How do you structure the order of exercises for your workouts? I want to offer you 3 compelling reasons why you should complete the most challenging, intense exercises in the beginning of your workout, then move on to less strenuous exercises.
When I say “challenging” exercises, I mean you are focusing on the most challenging compound exercises that require multiple joints and a lot of effort, such as Squats, Lunges, Bench Press, or Pullups for example. These exercises give you the most bang for your buck, as I described in Part 3 of my Efficient Strength Training 101 article series: How to Choose Effective Exercises.
So here are 3 reasons to complete the most challenging exercises in the beginning of your workout:
1) You have the most energy
At the beginning of the workout after a light warm up, your muscles are likely filled with sufficient glycogen (energy for your body), your muscles are fresh, and your cardiovascular capacity is the highest. You are ready to hit the weights hard and you might as well use this energy on the most important exercises that you get the best results. Starting out with shoulder raises or a biceps curl is not a great use of your energy.
2) You are more focused
Focus is very important during exercise to not only help you get the best results, but also to prevent injury. When using heavy weights, or completing very challenging, structural exercises, you need to be very focused. After a long day at work when you have a lot on your mind, focus can be very difficult. After a long day at work and then towards the end of your workout, you may not be able to focus at all!
When I was a college athlete, we always started our workouts with complicated Olympic movements like Power Cleans and Push Presses. Doing these types of exercises at the end of the workout could be dangerous. All it takes is one mental lapse, or one second where you lose your form to experience a very serious injury.
3) You get greatest benefits early in the workout
There are so many times when I hit the gym and I only have 20 minutes left before it closes, or I just don’t have the time for a full workout. By completing the most important exercises first, I get 80% of the benefits of the workout in the first 10-20 minutes. Later on in your workout, you can focus on assistance exercises that are single joint movements like lateral raises, dumbbell curls, or triceps press down that can be important, but only give you maybe 20% of the overall benefit.
The caveat with this approach is you have to be warmed up by (1) doing low intensity cardio with some dynamic stretching and (2) perform warm up sets of the exercises you choose. For example, if you’re doing a set of squats in the beginning of your workout, you should perform at least 1-2 warm up sets with 50% of your max effort, or around 70% of what you can do for 10 reps. If your body is ready to go, then you can start pushing yourself.
Putting the hardest exercises early on in your workout sounds pretty simple, but it really is powerful and will improve your workouts whether you want to lose fat, or build muscle. No doubt about it!