Are you looking for a new workout? Just fire up your favorite search engine and hit enter!
Unfortunately, some of the programs on the internet are, frankly, rubbish. They’re nothing more than a random selection of exercises in no discernable order. Sets and reps are allocated randomly, and the program has no clear aim or purpose.
Sure, they’ll tire you out and leave you feeling sore for days, but there is more to a good workout than wearing you out. After all, anyone can write a program that produces fatigue, but what you really want is one that delivers results, right?
When it comes to designing a workout program, the order of your exercises matters. In fact, studies suggest that the order of exercises can “influence the efficiency, safety, and ultimate effectiveness of a resistance training program (1).”
The good news is that putting exercises into a sensible order is pretty straightforward, and you can soon learn how to sequence the movements in your program for maximum efficiency.
Follow these guidelines to create your own effective workouts or reorganize workouts that have been written by other people.
The Principles of Correct Exercise Sequencing
The correct exercise order can make or break a training program. Sequence the movements correctly, and your workout should flow logically from one exercise to the next.
But, put exercises in the wrong order, and you could find yourself prematurely tired and unable to train to your full capacity. You could even end up hurt.
Use these principles organize your exercises into the best possible order.
1. High-skill exercises first
Doing high-skill exercises like snatches and power cleans when you are tired is a recipe for disaster. Your form will break down, increasing your risk of injury. Also, you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you can when you’re fresh, making your workout less effective.
So, if your workout contains technically demanding exercises, or exercises you find difficult, you should put these at the beginning of your program. This ensures you’ll be able to put lots of energy into these movements and perform them as safely as possible.
Using this principle, you should also do your freeweight exercises first and machine exercises for the same muscle group afterward. Freeweight exercises are invariably more technically demanding than machine exercises, so it makes sense to, for example, do bench presses before chest presses, and squats before leg presses.
2. Power before strength
Power is force generated quickly. Examples of power exercises include sprints, jumps, throws, and Olympic lifting. Your nervous system highly influences your power output, and you must be well-rested to generate maximum power. As such, if your workout contains any power exercises, you should do them early on when your energy levels are highest.
Strength is force generated at a lower speed. Example strength exercises include heavy, low-rep squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. While your nervous system and energy levels affect your strength, it’s not so affected by fatigue. Therefore, strength exercises can come after power exercises if your workout contains both types of training.
- Power cleans
- Box jumps
- Leg press
- Leg extensions*
*Any hypertrophy exercises should come after power and strength, as they don’t involve as much nervous system engagement and can be effective even if you’re tired. However, when combining strength and hypertrophy training, you should do your strength work first.
3. Work from heavy to light
You only have limited energy available for training – even if you’ve just chugged a shot of your favorite pre-workout! As such, you should do your heaviest exercises and sets at the start of your workout, progressing to lighter training as you work through your program.
In other words, the weights get lighter as you get more tired. For example:
- Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps @ 85% 1RM
- Leg press – 4 sets of 8 @ 75% 1RM
- Leg extensions – 3 sets of 10 @ 65% 1RM
- Leg curl – 3 sets of 10 @ 65% 1RM
As well as making the most use of your dwindling energy, frontloading your program in this way ensures you get the important exercises done first so that, if you have to stop training unexpectedly, you’ll still get a decent workout.
4. Prioritize your weaknesses
Joe Weider is considered by many people to be the father of modern bodybuilding. Weider discovered and made famous many golden-era bodybuilders, and with his brother, Ben, started the Mr. Olympia contest.
Weider published several bodybuilding magazines, including Flex, Muscle & Fitness, and Shape. In these magazines and several books, Weider shared training information and tips which he called the Weider Principles.
While Weider didn’t invent all of the principles he wrote about, he was one of the first people to catalog them and put them in one place.
One of Weider’s most famous training principles was the Priority Principle.
This common-sense exercise sequencing principle states that you should prioritize your weaknesses by training them first. This allows you to hit them with plenty of intensity when your focus and energy are at their highest.
Arnold Schwarzenegger used this principle to bring up his undeveloped calves, starting each workout with a few intense sets of calf raises. In time, the Austrian Oak went from being ashamed of his calves to having some of the best calves in bodybuilding.
If you have a weak muscle group, try training it first in your workouts. While this could compromise your performance of later movements, this fix should help eliminate your weaknesses and balance your physique.
However, the priority principle is only meant for short-term use, i.e., until your weakness becomes a strength. Once you’ve fixed your weakness, you should go back to doing your exercises in a more standardized order.
5. Train your legs first
If you do full-body workouts, you should frontload your program and train your legs before your upper body. Leg training takes a lot of energy, and trying to squat, deadlift, lunge, or leg press after you’ve trained your upper body is a recipe for ineffective training.
So, start your full-body workouts with leg exercises to make the best use of your energy and do the most challenging movements when you are fresh.
However, if you include multiple leg exercises in your program, it’s okay to put the easier movements further down your list. This strategy provides a break between upper body exercises. Ensure the leg exercises are, as always, sequenced from hardest to easiest.
