Exercise Order: Does It Matter in What Sequence You Do Resistance-Training Exercises?

Exercise Order: Does It Matter in What Sequence You Do Resistance-Training Exercises?

One variable often overlooked when planning a resistance training routine is exercise order, the sequence with which you do a series of exercises. The goal is to get them all done, regardless of the order in which you do them. Right? Not so fast. The sequence in which you do a series of resistance exercises CAN impact the results you get. As you become fatigued later in a workout, you won’t be motivated or physically capable of pushing as hard and your performance will start to decline on the last few exercises you do. That’s why it’s important to plan and prioritize. Here are some tips for ordering exercises to maximize your gains.

Train Large Muscle Groups before Small Ones

Training large muscle groups is more demanding, so it’s best to tackle exercises that work glutes, back, and thighs early in the workout when you’re training your whole body in a single workout. Save moves that target small muscles like biceps curls and triceps extensions until the end of your workout. Another reason to prioritize large muscles – when you work large muscle groups, it releases greater quantities of anabolic hormones that boost muscle growth.

Do Compound Exercises Before Isolation Ones

You get more metabolic “bang for your buck” and a greater calorie burn when you do compound exercises, those that work multiple joints and muscle groups, as opposed to isolation exercises that work a single muscle group. Tackle compound exercises, such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, bent-over rows, overhead presses, pull-ups, and dips when you’re still fresh, at the beginning of your workout. Just as training large muscle groups, compound exercises are more metabolically demanding, giving you the benefits of more anabolic hormone release to fuel growth.

Consider Your Goals

Large muscle groups and compound exercises should, in general, be prioritized to the beginning of a workout, but you also have to consider your goals and whether you have muscles that are lagging behind. If your upper body is less developed than your lower body, focus on your upper body first, starting with compound exercises like overhead presses, push-ups, and bent-over rows (compound exercises) before biceps curls and triceps extensions (isolation exercises). Train the muscles that need the most work first while you’re still fresh and less fatigued. As you move through your workout, you won’t be able to give exercises toward the end the same effort you did the first few sets.

What Research Shows about Exercise Order

Adjusting exercise order sounds good in theory, but does research support the idea that sequence really matters? In one study, 17 healthy, trained men completed two workouts separated by at least 48 hours. In one session, they did compound exercises first emphasizing large muscle groups and isolation exercises towards the end of the workout. In the second session, they switched the order so that they worked small muscle groups and performed isolation exercises first.

What were the results? Training that progressed from larger, complex exercises to smaller, isolation ones maximized the amount of resistance the men were able to work with during the session. Because they were able to train harder, you might anticipate greater growth.  As researchers in this study quote, “Exercises performed early in a workout respond best to the resistance training stimulus, regardless of whether they are single-joint or multi-joint.” Another study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that exercise order can impact training results even when intensity and volume are kept constant.

 Other Training Variables

You’re probably already familiar with training variables that impact muscle growth – volume, amount of resistance used, rest period between sets, training frequency, rep velocity and type of exercise. Exercise order is another variable you can modify to enhance your gains. Start by training muscle groups that are lagging behind and need more work first, whether they’re upper body or lower body. When doing this, perform compound, multi-joint exercises before isolation ones. If your upper and lower body is pretty evenly developed, begin by working large muscle groups followed by small ones.

Breaking the Rules

Once you’re more advanced, there are ways to creatively break this rule to challenge your muscles differently. For example, some bodybuilders use a rule-breaking technique called “pre-exhaust” sets. The goal of this type of training is to pre-fatigue a certain muscle using an isolation movement. Rest one to two minutes, then do a compound movement that uses the same muscle. For example, do a set of biceps curls followed by a set of bent-over rows. By doing this, you’re “double fatiguing” the isolation muscle and creating a greater stimulus for growth. Don’t try this technique until you’ve been training for a while and have reached a plateau. The disadvantage of this method is you can’t lift as much when you do the compound movement since you’re already pre-fatigued.

The Bottom Line

Exercise order may not have as much impact on your training as the volume you do or the amount of resistance you use, but it can impact how much volume you’re able to perform. By structuring your workouts so that you do priority exercises first when you’re fresh, and doing compound movements that work the most muscle groups before you’re fatigued, you can do more volume on the exercises that matter most. The order in which you do exercises is another variable you can tweak to maximize gains and break through plateaus.

So next time you train, give a little thought as to exercise sequence. It matters.



Sports Medicine, 42 (3), 251-65.

IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Does Exercise Order Really Matter in Resistance Training?” December 9, 2014.

Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 13 (1), 65-69.

Sports Med. 2012 Mar 1;42(3):251-65. doi: 10.2165/11597240-000000000-00000.

Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2010) 9, 1 – 7.

“Exercise Order in Upper-Body Training.” Phil Block, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

J Hum Kinet. 2014 Dec 30;44:203-10. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2014-0127. eCollection 2014.


Related Articles By Cathe:

Does Exercise Order Impact Strength Gains?

Do You Need to Do Isolation Exercises?

5 Reasons You Should Do More Compound Exercises

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