Choosing an Exercise Order

Exercise order should not feel complex. Pick an order that allows you to do your best on each exercise. If you take my advice to focus on only three exercises for lifting then order matters very little. Much more important issues matter such as reducing the overall volume of the program.

Traditional Model

Most programs pick an order from the following options:

  • Large muscle groups to small muscle groups.
  • Most intense to least intense (almost always the above), such as starting with squats due to the indirect effect.
  • Complex to simple or high skill to low skill, such as starting with Olympic lifts.
  • Addressing weaknesses first.
  • Varying the order constantly.

Your whole system fatigues in addition to the local fatigue you feel when working specific muscles, so performance may worsen on later exercises. This is the main reason for caring about exercise order. It makes sense then to choose an order that works best for your goals.

This complexity in exercise order is not needed though. The analysis paralysis comes from a poor paradigm to begin with that relies on a long exercise menu. The problem comes from doing too much exercise overall.

Reduce First

I suggest focusing on only three exercises when lifting: a push, a squat, and a pull. A push is an upper body movement with the weight lifted away from the body. A pull is an upper body movement with the weight lifted toward the body. A squat has you extend the hips, knees, and ankles to move a weight with the lower body. The core receives enough work through these and with your intervals.

I suggest using the barbell flat bench press, the single-armed dumbbell row, and the low-bar barbell back squat only.

A Simpler Model

After this shift, you can now base your order on preferences. You will find it makes little difference with such a small set of exercises. I personally like alternating upper body with lower body. For a full-body workout, I use a push, squat, and pull order.

A push and a pull have some crossover and may affect each other when done back-to-back. I also found that squats fatigued me so greatly that I lost some focus on the bench press. The bench press then fatigued me somewhat for pull-ups.

These are personal issues though and you may differ. Many have had success beginning with squats. Also consider taking longer rest lengths between sets regardless of order. This works best for developing strength and size. You then train your cardio separately with intervals at the end or on a different day instead of rushing through exercises to get your heart rate up.

Once you find a good order, keep it. Keeping the same order in the long run works better than always changing it up. It allows you to compare progress relative to the whole workout from session to session. You gain and retain skills more easily. Our bodies prefer order over chaos when perfecting form.

Although I assumed a full-body routine here, you can also do well with a split routine. Simplify things by judging progress on each exercise. Support a setup that allows you to improve best.

Exercise Order Matters Little if Your Program Works

You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

– Miyamoto Musashi

Before overanalyzing your exercise order, consider reducing your program. This will lower total fatigue and allow you to put more effort into what remains. Since the exercise selection remains small, you can choose an exercise order that works for you based on your own preferences.

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