- Bench press
- Seated rows
- Shoulder press
- Leg extensions
- Leg curls
- Standing calf raise
6. Work from compound exercises to isolation
Leading on from the point above, it’s generally best to start your workout with compound exercises and then progress to isolation training for the same muscle group. This makes the best use of your energy and ensures that your session gets easier as you become more tired.
Doing this in reverse, i.e., isolation before compound, could reduce your strength and performance in the secondary lift, making your workout less effective.
However, there is an exception to this principle – pre-exhaust supersets. With pre-exhaust supersets, you purposely do an isolation before a compound exercise for the same muscle group, e.g., leg extensions before leg presses or crossovers before push-ups. This is an advanced training method and not usually suitable for long-term use.
7. Agonists before synergists
Muscles have various roles during the exercises in your workout. Those roles are:
- Agonist – the muscle doing most of the work.
- Antagonist – the muscle that opposes the agonist.
- Fixators – muscles that prevent unwanted movement.
- Synergists – helper muscles.
In most cases, the synergist muscles fatigue before the agonist. For example, your triceps will probably fail before your pecs during bench presses, and your biceps will fail before your back during pull-ups.
Because of this, training the synergists before the agonist would severally limit your performance of the second exercise. So, if you did biceps curls before lat pulldowns, your ability to perform pulldowns would be impeded.
If you are training your back and biceps, chest and triceps, or shoulders and triceps, always train the agonist (back, chest, shoulders) before the synergist (biceps, triceps).
8. Core last
Core is the collective term for the muscles of your midsection. The primary function of your core is to stabilize your spine, which it does by generating intra-abdominal pressure, or IAP for short.
You need to use your core to support your spine in most exercises, especially those performed standing and with freeweights. As such, your core needs to be fresh rather than fatigued for exercises like squats, bent-over rows, and barbell overhead presses.
Training your core too early in your workout would be a mistake, as doing so could rob you of the support you need to perform the rest of your workout safely. For example, doing planks before deadlifts could severely impede your deadlift performance and could even increase your risk of injury.
So, leave your core exercises to the end of your program. That way, you can train your core as hard as you like without compromising your performance of any of the exercises in your program.
9. Cardio after strength (mostly)
While there is nothing wrong with doing a little cardio as part of your warm-up, say 5-10 minutes, the bulk of your cardio should come after you have finished lifting weights. Doing too much cardio before lifting could impede your strength training performance. This is often referred to as the interference effect.
In contrast, while lifting weights before cardio is more tiring, most people can still plow through a cardio workout even if they’re fatigued from lifting.
But what if cardio is your priority, and you specifically want to improve your aerobic or anaerobic fitness?
In that case, you should prioritize cardio and do it first or, better yet, on a separate day. That way, you can put most of your energy into what matters most. However, doing a lot of cardio before lifting will invariably hurt your strength and reduce your performance.
Related: Build Your Program – How to Design the Perfect Training Plan and Full-Body Workout Plan – Design Your Own + Sample Workouts
Exercise Sequencing Example Workouts
The best way to get better at sequencing the exercises in your workouts is to practice, practice, and practice some more. So, grab a pen and paper and start making lists of exercises and putting them in different orders.
As you get better at sequencing exercises, you’ll find it much easier to spot when something is in the wrong place.
To get you started, here are a few example programs that use the principles outlined above. Use them as guidance, and to ensure you understand all the sequencing guidelines.
Sets and reps are for illustration purposes only. Adjust the set and rep schemes according to your goals and preferences.
1. Back and Biceps Workout
|3||Seated rows||3-4||8-10||90 seconds|
|4||Lat pulldowns||3-4||10-12||60 seconds|
|5||Barbell curls||2-3||8-10||90 seconds|
|6||Concentration curls||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
2. Chest and Triceps Workout
|1||Incline bench press||4-5||4-6||3 minutes|
|2||Dumbbell bench press||3-4||6-8||2 minutes|
|3||Chest press machine||3-4||8-10||90 seconds|
|4||Cable crossover||3-4||10-12||60 seconds|
|5||EZ skull crusher||2-3||8-10||90 seconds|
|6||Triceps pushdown||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
3. Leg Workout
|1||Barbell front squat||3-4||6-8||2 minutes|
|2||Romanian deadlift||3-4||6-8||2 minutes|
|3||Walking lunge||3-4||12-15 per leg||90 seconds|
|4||Leg extension||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
|5||Leg curl||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
|6||Standing calf raise||3-4||12-15||60 seconds|
|7||Seated calf raise||3-4||12-15||60 seconds|
4. Shoulders and Arms Workout
|1||Barbell military press||3-4||6-8||2 minutes|
|2||Seated dumbbell press||3-4||8-10||90 seconds|
|3||Cable lateral raise||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
|4||Dumbbell reverse fly||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
|5||Alternating dumbbell curl||3-4||8-10||90 seconds|
|6||Overhead triceps extension||3-4||8-10||90 seconds|
|7||Preacher curl||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
|8||Rope triceps pushdown||2-3||10-12||60 seconds|
5. Upper Body Workout
|1||Bench press||4||8-10||2 minutes|
|2||Bent-over row||4||8-10||2 minutes|
|3||Standing dumbbell press||4||8-10||2 minutes|
|4||Lat pulldown||4||8-10||2 minutes|
|5||Cable curls||3||10-12||90 seconds|
|6||Triceps pushdown||3||10-12||90 seconds|
6. Lower Body Power and Strength Workout
|1||Power clean||3-4||3-4||3 minutes|
|2||Squat jumps||3-4||4-6||2 minutes|
|3||Box jumps||3-4||8-10||90 seconds|
|4||Front squat||2-3||4-6||2 minutes|
|5||Leg press||2-3||6-8||2 minutes|
|6||Leg curl||2-3||8-10||90 seconds|
7. Full Body Workout
|1||Trap bar deadlift||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|2||Chest press||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|3||Seated row||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|5||Seated shoulder press||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|6||Assisted pull-up||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|7||Leg extension||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|8||Leg curl||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|9||Cable crunch||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
|10||Cable woodchop||2-3||12-15||60-90 seconds|
Exercise Sequencing FAQs
Do you have a question about correct exercise sequencing or about strength training in general? No worries, because we’ve got the answers!
