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Does Exercise Order Really Matter in Resistance Training
Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

Article Reviewed:
Simao, R., de Salles, B.F., Figueiredo, T., Dias, I. and Willardson, J.M. (2012). Exercise order in resistance training. Sports Medicine, 42(3), 251-265.

The chief variables of resistance training design research include intensity, volume, recovery between sets and exercises, workout frequency, equipment, and speed of movement (Simao et al. 2012). Less researched, yet prominently decisive, is the exercise order in resistance training. Simao and colleagues note that the 2002 and 2009 ACSM position stands on resistance exercise suggest that large muscle group exercises be generally performed first in a training session. However, to determine the scientific validation on exercise order, Simao et al. methodically evaluated all of the research on this topic to ascertain what the evidence submits is for training outcomes.

What is the Influence of Exercise Order On Acute Responses?
With acute responses, researchers are determining the effect exercise order may have on immediate workout performance. In this research some type of total repetitions, total force or a calculated fatigue factor is used as the measurement criterion. One of the first well-conducted studies (Sforzo and Touey, 1996) investigating this question had 17 trained men perform two workouts consisting of four sets of 6 exercises with an 8-repetition maximum intensity (meaning participants completed all exercises at the load where they reached momentary muscular fatigue on repetition 8). Participants rested 2 min between consecutive sets, 3 minutes between exercises and 5 minutes between the upper-body and lower body sections of the workout. Subjects completed two randomized assigned workouts separated by 48-72 hours. One session progressed from large muscle group (multi-joint exercises) to small muscle group (single-joint exercises) with the other session in an opposite order.

Session A: Squat, leg extension, leg curl, bench press, shoulder press, triceps extension
Session B: Leg curl, leg extension, squat, triceps extension, shoulder press, bench press

Results indicate that training with a larger (multi-joint) to smaller (single-joint) progression will maximize the total resistance lifted during that training session. However, further analysis of the data led the authors to conclude that to maximize the stimulus for a particular muscle group, the study results suggest that exercises for that group should be completed first; exercises performed early in a workout, regardless if multi-joint or single-joint, respond best to the resistance training stimulus.

Simao et al. (2012) recap other studies examining acute exercise order response concur with Sforzo and Touey (1996). Irrespective of whether the exercise is a large (multi-joint) or small (single-joint), whenever an exercise is performed later in the workout sequence, evidence shows that fewer total repetitions are performed, keeping a constant intensity (Simao et al., 2012).

What is the Influence on Exercise Order on Neuromuscular Activity?
Augustsson and colleagues (2003) investigated the neuromuscular activity of the lower extremity muscular for the leg press when performed alone versus the pre-exhaust technique (PRET) popularly performed by body builders. The PRET involves performing a single-joint exercise immediately prior to a multi-joint exercise (such as a knee extension prior to the leg press). Augustsson et al. had 17 trained men perform two resistance training trials (separated by 5 minutes) in which one set with a 10-RM load for the leg press was performed alone and a second trial with a traditional PRET order (i.e., leg extension exercise immediately prior to leg press). Total number of repetitions and electromyographical data (of rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and gluteus maximum) indicated the PRET was associated with a decrease in leg press total repetitions and decreased quadriceps muscle activation, respectively, versus the performance of the leg press alone. Interestingly, the very popular PRET technique was found to have shortcomings on performance and strength during the multi-joint exercise.

Gentil et al. (2007) investigated the PRET technique with the upper body musculature using a 10RM load intensity. The researchers had 13 male subjects performed one single joint chest fly exercise set immediately prior to one multi-joint bench press set. On the second trial subjects performed one bench press set first, which was immediately followed by one fly exercise set. Total repetitions completed of both exercises were not significantly different. However, Gentil et al. observed that the exercise repetitions performed were always greater for a specific exercise when that particular exercise is completed first. The results of this study also concur with the Augustsson et al. study, that the PRET is less effective in increasing the activation of the pre-fatigued muscles during the multi-joint exercise. Gentil et al. summarize that if an exercise is critically important to a training goal, then that exercise should be placed at the beginning of the training session.

