The order of your moves actually changes how effective your workout is. Here are the rules you need to follow.
You already know that the order of certain things matters—cleanser before serum, socks before shoes, toaster before avocado mash. Well, when you’re working out in the gym, order matters too.
Plain and simple, the order of your exercise movements is actually one of the defining factors in how effective your workout regimen is.
If you remember one thing, make it this: Do more technical, harder, full-body movements before the smaller-muscle-focused accessory work.
It can be daunting to plan your own workout routine if you have no idea where to start. These seven rules of exercise order can help you.
1. Should you do strength or cardio first?
Should you do cardio before strength training is the million-dollar fitness question. The answer comes down to your goals. If you want to build muscle, you should start with 5 to 12 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity cardio to get your blood flowing. That may come in the form of a quick dynamic warm-up or some time on the treadmill or elliptical. Much more than that could fatigue your muscles too much—you want to be fresh before stepping up to the dumbbells or barbell, which is where you’ll build your strength.
If strength is your goal: Warm up, do your strength workout, then finish with longer cardio bouts if you want to bake cardio into the equation.
However, if you’re training for a race or looking to build cardio endurance, start with cardio—just be careful when you get to the weights. Prolonged steady-state cardio or high-intensity interval training will tax your body, so only lift as much as you can with good form. Or consider doing your strength workouts on days when you don’t need to log training miles so you can go heavier.
2. Program plyos first.
Plyometrics have gotten buzz for their ability to make you explosive and strong. Most experts recommend only doing plyometric movements twice a week. And on the days you do them, do them after warming up but before anything else.
While these moves are a surefire way to make you firmer and faster, they shouldn’t be done under fatigue. Plyo movements are all about all-out effort with good form. At the end of your workout, traditional plyometric movements simply aren’t going to be as explosive – and therefore as effective – as they would at the beginning of your workout.
What if finishing up your workout with a cardiovascular burn is your jam? Jump wisely. You could actually get injured if you try anything single-legged or with equipment (think depth jumps, single-leg hops, box jumps, jumping box step-ups, etc.) when you’re already tired. Keep it to squat jumps and burpees, and stop when your form gets wonky.
3. Do multi-joint before single-joint.
If you really want to reap the benefits of strength training, multi-joint—also called “compound”—exercises are where it’s at. Compound exercises like the back squat, deadlift, and push press are movements that work multiple joints (ex: your knees, hips, and shoulders) and thus multiple muscle groups at the same time. They improve full-body strength, elevate the heart rate quickly, and improve coordination and balance too.
But here’s the thing: Compound exercises usually require more technique than an exercise that only works one muscle group, which means you want to be as fresh as possible when doing them. That’s why experts recommend doing compound movements first.
You can move on to single-joint movements: Single-joint and single-muscle exercises can usually still be performed well under fatigue, but the opposite isn’t usually true.
The risk of performing compound movements under fatigue is two-fold. If you do compound movements when you’re super fatigued, there will be a lapse in technique, which reduces the effectiveness of that exercise for building muscle and teaching safe movement patterns, plus increases your risk of injury.
4. Do high-energy bodyweight moves first.
If you’re just doing bodyweight movements in your workout, you might think order doesn’t matter. But it does – especially if you’re a gym newbie. Use the same principle as above: Do the exercises that require the most energy first. Think about it this way: Which takes more energy, a push-up or a calf raise? A push-up. Which takes more energy, a crunch or an air squat? An air squat. A pull-up or a glute bridge? A pull-up.
If you’re a seasoned exerciser, the risk of injury during bodyweight movements is low, regardless of order of exercise. But people who are just learning full-body movements like the push-up or air squats should do those movements first so that they’re able to preserve form and reap all the muscle-building benefits.
5. Keep circuits safe.
What if you’re doing a circuit (ex: 30-minute circuit workout), where you’re doing a variety of moves in succession? Good news: If you can safely perform 15 to 20 reps of all the bodyweight movements in the circuit, you can just go at it.
If you’ve ever taken a boot camp or HIIT-style class, you’ve probably done a circuit that includes weights. That’s okay, too. Just don’t let your ego get in the way. Pick a weight you can safely use to perform 15 to 20 reps.
6. Switch it up.
Many people organize their workout routines based on certain muscle groups. For example, back and shoulders on Monday, chest and triceps on Tuesday, etc. The idea is that this split combines different movement patterns to help you effectively increase muscle growth while reducing risk of injury. However, if you’re doing the same workout every time you hit the gym for leg day, you’re doing it wrong—you should be varying the order of your exercises.
7. Save abs for the end.
There’s a reason you usually finish classes torching your core: Core circuits should be done at the end of the workout. Remember compound movements and full-body moves like the push-up are going to work your core even more than a crunch or plank does. You don’t want to go into those with your core already taxed.”
Remember: It can be tempting to throw a workout together like ingredients in a blender. But to get the most out of your time at the gym, spend a little extra time planning out the order that you’re going to do your exercises. When in doubt, there’s one main rule: Exercises that use the most energy and muscle groups should be done first.