This is an excerpt from NSCA's Guide to Program Design.
Workout Structure and Exercise Order
The number of muscle groups trained per workout needs to be considered when designing the resistance training program. There are three basic workout structures to choose from: (1) total body workouts, (2) upper and lower body split workouts, and (3) muscle group split routines. Total body workouts involve exercises that work all major muscle groups (i.e., 1 or 2 exercises for each major muscle group). They are very common among athletes and Olympic weightlifters. In Olympic weightlifting, the primary lifts and variations are total body exercises. Usually, the first few exercises in the workout sequence are the Olympic lifts (plus variations). The remainder of the workout may be dedicated to basic strength exercises. Upper and lower body split workouts involve performance of only upper body exercises during one workout and only lower body exercises during the next workout. These types of workouts are common among athletes, power lifters, and bodybuilders. Muscle group split routines involve performance of exercises for specific muscle groups during a workout (e.g., a back and biceps workout in which all exercises for the back are performed, then all exercises for the biceps are performed). These are characteristic of bodybuilding programs.
All of these program designs can be effective for improving athletic performance. Individual goals, time and frequency, and personal preferences determine which structures are selected by the strength and conditioning professional or athlete. The major differences among these structures are the magnitude of specialization present during each workout (related to the number of exercises performed per muscle group) and the amount of recovery time between workouts. Individual needs determine which structure will be used (in addition to the exercises performed) prior to exercise sequencing.
The order of exercises within a workout significantly affects acute lifting performance and subsequent changes in strength during resistance training. The primary training goals should dictate the exercise order. Exercises performed early in the workout are completed with less fatigue, yielding greater rates of force development, higher repetition number, and greater amount of weights lifted. Studies show that performance of multiple-joint exercises (bench press, squat, leg press, shoulder press) declines significantly when done later in a workout (following several exercises that stress similar muscle groups) (35, 36). Considering that these multiple-joint exercises are effective for increasing strength and power, prioritization is typically given to these core structural exercises (i.e., those extremely important to targeting program goals) early in a workout.
For example, Olympic lifts require explosive force production, and creating fatigue reduces the desired effects. These exercises need to be performed early in the workout, especially since they are technically demanding. Sequencing strategies for strength and power training have been recommended (21, 25, 31). It is important to note these can also apply to muscular endurance and hypertrophy training. These recommendations and guidelines are listed in the sidebar.
For hypertrophy and muscular endurance training, some exceptions may exist to these guidelines. Although training to maximize muscle size should include strength training, muscle growth is predicated on factors related to mechanics (force) and blood flow. In contrast, strength training maximizes the mechanical factors. When the goal of training is hypertrophy, training in a fatigued state does have a potent effect on the metabolic factors that induce muscle growth. In this case, the exercise order may vary to stress the metabolic factors involved in muscle hypertrophy.
For example, some bodybuilders have used a technique known as pre-exhaustion. Here, a single-joint exercise is performed first (to fatigue a specific muscle group), followed by a multiple-joint exercise. One example is to perform the dumbbell fly exercise first to fatigue the pectoral and deltoid muscles, and then perform the bench press. When the bench press is examined, many times the triceps brachii muscle group is the site of failure. This theoretically suggests that the pectorals may not be optimally stimulated. With pre-exhaustion, the pectoral group is prefatigued. As a result, when the lifter performs the bench press after the dumbbell fly, it is likely that the pectoral muscles (i.e., the targeted muscles) will fatigue first. Because a higher number of repetitions are performed when training for hypertrophy, less weight is used. This technique improves hypertrophy and muscle endurance to a greater extent than maximal strength.
For muscle endurance training, fatigue needs to be present for adaptations to take place. Thus, the order can vary in infinite ways. For example, during a preseason conditioning phase, a basketball coach may choose to place the squat exercise later in the workout. This will force the athlete to perform the exercise in a fatigued state, which could replicate a scenario encountered during the sport (e.g., being able to perform a squatting movement similar to jumping in the second half of a game).
Exercise selection can also vary when warm-up exercises are used. For example, some athletes choose to perform a single-joint exercise (leg extension) before the squat exercise as a warm-up. The key distinction here is that the leg extension is performed with light weights and does not fatigue the lifter. Thus, warm-up exceptions can be used effectively to prepare for higher-intensity training.
General Guidelines for Exercise Order
When training all major muscle groups in a workout:
- Large muscle group exercises (i.e., squat) should be performed before smaller muscle group exercises (i.e., shoulder press).
- Multiple-joint exercises should be performed before single-joint exercises.
- For power training: Total body exercises (from most to least complex) should be performed before basic strength exercises. For example, the most complex exercises are the snatch (because the bar must be moved the greatest distance) and related lifts, followed by cleans and presses. These take precedence over exercises such as the bench press and squat.
- Alternating between upper and lower body exercises or opposing (agonist-antagonist relationship) exercises can allow some muscles to rest while the opposite muscle groups are trained. This sequencing strategy is beneficial for maintaining high training intensities and targeting repetition numbers.
- Some exercises that target different muscle groups can be staggered between sets of other exercises to increase workout efficiency. For example, a trunk exercise can be performed between sets of the bench press. Because different muscle groups are stressed, no additional fatigue would be induced prior to performing the bench press. This is especially effective when long rest intervals are used.
When training upper body muscles on one day and lower body muscles on a separate day, athletes should do the following:
- Perform large muscle group, multiple-joint exercises before small muscle group, single-joint exercises
- Alternate opposing exercises (agonist-antagonist relationship)
When training individual muscle groups, athletes should do the following:
- Perform multiple-joint exercises before single-joint exercises
- Perform higher-intensity exercises before lower-intensity exercises (The sequence can proceed from the heaviest exercises to those of lower intensity.)
Read more from NSCA's Guide to Program Design by National Strength and Conditioning Association.