General Principles on Ordering Exercises for Resistance Training

George Cho, MFSc, CEP, CSCS


A young man has been working out for the past few weeks. Today’s routine usually starts with a chest exercise. However, recently, he heard a fitness enthusiast on youtube say that when he was young, he always started with arms. So today, he decides to start with tricep pull-downs, extensions and tricep dips and then move to the bench press exercise.  However, by the time he gets to the bench press, he is finding it much more challenging than usual. This scenario emphasizes the importance of ordering exercises. 

Figuring out what exercises or body parts to do first can be confusing to some and seem unnecessary to others, but it’s important. If we don’t sequence exercises correctly, an assisting muscle may unnecessarily impede the performance of an upcoming exercise because it is tired out.  For example, in the above scenario, the bench press was made more challenging because the triceps assist the pectoralis major (chest) muscle, but the triceps were worn out by the previous three tricep exercises. This means that our young friend’s pectoralis major will likely not get the workout it could have gotten if he had done the bench press first. Ordering exercises correctly does indeed matter. Below is a brief overview of a few ways to sequence your exercise routine.


1. Large muscle groups first

Main large muscles: chest (pectoralis major), upper back (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius), buttocks (glutes), thigh muscles

Smaller muscles: shoulders (deltoids), arms (biceps and triceps), calf muscles (gastrocnemius, soleus)

In terms of exercise, some examples of ordering would be:

  • Squats before calf raises
  • Push ups before tricep dips
  • Pull-ups before bicep curls


2. Multi-joint exercises first

This is closely linked to the first one. Since multi-joint exercises may require more muscles, are generally more complex and metabolically demanding, it is advisable to do them before single-joint exercises. For example:

  • Bench presses before dumb-bell pullovers
  • Bent-over rows  before preacher bicep curls
  • Back squats before seated machine leg extensions


3. Alternate upper body and lower body

Some people find it beneficial to perform one upper body exercise and then immediately go to a lower body exercise, and continue alternating that way. This is a very good approach because it allows you to rest the upper body while the legs are being worked and vice versa. Another variation of this is to do one set of an upper body exercise and then immediately do one set of a lower body exercise, and then go back to the upper body exercise, and continue that sequence for 2 – 3 rotations, then move onto another pairing of different upper and lower body exercises. This method is also time-efficient.

An example of this would be:

Exercise pairing 1: Squats and Bench Press
Exercise pairing 2: Knee curls and Pull-ups
Exercise pairing 3: Calf raises and Shoulder presses


4. Alternate push and pulling exercises

Switching between pushing and pulling exercises will likely ensure that the same muscle group is not used in two successive exercises. For example, bent-over rows, pull-ups and dumb bell rows are "pulling" exercises. These can be alternated with bench presses, push ups and shoulder presses which are all "pushing" type exercises. For the lower body, pulling exercises like dead lifts and knee curls can be alternated with push exercises like squats and the hip-sled.


5. Compound sets and Super sets

There are some more intense forms of sequencing exercises that can be very beneficial to improving overall muscular fitness. Compound sets refers to performing two different exercises for the same muscle group sequentially. Super sets are similar but it works opposing muscle groups. Some examples are below: 

Compound set: 1 set of dumb bell tricep extensions and moving immediately to narrow stance push-ups.

Super set: A set of bicep curls and then immediately doing a set of tricep dips

Examples of opposing muscle groups:

Chest - Upper back
Biceps - Triceps
Quadriceps - Hamstrings



Below I have provided some basic principles of how to order resistance training exercises. However, these are general guidelines. Some advanced lifters may do reverse ordering from time to time. Stick with the above principles, but don't be afraid to experiment and add variety. 



Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Baechle, T and Earle, R. 2008. p 390-392


George Cho