The Order of Exercise

Exercise order blog

The other day, I came across a video on the internet of an exercise competition. Two extremely muscular men were pitted against each other, going toe to toe, to find out who was the most fit.  The competition kicked off with a flurry of body weight and light barbell exercises, testing the limits of grip and muscular endurance. I had no issue with this, and if you like to compete in exercise, then I say go for it. However, after these fitness juggernauts finished the said workout, they had a very limited amount of time to set a max in an Olympic lift. One of the competitors made a final attempt for the win, and awkwardly twisted his ankle as he missed the lift. Did he incur any serious damage to his ankle? Hard to say. He is so strong that he may have been able to shake it off, but it illustrates a point that I  want to make. I don’t believe you should perform a maximal effort technical lift in a fatigued state at the end of a workout. The creator of the competition decided to catch people off guard by putting the max lift at the end of the workout, commenting on how most people do their heavy strength work before their high intensity interval training. In my opinion, there are sound reasons for that preferred order of exercises.

  • Olympic lifts are technically demanding
  • Fatigue erodes form
  • Poor form can increase the risk of injury

In an article titled, “Which Strength Sport Is Most Likely To Cause An Injury?” on, injury rates for strength sports (Olympic Lifting, Powerlifting, Crossfit, Strongman, and Bodybuilding) were found to be relatively low. The highest rate of injury was found in strongman training, 5.5 injuries per 1000 hours. A bodybuilding study came in with the lowest rate, at .24 injuries per 1000 hours. The other strength sports (Olympic lifting, Powerlifting, and CrossFit) ranged from .84 to 4.4 injuries per 1000 hours. The most common injuries were identified as the low back and shoulders. For comparison, “Long-distance running was one of the first sporting pastimes to be extensively explored. Van Mechelen (1992) reviewed the literature quite early on and reported that injury rates ranged from 2.5 – 12.1 injuries per 1,000 hours training. Very recent studies support injury rates at the top end of this range (e.g. Hespanhol, 2013),” according to Chris Beardsley’s article in Strength & Conditioning Research. If we look at most Olympic Lifting programs, at least all the ones I have seen, the most technical lifts are done first. Here is a solid example of this type of exercise programming from Catalyst Athletics. Catalyst Athletics is noted on their website as “The world’s largest source of educational material for Olympic Weightlifting”, and was founded in 2006 by Greg Everett.  The athletes like to do the technical lifts first so they have the energy to achieve good form with heavy loads. This brings me to my strategy for organizing exercises within a workout program. (please note: it is not the perfect or only way to organize a program, just an example)

  • Begin the workout with a dynamic warm-up to help increase mobility and blood flow. At the very least, you can jump on a piece of cardio equipment for a couple of minutes, but I know you can do better than that. Hit the foam roller, run through some mobility drills, and perform some movement preparation for optimal performance.
  • Place Olympic lifts and other power exercises at the beginning of your strength training workout, just after warm-ups. Fatigue can compromise good form and reduce your strength. To get the most benefit from these lifts or exercises, perform them first. I always like to say, “this is the part of the workout where we are always looking for quality over quantity.” Even something that doesn’t seem as technically demanding as the olympic lifts, for example box jumps, may be best performed at the beginning of the workout. Using the box jumps example, it could mean the difference between having a fully intact shin or leaving traces of it on the front of the box. If someone is returning from injury, or doesn’t move well, then I omit the power exercises for the time being.
  • Basic multi-joint strength exercises are the next logical progression after the power producing lifts. Lifts such as the squat, deadlift, and bench press for example, don’t require quite as much technical expertise as the power exercises, but they are great strength builders and it’s worth training them early while you still have some energy.
  • Train the core after your power and multi-joint strength exercises. If you fatigue the core before performing the big lifts, the loss of core control could put you in a bad position. Even just a slight alteration in form could put you at risk for an injury. I like to wait until close to the end of the workout to hammer the core. Here is a great article by Nick Tumminello that explains why we need more than just deadlifts and squats to strengthen our core.
  • Single joint exercises ( muscle isolation) come into play at about this time in the workout. Of course, it depends on the client’s goals. Most people have a goal of looking better, so I call this working on the vanity or beach body muscles. I believe there is nothing wrong with doing some isolation exercises, of course, after you’ve done the power, multi-joint, and core lifts. If your goal is to body build, you may want to expand this portion of your workout.
  • If there is time left, I like to utilize a workout finisher. A workout finisher is essentially a form of high intensity interval training and it’s a great way to finish up a workout with a little conditioning boost. I like to utilize body weight or lightly loaded exercises at this point, because fatigue can really begin to hinder a person’s performance. I like simple exercises, done with minimal rest, with fatigue as our guide. If someone’s form is really falling apart, I have them shut it down and move on to the next exercise. I prefer to put together programs that last 4 to 6 weeks, consistently training a specific group of exercises to build towards a tangible goal. Workout finishers allow for some variation within a set program.

Remember, this is just my blueprint for building a well rounded workout for general fitness and fat loss. It would be altered depending upon a person’s goals. For a strength/power athlete, more time would be dedicated to the power lifts, multi-joint strength, and core exercises. We would not do much, if any, single joint exercises or workout finishers. If we were bodybuilding, we would definitely increase the single joint exercises. I would make sure that we completed a workout finisher/conditioning at the end of a workout if it was a fat loss client. I think you get the picture. It all depends on the client’s goals. Another trainer may have a different style in workout programming and that’s quite alright.

So let’s get back to what I was talking about at the beginning. I am not a fan of performing a maximal lift in a fatigued state. Why take the risk? Whatever we do first in a workout will take precedence over what we do later in that session. Here’s an example, today I did a Catalyst Athletics workout for Olympic Lifting. After the weights, I did shuttle runs down at the football field. My running form was less than ideal but I pushed through and got it done. I knew I wouldn’t have time to run later and decided it was better to get my conditioning done under those not so ideal conditions, than not. So I did exercise in a exhausted state and my running form was hindered. However, I must argue that low volume running in a fatigued state has a lower risk of a serious injury than maximal weight training with fatigue. I know that someone could argue that we may have to perform a maximal lift within a fatigued state in a real life situation, which may be true. Nonetheless, if that situation presented itself, it might be a life threatening one, and the lift would be worth the risk. Is it worth the risk for a competition?  Ultimately, it all comes down to what your goals are. A majority of people I work with are working towards athletic or body composition goals, and weight training injuries would prevent them from doing what they love to do. If you love to compete in exercise and a challenge requires you to lift heavy in a fatigued state, then you gotta do what gotta do. Even with that being said, we should be aware of the risks. Train safe!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>