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Optimal exercise sequencing

First come, first serve. Kind of.

Whenever I read about training, I often find that much is said about sets, reps, and the type of exercises, but very little is written about the order in which these exercises are best executed. Most trainees will instinctively do the most challenging things first, because of the of the obvious factor of energy and motivation being highest early on in a training session. But as I will explain in this article, there are more factors at play, and taking them into account will have a serious impact on your training. Let's have a look at proper exercise sequencing.

"There are two factors to keep in mind: exercise complexity, and the relative amount of weight used."

In order to be able to come up with a good sequencing prescription, first we need to categorize the types of movement. Generally speaking, exercises range from relatively simple - usually single joint - exercises that require little energy and coordination (like a leg extension or arm curl), to complex exercises spanning multiple joints over large ranges of motion (like a squat or power clean). The simpler exercises tend to be executed with lower weights, higher repetitions and at lower movement speeds, while complex movements tend to be executed with much higher weights (and often at higher velocities). As to which exercises you should do first, there are two factors to keep in mind: exercise complexity, and the relative intensity at which exercises are done.

Let’s first review the notion of exercise complexity. Simply because the previously mentioned complex exercises (like squats) demand the most energy and focus, makes them a candidate for being executed first. If you've ever done your heavy squats either at the beginning or at the end of a workout, then you can attest to how much performance will suffer if they are performed in a fatigued state - and we need high performance if strength or muscle gain is the goal.

Another reason to leave single joint exercises for later, is that specifically tiring one muscle (or group of muscles) before having it play along in a complex exercise will severely hamper performance on the latter. Simply because these complex exercises depend on all partaking muscles to do their work. An example here would be a much weaker bench press if you're performing them straight after triceps extensions. By now we have decided that 'larger' exercises are to be done first. But the question then is: how do we categorize and distinguish between multiple large exercises? This is where our second criterium, relative intensity, comes into play.

"The high tension of heavy or quick lifting potentiates your nervous system, which in turn allows you to do a little bit more on subsequent lighter sets."

Have you ever noticed how lifting 75% of your max ‘feels’ a lot lighter if you’ve just lifted 90% before? Or how you seem to be stronger just after you've done something explosive? That’s not just a psychological effect. The high tension of heavy or quick lifting potentiates your nervous system, which in turn allows you to do a little bit more on subsequent lighter sets. Often referred to as post-activation potentiation, this basically means that straining a muscle hard increases its nervous excitability, allowing for a higher force output on following movements. It is therefore a good idea to always do quick and heavy work first - in exactly this order. Important to note here is that this is an effect that will transfer across similar movements (like the ability to do heavier lunges if they are preceded by heavy squats).

With all the information laid out, it's time to come to a conclusion. A good rule of thumb regarding exercise sequencing is: do the quick and heaviest things first, and do complex before isolation work. This order will generally ensure that your force output is maximized throughout your workout. If you're wondering about adding conditioning work to the mix: this counts as low intensity, so save the heavy breathing for last.

Good luck!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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