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The Right Exercise Order for Maximum Muscle

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3 reasons why exercise order can speed up your progress or delay your muscle gains big-time.

By: Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography by: Gregory James; Model: IFBB Pro Toney Freeman

So you’ve finally created your favorite workout split, arranging your muscle groups within your week in the perfect order to meet your specific goals and schedule. Awesome. But once in the gym, how’s your approach to each bodypart? If you’re not following a specific plan, you’d be wise to strongly consider the order of your exercises.

Now, obviously, there are exceptions to the following rules, especially when incorporating the various tactics and techniques we introduce here at MuscleMag; but as a general rule, the step-by-step approach to your training order can be an integral part to your success.

Many lifters simply gravitate toward their favorite exercise first, bust out a few hardcore sets and then move on to what comes naturally, or should we say, habitually. So let’s take a step back and examine how a fresh and research-based approach to exercise order can instantly improve your symmetry.

Right out of the gates, and regardless of the bodypart for the day, your first exercise of choice should always be a compound (or multijoint) move. Those are the exercises that use the most muscle and the ones with which you can move the most weight. Take for example leg day; you want to hit the leg press (a compound move) before you hit the leg extension (an isolation, or single-joint, exercise). Remember, there are exceptions to this rule, specifically when you follow a pre-exhaust routine for quads, but as an overall axiom, hit the bigger moves first.

Now, if your plan for the bodypart of the day employs all the gym has to offer (as it should) including dumbbells, cables, machines, etc., then as a rule do your barbell work first. Reason being, you can lift more weight using barbells than you can with dumbbells, machines or cables, so in your efforts for strength and size, barbells are your best, first choice. Arm day? Go for the barbell curl prior to the dumbbell curl. Chest day? Head to the bench before you do the dumbbell press.

Finally, you hear this a lot, but be honest with yourself and determine your weaknesses. Fact is, you want to focus on areas of weakness before you hit your strong points. Unfortunately, 99% of us head straight for our comfort zones, hitting our strengths and leaving our weaknesses on the back burner, which causes them to slip further behind. It’s time to flip that thinking, realizing that the best way to bring your bodyparts into balance is to be an equal opportunity lifter. The better able you are to hit your trouble parts sooner in your routine, the better your overall symmetry will be.
So if your upper pecs are relatively weak, on chest day as opposed to doing flat bench work first, you’d be much better off busting out some incline barbell presses first to help bring up your upper chest. You can always hit your strong points later on. But if your upper pecs continue to be an afterthought, they’ll continue to lag behind.

What you might not realize is that imbalanced training and continuous improper order not only makes you look asymmetrical, but can also lead to injury. (For an in-depth discussion of symmetry and balance for injury prevention, see Sports Med on pg. 80) As a simple example, weak hamstrings and abs along with strong quads can cause back pain, and rear delt weakness and overpowering front delts and pecs can lead to rotator-cuff problems. So from aesthetic reasons to injury prevention, bringing smart order to your training day is imperative.

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