When we start a strength-training program, there are a lot of variables—like what exercises to do, how long to rest for between sets, and how often to train—to consider. Often, all of these factors leave gym-goers so confused that they either approach their workouts haphazardly and miss out on the benefits or invest in working with a trainer to design a workout program for them.
Of course, it’s not always possible to sync up your schedule (or your wallet!) with a fitness professional, but that shouldn’t mean you’re doomed to experience lackluster results.
Though it’ll take more than one article to help you navigate all of the training variables out there, right now I’m here to clear up one big one for you: exercise order.
In case you’re wondering whether it really matters what exercises you tackle first or second (or save for last), it does! Let’s get into why.
Why Does Exercise Order Matter?
Generally, we make the most progress on exercises we complete first in a workout because that’s when we have the most energy. In this sense, energy means both physiological energy (think calories) as well as mental energy (think motivation).
As you continue through your workout, you burn through some of your “ready-to-go” energy stores, and probably start feeling the effects in the form of reduced muscle activation and strength. Without this muscle activation, you can’t stimulate as many muscle fibers to grow and don’t make as many gains from the exercises you do.
Meanwhile, as you get fatigued, your mental focus and motivation certainly drop. This means that you’re probably not going to have as much oomph available for—or get as many results from—exercises performed later in your workout.
Now, this effect is probably more pronounced for folks performing workouts longer than 45 to 60 minutes. Physiologically, it makes sense for fatigue to really start affecting you at this point, but it also depends on how much volume you’re doing and how heavy you’re lifting. If you’re doing a ton of reps or lifting really heavy, fatigue will certainly kick in faster.
How To Order The Exercises In Your Workouts
The most common approach to ordering the exercises in your workouts is the “complex-to-simple method.” Essentially, this idea suggests that you do your most complex and/or demanding exercises at the beginning of your workout since that’s when you’ll have the most energy (physiologically and mentally).
If you do any plyometrics and Olympic lifts, which are the most demanding movements, prioritize doing them first. Otherwise, start with your most demanding compound (multi-joint) movement for the day, like squats or bench presses, since these exercises require your best effort.
Read More: 5 Strength Moves Everyone Should Do
Also important to note: Most people can get away with two of these more demanding exercises per workout. Whether your second compound movement of the day is simply a variation of your first or not, you’ll still likely have plenty of juice in the tank to tackle it.
After that second exercise, though, you can start to get into some of your accessory movements. Here, too, start with the most complex or important (more on that later) and progress to the simplest.
Here’s an outline of how that might look in practice:
- Tier 1: Plyometrics, jumps, and Olympic lifts
- Tier 2: Heavy or explosive compound movements (squat, pull-up, bench press, deadlift, etc.)
- Tier 3: Other compound movements (variations of Tier 2)
- Tier 4: Main, challenging accessory movements (Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, etc.)
- Tier 5: Tougher isolation exercises (heavy curls, leg extensions, etc.)
- Tier 6: Simpler isolation exercises (lighter band work, etc.)
Keep in mind that you don’t have to hit every single tier in every (or any) workout. Most people skip Tier 1 and not everyone needs Tiers 5 and 6; it all depends on your goals.
How Your Goals Impact Exercise Order
The above general recommendation works pretty well for about 95 percent of people. To me, the other five percent includes people who have at least five years of consistent training and very specific goals (like growing X muscle or improving X lift). Since most folks simply work out for general benefits, they likely aren’t lumped into this group. However, if you have significant experience and highly specific goals, read on.
Remember, we want to place our most complex or demanding exercises at the beginning of a workout. For you, that means the most important exercises for your specific goal.
In bodybuilding, for example, many of these athletes have massive quads, but their hamstrings lag behind. To address this, they start their leg workouts with hamstrings isolation exercises (like leg curls) to ensure their hamstrings are getting targeted training before they perform squats, lunges, and other moves.
Or, say you want to really improve your bench press. Starting most of your upper-body workouts with some sort of bench press variation will ensure you can put the most effort towards it. If you’ve uncovered a specific weakness in your bench (like weak triceps, poor speed off the chest, etc.), though, target that specific weakness early on in your workout. Heck, you might start your pressing day with triceps exercises to ensure your triceps catch up to your chest and shoulder strength!
Personally, I flip the complex-to-simple script on my leg days to support my goals. I’ve been lifting hard for over 20 years and my knees remind me of that quite often. Therefore, I actually start most of my leg days with lighter isolation exercises like leg extensions and leg curls to make sure I’m plenty warmed up for my squats or lunges. Since my goal is to remain pain-free, ordering my exercises this way makes sense for me.
Ultimately, this method requires a little more thought and planning and necessitates that you have specific goals and a decent idea of how to achieve them. Again, for most people, the complex-to-simple approach works just fine.
At the end of the day, there are several variables that go into designing a safe and effective training program. Exercise order is one of those variables—and we usually see folks make the best gains on exercises performed early on in their workouts.
Therefore, a common recommendation is to order your exercises from complex to simple to ensure you’re doing the heaviest lifting when you have the most energy. Alternatively, advanced athletes and trainees can take advantage of placing the exercises that best support their unique goals early on in a workout. This might lead some folks to completely flip the complex-to-simple script, but if it supports their goals, that’s a-okay.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering where cardio fits in here: Again, it depends on your goals. Do you want to improve endurance or build strength and muscle? That should clue you in on which to perform first.
Ultimately, I hope this helps give you an idea of why exercise order can be important as well as how to take advantage of this unique variable. Happy lifting!
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.