What is the Influence of Exercise Order on Oxygen Consumption?
Farinatti et al. (2013) investigated the influence on exercise order in 10 younger (ave age=22 yrs) and 8 older (ave age=69 yrs) trained women. The subjects randomly performed two different exercise sequences with three sets at a 10RM intensity with 2 minutes rest between sets. Sequence 'A' was performed in this order: bench press, shoulder press, and triceps extension. Sequence 'B' was performed in opposite order after a 48-hour rest. This study indicates that exercise order does not effect energy expenditure in younger and older trained women. Simao et al. (2012) summarize that research investigating exercise order and post-workout oxygen consumption currently also does not show any difference. However, the researchers state more research is needed to confirm or refute this data.

What is the Influence of Exercise Order on Rating of Perceived Exertion?
Simao et al. (2012) state that five studies have investigated the effect of exercise order on rating of perceived exertion (RPE), with subjective intensity scores collected during (and then averaged) the resistance training workout. The majority of the studies (4 out of 5) do not show any difference in RPE scores between opposing exercise order sequences.

What is the Influence of Exercise Order on Chronic Adaptations?
Dias et al. (2010) investigated the effect of exercise order in an 8-week training study. Untrained male subjects were randomly assigned to Group 1 (large muscle progressing to small muscles), Group 2 (small muscles progressing to large muscles) and Group 3 served as a non-training control group. The Group 1 exercise order was bench press, latissimus dorsi pull-down, shoulder press, biceps curl, and triceps extension. Group 2 did the exercises in the opposite order. Subjects attended 3 training sessions per week, with at least 48 hours between sessions. Rest between sets was 2 minutes. Subjects completed exercises between an 8-12RM during the length of the study. A 1RM was assessed on each exercise for the pre-test and post-test analysis of the data. Both training groups demonstrated significant strength increases ranging from 16.3-77.8% in all of the exercises. However, only the triceps extension and biceps curl exercises in group 2 had significantly greater strength than group 1 (which were the first exercises in the group 2 order).

Simao et al. (2010) investigated the exercise order in a linear periodized 12-week study with 31 men (ave age=28 yrs). Subjects were randomly assigned to Group 1 (large muscle progressing to small muscles, n=9), Group 2 (small muscles progressing to large muscles, n=13) and Group 3 served as a non-training control group (n=9). Subjects trained two times a week with at least 72 hours separating each workout. Exercises for group 1 were bench press, latissimus dorsi pull-down, triceps extension and biceps curls. Group 2 did exercises in the opposite order. Both group 1 and 2 demonstrated significant strength improvements when compared to the control group, except the biceps curl in group 1 and bench press in group 2. Interestingly, the exercises placed at the end of the sequence in both groups showed the least improvement. This study clearly shows an unfavorable influence of exercises completed at the end of a workout.

Simao et al. (2012) summarize other training studies investigating the chronic effect on exercise order and conclude exercise order should not always proceed from the conventional large muscle group to small muscle group sequence. The most important determinant of exercise order should be client needs and/or movement patterns in need of improvement--with those priority exercises going first in a workout (Simao et al. 2012).

Summary Thoughts
The research challenges anecdotal recommendations to always progress from large muscles to small muscles in training sessions. Simao et al. (2012) summarize the chief determining factor of exercise order should be the movement pattern needs of the client. Also, it appears that for the upper body and lower body musculature, the evidence does not support utilizing the popular body building pre-exhaustion training technique for strength improvement or neuromuscular activation. However, from a safety standpoint, which has not been addressed by any published study, it may be prudent for personal trainers to train some clients with a multi-joint to single-joint workout progression to prevent any undue consequences of muscle fatigue at the end of a workout.

Additional References:
Augustsson, J. Thomme, R., Hornstedt, P. et al. (2003). Effect of pre-exhaustion exercise on lower-extremity muscle activation during a leg press exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(2), 411-416.
Dias, I., de sales, B.F., Novaes, J. et al. (2010). Influence of exercise order on maximum strength in untrained young men. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 13(1), 65-69.
Farinatti, P.T.V., Da Silva, N.S.L., and Monteiro, W.D. (2013). Influence of exercise order on the number of repetitions, oxygen uptake, rate of perceived exertion during strength training in younger and older women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), 776-785.
Gentil, P. Oliveira, E., Rocha Junior, V.A. et al. (2007). Effects of exercise order on upper-body muscle activation and exercise performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(4), 1082-1086.
Sforzo, G.A. and Touey, P.R. (1996). Manipulating exercise order affects muscular performance during a resistance exercise training session. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10, 20-24.
Simao, R., Spineti, J., de Salles, B.F. et al. (2010). Influence of exercise order on maximum strength and muscle thickness in untrained men. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 9, 1-7.