By Abdurahmaan Saloojee
Abdurahmaan is a Pre-Script coach from Ottawa who loves reading, traveling, and training.
Out of the plethora of factors that can affect programming and optimize it in certain ways, exercise order is one of the biggest rocks to overturn. Effective exercise order can change a workout drastically. It can improve your load selection and management, keep your fatigue levels lower, and even reduce risk of injury down the road. It seems too good to be true, but it is: intelligent exercise order is wildly underrated, and adjustments can be made for every population and to suit every goal. Selecting appropriate and intelligent exercises is an applaudable first step, but then the challenge becomes fitting it into a day in a sound order. This in turn will affect your programming across the week and keep you pushing for longer. Bear in mind that the following suggestions are good heuristics to refer to, but every individual is different and their needs may require a different way to structure workouts. If you can justify it logically, then it is right.
One of the most effective ways to begin to look at exercise order is through strength curves and resistance profiles. Every muscle has a strength curve, and every exercise has a resistance profile that either matches or contradicts the strength curve. Generally, exercises that follow the strength curve are better for hypertrophy, but certain arguments can be made for selecting exercises in order to pre-fatigue certain ranges in select individuals. It is also important to note that when looking at the normal distribution of the strength curve, there are very few exercises that will align with the strength curve for all 3 ranges (short, mid, and lengthened). Most exercises will accomplish 2 out of 3 (follow the shortened and the mid range or the lengthened and the mid range). So, which ranges do we prioritize?
Generally speaking, especially when following push/pull/legs splits or “bro” splits where you will be hitting multiple exercises of the same or related muscle groups, the mid range should come first. This is because the mid range is where the muscle is strongest. In order to get the most out of mid range exercises, they should not be too far down the exercise order because their purpose in the program should be to drive mechanical tension through a sufficient load stimulus, and the modality should reflect that. Fatiguing the muscle beforehand by doing other exercises is usually inadvisable because not only will it limit the load and potentially the intended stimulus, but by fatiguing smaller “stabilizing” muscles first, it can put the lifter at risk, especially if it is an individual with a lower training age: asking them to lift heavy loads for fewer reps while already being globally fatigued with taxed stabilizers is a recipe for injury. This can also sometimes be applied to very advanced lifters that have high end absolute strength and are also at risk of hurting themselves because of the loads they use if the exercises that precede their midrange work are pushed very close to failure.
Generally, mid range movements present as multi-joint/compound exercises, so those should come first. This comes with two main exceptions: exercises that are selected with the express purpose of warming up or “priming” are usually loaded lower and can be done safely before midrange or compound movements. Also, some individuals are so strong that they are unable to get sufficient stimulus out of midrange work first: for some, their facilities do not carry heavy enough dumbbells, for example. They might select a shortened or lengthened movement first in order to intentionally limit the amount of weight they will lift in their mid range work.
This leaves shortened and lengthened movements. Generally, beginning with shortened is a better way to organize accessories. This is because starting with the lengthened range taxes you in both the shortened range and usually the midrange. Trying to get into the shortened range with an effective stimulus after can become difficult because the muscle is so fatigued. For example, doing a lengthened cable bicep curl followed by a high cable bicep curl is usually more difficult than starting with the shortened or high cable curl and then following it with lengthened. Effectively in the second scenario, the biceps are exhausted in the shortened range, so they can perform in the lengthened range after without needing to get into the shortened range.
This is one possible way to organize workouts. As mentioned with some examples, individual needs will vary and everyone needs something slightly different. However, having a rulebook to refer to when getting started can make things a lot easier and less intimidating at first.