What's the Best Way to Organize My Workout?

The order in which you perform exercises when training is important. STACK explains why.

Multiple times a week, I see athletes walk into the weight room, and within minutes they're doing an exercise that's supposed to be performed halfway through the workout.

When I talk to them about how they could've possibly finished that much of their workout, they tell me, "there wasn't enough (insert equipment here), so I skipped ahead and was going to come back to it." Most athletes don't think twice about skipping around a workout like this, but the order in which you perform exercises matters. Changing the order will affect the energy system used, the stimulus provided and the efficiency and intensity of the workout. This article will attempt to give you an understanding of why exercise order matters and how to optimally organize your workouts.

Here's an example of a portion of two full-body workouts to illustrate this point.

Read More >>

Multiple times a week, I see athletes walk into the weight room, and within minutes they're doing an exercise that's supposed to be performed halfway through the workout.

When I talk to them about how they could've possibly finished that much of their workout, they tell me, "there wasn't enough (insert equipment here), so I skipped ahead and was going to come back to it." Most athletes don't think twice about skipping around a workout like this, but the order in which you perform exercises matters. Changing the order will affect the energy system used, the stimulus provided and the efficiency and intensity of the workout. This article will attempt to give you an understanding of why exercise order matters and how to optimally organize your workouts.

Why Does Exercise Order Matter?

Here's an example of a portion of two full-body workouts to illustrate this point.

Workout 1

Tri-set 1

  • Back Squat 4x6
  • DB Bent Row 4x6/side
  • YTWL's 4x5/letter

Tri-set 2

  • Chin-ups 4x6
  • Lunge 4x6/side
  • Cook Hip Lift 4x5

Workout 2

Tri-set 1

  • Back Squat 4x6
  • Lunge 4x6/side
  • Cook Hip Lift 4x5

Tri-set 2

  • Chin-ups 4x6
  • DB Bent Row 4x6
  • YTWL's 4x5/letter

The athlete has performed the same sets, reps and exercises, but has received significantly different stimulus from the two workouts. In Workout 1, the major exercises of each tri-set work different body regions, so the athlete can use significantly more weight on each exercise. On the other hand, in Workout 2, the athlete is working similar muscle groups in all three exercises, and therefore would not be able to use nearly as much weight. Both are legitimate workouts, but Workout 1 would focus on max strength, while workout two would lean toward muscular endurance and hypertrophy.

Below, I have listed some general guidelines for how to organize workouts. This can be changed slightly to adjust the stimulus received from the workout, but these are the general guidelines for optimal exercise order.

1. Complex Power Movements (Snatch, Clean, Jerk) should be performed at the beginning of the workout.

2. Exercises for Large Muscle groups should be performed before smaller muscle groups (Squats, Deadlifts before Pull-Ups or Bench Press).

3. Multi-joint exercises should be performed before single joint exercises (Presses before Lat Raises).

4. Core Training should come after complex multi-joint exercises. This is due to the high need of core stability during complex movements, so typically, you do not want the core to be fatigued.

5. For conditioning purposes, speed and agility should be performed before lifting while muscular endurance and aerobic endurance should be performed after lifting.

6. Corrective exercises can be performed at any point in the workout based on the goal of the corrective. For example, if you are activating your glutes to prepare for squats, then that would be at the beginning of the workout. Correctives can also be used as active recovery, which I will touch upon later.

These rules can be summed up by saying that you start with the most complex movements first and finish with the least complex. Any movement with speed is more complex than an exercise performed slowly, lower-body compound movements are more complex than upper-body, etc. Obviously, most workouts do not contain exercises from all six categories, but these rules can be utilized to organize any lift. Below are examples of how your order can be used to increase efficiency and intensity of workouts.

Efficiency

Using Tri-sets and supersets is a great way to add efficiency to your workout. Tri-sets are three exercises performed one after another for a certain number of rounds. Supersets are two exercises (typically working opposing muscle groups) performed back to back. In that first example above, the athlete is working their knee dominant strength, and then while they are resting their legs, they perform an upper-body pulling exercise. Then, while they are recovering from their Squat and Row, they have a corrective exercise. Instead of walking around for 1-4 minutes waiting for your legs to be ready to squat again, you have trained your upper body and helped correct a movement deficiency in that time. This allows the athlete to get significantly more work done in the same amount of time.

Intensity

For the purpose of this article, intensity is how challenging the workout is, not how much load the athlete lifts. Utilizing compound sets is a great way to make a workout more challenging. A compound set is two exercises performed one after another that work the same muscle group. Workout 2 is an example of a much more challenging order of workout than Workout 1.

Performing a Squat and then immediately going into a Lunge or a Chin-Up followed by a Row is going to make the workout significantly more challenging and reduce the load that can be lifted. The thought process behind this is that only the muscle fibers that are recruited will adapt, and this ensures that all the muscle fibers in a specific body region are recruited.

Studies have shown, though, that if the load is 80-85%, the athlete will recruit all muscle fibers to perform the lift. This does not negate the benefit of compound sets. Compound sets can be useful for increasing muscular hypertrophy. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that shorter recovery times increased growth hormone secretions, which can aid in building muscle. If you have never used compound sets in your workout, it is a great way to mix up your workouts and add a new challenge.

Order of exercise is very important. Strength and Conditioning coaches take time to the think about how to order exercises to increase intensity, efficiency and overall adaptation. I gave two examples of workouts that are legitimate ways to order exercises, but provide significantly different stimuli to the athlete. There are plenty of ways to format a workout (e.g., doing heavy cleans at the end of a workout) that decrease how effective the workout is and can increase injury risk to the athlete. If you have a strength coach programming your workouts, they are in that order for a reason. If you write your own workouts, utilize the rules above to get the most out of your lifts.

Photo Credit: milanvirijevic/iStock

READ MORE:

How to Determine the Best Exercise Order for Your Workout

How to Build a Customized Full-Body Workout Plan in Minutes

 


Topics: SQUAT | LOWER BODY | UPPER BODY | WORKOUT PLAN | CLEAN | SNATCH