What Exercise Should be Performed First?

What Exercise Should be Performed First?

Are you a coach or a fitness enthusiast who treats exercise selection a bit like being at a buffet? 

A little bit of this, a little bit of that? Oh wait, that looks really good, I think I’ll have some of that. What? There’s an omelette bar! I didn’t see that. Think I’ll get myself an omelette, too. 

The result: You end up overeating, or wind up with acute digestive challenges from having eaten tons of different kinds of foods your body has an aversion to, or just isn’t used to digesting.

The same is true of exercise selection: Randomly throwing all kinds of movements haphazardly into a training session like a great Las Vegas buffet isn’t what’s best for short term, or long term development. 

And while programming has to be considered as much of an art as a science, one of our goals is to lay out principles and structure that can be followed to:

  • help you decide what types of movements are best for any given individual, 
  • help guide you to know when it’s safe and appropriate for an individual to move to the next level, and
  • decide what order to place movements in any given training session.

Principle 1: Respect the Strength Continuum

Respecting the strength continuum effectively means you need to develop strength before speed.

  • In this sense, the strength continuum is a way to classify types of exercises and the muscle contractions required to perform them based on where they fall on the power time curve. As you progress along the continuum, the contractions move from slow and intense contractions (absolute strength) to faster and less intense contractions (absolute speed). 

Let’s consider these four steps on the continuum:

Step 1: Absolute strength: Building absolute strength involves lifting heavier loads at slower speeds through movements like deadlifts, back squats, bend press, pull-ups, ring rows, push-ups, lunges. We recommend the following as a prerequisite to graduating to the next step—strength speed exercises:

  1. Back Squat: 3 reps at bodyweight @30X1
  2. Deadlift: 3 reps at 1.25 x bodyweight @30X1
  3. Strict Pull-Up: 3 reps
  4. Strict Dip: 3 reps

Step 2: Strength speed: Strength speed movements involve moving a load faster, at least compared to absolute strength. Movements like clean and jerks are a great way to train speed strength

Step 3: Speed Strength: Speed strength movements involve low loads at faster speeds than strength speed movements and are a great way to develop power. Speed strength is most often required for sport-specific purposes. Plyometric training, or movements like jumping squats or touch and go hang power cleans are examples of how to train speed strength.

Step 4: Absolute Speed: Absolute speed involves the fastest contraction rate with the lowest load. Training this way allows you to develop the ability to make contractions more anaerobic. Two examples of absolute speed include sprinting or an Assault bike sprint.

If someone has developed all four steps, then a session could theoretically include exercises from across the strength continuum. In this case, begin the session with absolute speed, then speed strength, then strength speed, and, lastly, absolute strength.

 

Here’s an example of this in practice, with absolute speed exercises performed first in a session:

  1. Sprint, 50m x 6 sets; rest 3 minutes
  2. Seated Box Jump, 2 reps every 90 seconds x 8 sets
  3. Power Clean, 5 reps x 3 sets; rest 2 minutes
  4. Back Squat @30X0, 6 reps x 3 sets; rest 3 minutes

Principle 2: Compound Versus Isolation Movements

Compound movement, or multi-joint movements, tend to be more complex and can be done at a higher intensity. Isolation movements, on the other hand, are single joint movements, are less complex, and tend to be done at a lower intensity. 

  • Both are extremely beneficial for building strength and can be worked into the same training session; however, we recommend doing compound, multi-joint movements first in a training session, as these movements tend to require the greatest level of focus, are the most demanding on the central nervous system, and involve the most muscle recruitment (think squats or deadlifts)
  • Single joint, isolation movements, on the other hand, recruit less muscle fibres and are less demanding on the central nervous system (think dumbbell lunges or leg extensions). 

Thus, compound movements should be placed as a priority at the start of a session, as what comes after that will always be negatively affected by what has already been done that session. In fact, research shows that doing compound movements first allows for the greatest force production, as well as long term strength and hypertrophy gains. However, when you do isolation work before compound movements in a training session, the opposite occurs: a decrease in the ability to produce force.

Here’s an example of this in practice, with compound exercises performed first in an upper split training session:

A1. Bench Press @20X1, 6 reps x 4 sets; rest 2 minutes

A2. Pendlay Row @20X1, 6 reps x 4 sets; rest 2 minutes

B1. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press @30X1, 8 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds

B2. Bent Over Dumbbell Row @30X1, 8 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds

C1. EZ Bar Skull Crusher @2020, 10 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds

C2. Cable Curl @2020, 10 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds

 

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