What Does "Exercise Order" Mean?

Shelby Miller

Exercise order may refer to the sequence in which segments of a workout, such as the cardio, strength training, and stretching portions, are performed. It may also refer to the order of individual exercises in a strength workout, such as exhausting large muscle groups before the smaller ones. There is plenty of debate among fitness experts as to the best way to structure a workout, however, they are increasingly recommending an exercise order of warm-up, strength training, cardio, and cool down. As there are so many ways to organize a strength workout, there is no one consensus on exercise order, but a few techniques to increase efficiency may be utilized, such super-setting strength exercises.

An anatomical illustration showing many muscles in the upper body.
An anatomical illustration showing many muscles in the upper body.

The first segment of the exercise order is the warm-up. While techniques may vary, it may consist of a thermogenic warm-up, in which the body temperature is raised through continuous movement like jumping jacks or walking on a treadmill, followed by dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves moving joints through their full range of motion, often by mimicking exercises to be performed with no external resistance added, such as performing a set of walking lunges. This technique may not be recommended for the novice exerciser. Instead, static stretching is the final component of the warm-up, in which the exerciser places tight muscle groups like the chest or hamstrings in a stretch that is held without bouncing for 15-20 seconds before beginning the strength-training workout.

Jumping jacks can be part of a warmup, the first step in an exercise order.
Jumping jacks can be part of a warmup, the first step in an exercise order.

Recently, fitness experts have been recommending that strength training be placed ahead of cardiovascular training in the exercise order. If the goal of the workout is weight loss, muscle building, or both, the exerciser can benefit from this order by burning off the body’s carbohydrate stores, its primary energy source, during the strength session. Strength training depends on carbs for energy, whereas an individual can pull from multiple energy sources during a cardio session.

Dynamic stretching involves moving joints through their full range of motion.
Dynamic stretching involves moving joints through their full range of motion.

If the carbohydrate stores are exhausted during the strength workout, the body will pull from its next available energy source during the cardio workout: stored body fat. Therefore, placing strength training before cardio encourages fat burning as well as focuses the individual’s energy on building muscle. Cardiovascular training only need come first if the exerciser’s main goal is increased cardiovascular endurance, as in training for a running or cycling race.

Where exercise order within a strength training session is concerned, many techniques may be used successfully. Since individual muscle groups are isolated and trained to complete exhaustion during a mass-building workout, order of exercises is more significant to individuals looking to put on size than to those looking to burn fat and tone up, who may choose more compound, full-body movements. Traditionally, large muscle groups are trained before small ones. This applies during a workout that focuses on synergistic muscle groups such as chest and triceps, muscles that work together on many movements. For instance, as the chest is the larger muscle group, exercises like flies and presses that predominantly exhaust the pectorals should be performed before isolating the smaller triceps muscle, which is needed to assist the chest in these movements.

Another technique for strength training is super-setting, a useful strategy for training multiple unrelated muscle groups in the same day. A time-saving technique, super-setting involves alternating a set of an exercise for one muscle group, such as a lat pull-down for the latissimus dorsi, with a set of an exercise for either an opposing muscle group like the shoulders or an unrelated muscle like the quadriceps in the legs. This type of exercise sequencing allows more exercises to be performed in less time, as one muscle group gets to rest while the other is targeted.

Static stretching involves holding the stretch for a long period of time.
Static stretching involves holding the stretch for a long period of time.

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