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Should you do cardio first, or strength training? Compound lifts or single-joint movements? Here’s what you need to know about exercise order
By BJ Gaddour
We receive a lot of questions from our readers in regards to the ideal order to perform exercises within a given workout.
The traditional advice is to always perform multi-joint movements, like squats, first and save single-joint movements, like leg extensions, for the end of a training session. Since multi-joint movements tend to be more challenging and work more overall muscle mass, all things being equal it would make sense to do them when you’re most fresh and focused for best results.
Other classic strength and conditioning rules include:
Train larger muscle groups like chest and back before you hit smaller muscle groups like the triceps and biceps.
Train your lower body before your upper body if you train both in the same session.
Perform strength training before cardiovascular exercise if you train both in the same session.
These are certainly sound recommendations and it’s good to have general guidelines like this in place to help us structure quality training programs. However, don’t be afraid to break the “rules” to accommodate your goals and individual needs.
The actual research on this topic suggests that there is a distinct muscle-building benefit for the exercises you perform earlier in your workout, in addition to the fact that performance suffers on exercises placed towards the end of a training session.
In other words, you’ll do the best with and get the most gains from the stuff you do at the start of your workouts. And if you want to strengthen your weaknesses, don’t do it at the end of a gruelling workout when you’re actually weaker.
For example, I used to always place calf work towards the end of my leg workouts, if I did them at all. And my calves seemed to never respond. But they finally started to grow when I trained them right out of the gate because I hit them with everything I had.
Similarly, if you are a competitive runner, doing intense and/or fatigue-inducing resistance training before a hard run would most likely impair your running performance. So in this case, doing the cardiovascular work up front makes more sense. Will the strength work suffer? Possibly. But if strength work isn’t the priority, that’s fine and should be expected. After all, something has to give.
So what are the big takeaways here?
First and foremost, prioritize your exercise order based on your individual goals. Train lagging muscle groups or movement patterns first, even if they are single-joint moves or target smaller muscle groups.
Secondarily, prioritize your exercise order based on performance. Skill, technique, strength, and power work should be completed before any fatigue-inducing training to prevent impairment of the central nervous system.
From there, continue to use the aforementioned general guidelines to structure your training programs.
Article originally published on menshealth.com