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Which exercises should you do first in a workout?

Key takeaways

  • Exercise order can have a significant impact on your training performance and results
  • Generally speaking, do heavy compound exercises that target large muscle groups before you do any other exercises
  • Prioritize exercises or muscle groups that you want to improve the most by placing them early in your workout

Exercise order

Determining which exercises you should do first in a workout is about more than just preference. In actuality, exercise order can have a significant impact on your physical performance and results.

In this article, we’ll cover the reasons why exercise order is important to your training results, as well as provide general guidelines on which exercises you should do at the beginning of your workouts.

Train large muscle groups before small ones

Apart from certain intensity techniques that break this rule (such as pre-exhaustion training), you should almost always train large muscle groups before small ones. The simple reason for this is that smaller muscles tend to fatigue faster than larger ones. If your triceps (as opposed to your chest) are usually the reason why you fail your push-ups, you would want to avoid doing a triceps exercise before your push-ups, as this would just result in your being able to do even fewer repetitions and get even less chest work in.

Do heavy compound exercises first

One of the first things most new lifters learn is to do the challenging exercises before the easier ones. For the most part, this means doing heavy compound exercises that involve many muscle groups (such as the barbell squat) before smaller isolation exercises that only train one muscle group (such as the leg extension).

The primary reason for doing this is that these exercises tend to allow for heavier loads to be used. If you’re already fatigued from doing a bunch of other exercises, you will not be able to lift as much weight as you’re usually able to. This will not only negatively impact your strength and muscle gains, but also potentially make these exercises more dangerous if you’re lifting heavy loads.

Prioritize exercises or muscle groups you want to improve the most

The exercises that you do earlier in a workout are generally the ones you get the most results from. This is thought to be because you’re not fatigued at the start of a workout, allowing you to use heavier loads and do more repetitions.

Since this mostly applies to strength gains, you’ll definitely want to prioritize the exercises that you want to get stronger on first. However, you should also choose exercises that target a muscle group (or region of a muscle) that you want to improve the most. For example, doing the incline barbell bench press before the (flat) barbell bench press will be best if your goal is to build the upper (clavicular) region of your chest.

Switching it up

You do not always have to do exercises in the same order. Placing an exercise at the start of your workout that you usually do near the middle can be a great strategy to help you break through strength plateaus. Similarly, training your hamstrings before your quadriceps in your leg workouts can be a great way to prioritize their growth if you find that they need extra work.

The most important part of structuring your workouts is ensuring that you have a well-balanced program. To see if your current routine is optimally balanced, see if it checks off all the boxes in Weight training guidelines and principles.

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