like to learn how to build a program with the right exercises specific to your needs and goals, find a personal trainer can not only create a personalized program, but also arm you with the education you need to do so yourself.

Weights Before Cardio OR Cardio before weights depending on your goal.

For most people, weight training should be done first when you are the freshest and have the most energy. It is also the biggest “bang for your buck” way to workout – you can increase muscle, reduce fat, and increase cardiovascular function if you are smart about your program design. Now, with that said, if your primary goal is cardiovascular performance rather than building muscle (such as a marathon runner) you should do your cardio first as that is where you want the bulk of your energy to be spent.

The information found on this blog is based on my own personal thoughts and opinions. I am not a doctor or registered dietician. Please be sure to consult your health care professional before starting or changing any fitness or nutrition program.


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