1. Do I have to follow these sequencing guidelines?
These sequencing guidelines are based on what personal trainers are taught during their certification courses. They’re logical and can help make your workouts safer, more effective, and more time-efficient.
That said, you can put your exercises in the “wrong” order and still make reasonable progress, especially if you are genetically gifted, young, or on a boatload of steroids!
However, these guidelines exist for a reason, so it makes sense to use them if you can.
At the very least, try using them and then try doing your exercises in the “wrong” order to see how you feel. It’s a safe bet that the proper order will feel and work better.
2. What set and rep scheme should I use for my workouts?
To build maximal strength, you must train using heavy weights, typically 85% or more of your one-repetition maximum, or 1RM for short. This will necessitate low reps, usually between 1-5 per set. Using lighter weights and higher reps will also increase your strength, but not as much as low-rep/high-load training
For hypertrophy or muscle building, we used to think that the most effective rep range was 6-12 using around 60-80% of your 1RM. However, studies have since revealed that you can go as high as 30-35 reps per set and still build muscle, provided you take your sets to or near momentary muscular failure (2).
Regarding sets, you need to accumulate between 10-20 sets per muscle group per week. You can do this by doing a few exercises for more sets or more exercises for fewer sets. You can also do all your sets in one workout or spread them across 2-3 training sessions.
So, you need to match your set and rep scheme to your training goal (strength vs. hypertrophy) and your weight and volume preferences. Read more about the factors that make your workouts effective here.
3. How often should I change my program?
Even the best-designed program will become less effective if you stick with it for too long. This is because of something called the repeated bout effect (RBE). Simply put, your body gets used to your workout and doesn’t find it as stimulating.
Stay with the same program for too long, and your progress will stall and hit a plateau.
You can avoid training plateaus by making small but regular changes to your program, such as changing exercise modality (e.g., cables instead of freeweights), increasing your weights, or doing more reps. However, after anywhere from 4-12 weeks, your progress will probably grind to a halt.
So, monitor your progress and change your program if it’s starting to stall. Don’t discard your current program completely, though. Instead, you can use it again in a few months when, because of the break, it’ll feel new again. In this way, you can rotate through 3-4 workouts almost indefinitely.
4. Some pro bodybuilders do workouts that break all these sequencing rules – what gives?
Most pro bodybuilders are so genetically blessed that they can do literally everything wrong and still make progress. They’re mutants who find it very easy to build muscle. A lot of these folks would be muscular and strong even if they didn’t train.
And then there is the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as growth hormone and steroids top consider. These substances enhance hypertrophy making even badly-written workouts effective.
That’s why the average lifter should not try and train like a pro. Genetically-gifted bodybuilders can do just about everything wrong and still grow. Genetically-average lifters need to train smarter and not just harder.
5. Do the same sequencing principles apply to women as well as men?
There is no real reason for women to train differently from men – assuming they have the same fitness goals. Men’s and women’s body bodies have more similarities than differences and do not need to adopt different training approaches.
So, while a man may use these principles to train for muscle hypertrophy, a woman can use them for general fitness, toning, or fat loss.
Workouts should reflect your training goal and not your gender.
There is more to writing an effective program than just choosing your favorite exercises. You need to consider training volume, frequency, specificity, and sequencing. If you don’t, your program may lose some of its effectiveness and could even be dangerous.
Use the sequencing principles in this article to make sure the exercises in your next program are in the best possible order. Alternatively, choose one of the workout plans from our archives, all of which are written by qualified fitness professionals.
- Simão R, de Salles BF, Figueiredo T, Dias I, Willardson JM. Exercise order in resistance training. Sports Med. 2012 Mar 1;42(3):251-65. doi: 10.2165/11597240-000000000-00000. PMID: 22292516. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22292516/
- Lasevicius T, Ugrinowitsch C, Schoenfeld BJ, Roschel H, Tavares LD, De Souza EO, Laurentino G, Tricoli V. Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jul;18(6):772-780. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1450898. Epub 2018 Mar 22. PMID: 29564973. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29564973/