In What Order Should I  Do My Strength Training Exercises?

Nashville personal trainer Dan DeFigio

As a general principle, exercises should be performed from most demanding to least demanding, making sure that important stabilizer muscles (like trunk and rotator cuff) are not fatigued too soon. “Demanding” can be a relative term, so let me explain some of the criteria I use to categorize the difficulty of particular types of exercises.

Topping the list of most difficult exercises are those that involve not only large groups of muscles, but those that require a high degree of speed and proprioception. Examples would be any weighted, explosive exercises such as the snatch, the clean-and-jerk, or squat presses. Exercises slightly less demanding would be unweighted, explosive exercises that require a high degree of balance and coordination. Most of your plyometric and balance training fits here.

Non-explosive compound movements are next on the difficulty list, and these should usually be grouped from largest to smallest muscular demand (squats and deadlifts first, chest presses and rows next, followed by shoulders, etc.). Dumbbells require more control than barbells, but I suppose heavy barbell movements can be more demanding from the standpoint of total muscular effort. You decide.

Single joint movements are next, including chest flies, lateral raises, biceps, triceps, neck, and forearms.

Waist and shoulder rotator work should be last, because you don’t want these important stabilizers to be fatigued during your compound movements. Burning out your trunk muscles before you squat is asking for trouble!

NOTE: This ordering of exercises is only a guideline for general purpose, full-body workouts. Numerous common sense exceptions exist, such as pre-exhaustion, supersets, and grouping all exercises for a particular bodypart together before moving on to the next group. I am by no means suggesting that this ordering system is the only sensible way to go about strength training.