Why Some Athletes Should Start Their Workouts With Heavy Lifts—and Some Should Not

Choosing the correct exercise order is just as important as choosing the right weight.

As a trainer, my job is to combine sound scientific programming with tried and true practical knowledge and mesh the two into kickass workouts. Every good trainer has his or her own tricks of the trade to make each rep a bit harder and give their clients an edge.

With the multitude of trainers and of opinions, it's tough to figure out who is right. In reality, two different opinions can have merits. This is the truth behind the debate on exercise order.

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Conventional wisdom says start with heavy compound movements such as Squats or Bench Press and lift the maximum weight possible first, before moving on to isolation movements that target a single muscle group. However, as you will read in this article, this isn't always the best case.

The Pros and Cons of Performing Compound Lifts First

Doing compound movements first gives you a mental boost, because you can lift heavy weights while your body is fresh. It also stimulates a broad range of muscles to begin the process of annihilating individual muscle groups later in the workout.

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As a negative, this type of exercise order can make it more difficult to narrow down a stimulus to one muscle group since so many are initially activated. Also, due to the extreme physical and mental fatigue caused by heavy compound exercises, an athlete may be prematurely exhausted in a training session and unable to properly isolate later in the workout.

The Pros and Cons of Performing Isolation Exercises First

Doing isolation movements first fatigues individual muscles before recruiting additional muscle fibers. The benefit is that though specific muscles may be exhausted, many surrounding muscles are recruited to assist in moving the weight.

For example, consider an athlete who does a Pec Fly before bench pressing. After being worn out during the Flys, the pecs may not be firing on all cylinders, but the triceps and shoulders will be recruited to an even greater degree to lift the weight.

This type of exercise order can allow prolonged intense workouts since many muscles are initially spared in the isolation movements, thereby reducing early fatigue.

The greatest drawback is the major loss in strength when performing heavy compound movements.

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What should you do?

Both sides of the argument have their merits, but how does this apply to individual athletes? It all depends on the demands of their sport.

For athletes playing dynamic agility sports that require power and body control, like football or basketball, the name of the game is compound first. Whether in season or off, these sports require as much muscle recruitment as possible. Power and heavy strength movements should be done first while the athlete is fresh and can move explosively, simulating game day movements.

When building mass, both exercise orders have their place. Compound first allows for heavier weight and max muscle recruitment. Isolation first spares energy for later in the workout and allows for the recruitment of other muscles to take over. For strength and power sports, it's all about max muscle recruitment, and compound first is the way to go. Choosing the correct exercise order is as important as choosing the right weight. Know your goals and choose the optimal sequence of exercises to yield the best results.