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

Article Reviewed:
Simao, R., Farinatti, P.D.T.V., Polito, M.D., Major, A. S., Fleck, S.J. (2005). Influence of exercise order on the number of repetitions performed and perceived exertion during resistance exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Vol. 19(1), 152-156.

Exercise training designs are based upon available research and applications of theoretical knowledge. Since many areas in exercise design have not been thoroughly studied, the value of many common exercise practices is often employed, but subject to debate. One such area is the well-accepted technique of performing large-muscle group exercises prior to small-muscle group exercises during resistance training. The rationale behind this training recommendation is two-fold. First, total force production for the entire workout is greater when large-muscle groups are exercised before small-muscle groups. Second, when small-muscle groups are exercised first, the force production of the following larger muscle groups is decreased. In theory, these tenets support ordering resistance exercise this way because it may result in the greatest overall strength gains. In practice, however, when large-muscle groups are always exercised before smaller-muscle groups, the smaller muscle groups may not become as well trained. If those smaller muscle groups are important in the program of the exercising individual, performance may instead suffer.

The purpose of this study was to examine the effect of exercise order on the number of repetitions performed and ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) in a resistance training session composed of five upper body exercises. The hypothesis was that, regardless of the exercise order of the particular program, muscle groups exercised later in the exercise session would be more greatly fatigued than the muscle groups performed earlier in the session.

The study design utilized a counterbalanced crossover research protocol. In essence, using random assignment, this study plan requires each subject to complete all of the treatment sequences. For example, in this investigation eighteen male and female participants (14 male, 4 female; average age = 20 yr), who had at least 6 months of resistance training experience, performed 2 exercise sessions 48 hours apart. Each volunteer was randomly assigned to a particular exercise session to follow, and then completed the second exercise session 48 hours later. Each exercise session consisted of the exact same exercises, but in a different order. Sequence “A” worked large-muscle groups before small-muscle groups (free-weight bench press, machine lat pull-down, seated machine shoulder press, standing free-weight biceps curl with a straight bar, and seated machine triceps extension). Sequence “B“ reversed the exercise order, working smaller-muscle groups first (seated machine triceps extension, standing free-weight biceps curl with a straight bar, seated machine shoulder press, machine lat pull-down, and free-weight bench press). All exercises in both sequences were performed for 3 sets to volitional fatigue using a pre-determined 10 repetition maximum (10RM) weight. Sets of exercises in both the sequences were separated by timed 2-minute passive rest periods.

All testing and training was completed on Life FitnessTM equipment and free weights. This 10RM weight determination was made 48 hours prior to the two exercise sessions following standardized procedures. Thus the 10RM testing established the training weight for the performance of the 5 upper body exercises during sequences “A” and “B”. After the 10RM of one exercise was reached, no shorter than 10 minutes were allowed before the next exercise 10RM was attempted. During the training sequences, no pause was allowed between the eccentric and concentric phase of each repetition. Also, the warm-up before training sessions “A” and “B” consisted of performing 12 repetitions of the first exercise in the sequence at a weight of 40% of the 10RM.

There were no significant differences in the number of repetitions performed between the first and second sets for all exercises between sequences “A” and “B”. There were also no differences between the two sequences in the third set, except for the bicep curl (significantly fewer in sequence “A”). Thus, the exercise order DID NOT significantly affect the number of repetitions performed with the five upper body exercises. However, when repetitions per set ‘within’ each sequence was evaluated, there were clear trends for decreased performance for exercises performed later in the protocol, particularly in the third set of the exercise. Thus within sequence “A” and “B”, most subjects were unable to perform as many repetitions on the third set with most of the five upper body exercises. There was no difference in RPE scores.

Regardless of whether a large-muscle to small-muscle group or small-muscle to large-muscle group sequence is employed, with multiple-set exercise schemes, sets preformed later in the sequence show the most decreased performance (as measured by repetitions performed). Muscle fatigue causes a decrease in repetitions in the final set of a 3-set (multiple-set) upper body training regime, regardless of order. This research suggests that although many fitness professionals develop exercise programs that focus on large muscle groups earlier in the session, this technique may be too blindly followed with upper body training programs.
In this study, no single muscle group was a primary mover in 2 successive exercises of the five upper body exercises in sequences “A” and “B”. Thus, these sequences represented common training protocols employed by many personal trainers and strength and conditioning professionals.

This study recommends looking at the particular functional objective of each client and tailoring the upper body exercise sequence to best meet this end. In short, exercise the most important muscle groups early in the training program regardless of whether it is a large muscle group or small muscle group. This will allow the client to target the muscle groups that will help to achieve his or her goals more quickly. Instead of viewing an exercise program in traditional terms of the greatest overall strength gains, our clients are better served by looking at which muscles and muscle-groups are most important to their goals, and then designing programs to achieve these objectives. In addition, for variety in upper body training exercise plans, this study suggests the large-muscle to small-muscle group and small-muscle to large-muscle group exercise designs are viable options to incorporate.
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