Dynamic Exercise Order for Greater Strength and Size Gains

I have received numerous e-mails from people with questions about fixed versus dynamic exercise order since I mentioned it in my interview with High Intensity Nation. Here is a brief overview of the system with a few examples of how to apply it.

Most people perform the exercises in their workout in a fixed order which they repeat each time they train. Since every exercise produces fatigue which decreases the effort one is capable of performing subsequent exercises, muscle groups trained earlier in the workout may receive a greater stimulus for strength and size increases than those trained later or at the end.

The solution to this is to vary exercise order so over the course of several workouts each of the major muscle groups is trained earlier when it can be worked more intensely. The method I learned from Joe Mullen uses prior workout performance to determine exercise order for the current workout, rather than cycling the order (1, 2, 3, 4 in one workout, then 4, 1, 2, 3 the next) or changing it randomly. The exercises are performed in order of the progress made on them the previous workout, from least to most. For example, if during your previous workout you added weight on exercise A and performed enough reps to be within your target range, performed one additional rep on exercise B, two additional reps on exercise C, and made no progress on exercise D, the order for the next workout would be: D, B, C, A.

Varying Exercise Order Within A Fixed Category Order

The system I use is a hybrid of Joe Mullen’s method and the traditional Nautilus method of performing exercises in order from most to least muscle mass worked. I divide exercises into six general catagories, which are performed in sequence, while the order of the exercises within the categories is varied:

  1. neck isolation
  2. compound (multi-joint movements)
  3. torso isolation (shoulder and hip movements)
  4. limb isolation (elbow, knee and ankle movements)
  5. trunk isolation (lumbar spine)
  6. forearm and grip

The exercise order is varied within these categories rather than between them across the entire workout, with the overall workout order following the categories.

If isolated neck exercises are performed they should be done first in the workout before fatigue has affected your ability to concentrate and maintain proper body position, since they have the greatest potential for serious injury if done incorrectly. Since the neck muscles are not very large, they will not have much of an effect on subsequent exercise performance.

The order of categories two through six is intended to prevent local muscular fatigue from being as much of a limiting factor on the weight that can be used for an exercise. Categories three and four may be combined if machines providing direct resistance are being used. For example, arm fatigue would be more limiting in a barbell pullover where the triceps must hold the elbow extended than in a Nautilus pullover machine where resistance is applied directly to the back of the upper arms.

The following is an example of this category order applied to a full-body workout, but the same can be done with any split routine including exercises from different categories:

Compound Exercises

  1. Squat
  2. Bench Press
  3. Row

Torso Isolation

  1. Lateral Raise
  2. Pullover

Limb Isolation

  1. French Press
  2. Curl
  3. Calf Raise

Trunk Isolation

  1. Weighted Crunch

Forearm and Grip

  1. Ivanko Super Gripper

Local Fatigue and Subsquent Exercises

When determining the exercise order you should also avoid performing two exercises in a row with overlapping muscle groups, for example, performing curls immediately after chin ups, or lateral raises immediately after presses (more on the problems with pre-exhaust, post-exhaust and similar methods in the book).

There are other exceptions and considerations for specific exercise combinations which are also covered in the book.

Traditional Category Order Versus Muscle Priority

This category system is for someone who has relatively well balanced and proportional muscular development. If you have a specific muscle group which is lagging or slower to respond you may train it with an isolation exercise earlier or even first in your workouts either every workout or as part of an alternate, specialization routines.

Results

What first piqued my curiosity in varying exercise order was an experiment Joe Mullen performed at a local personal training studio where the group that varied their exercise order made significantly greater strength increases than the group following a fixed order. I immediately started experimenting with this in my workouts and my clients’ and found it improved progress considerably. Although I was initially concerned it would make record keeping and progress evaluation more difficult, using the category system it has not. The only change I have had to make to record keeping has been to record the order of performance in addition to the weight and reps for each exercise.

If you’ve been training following a fixed exercise order, switching to a dynamic order will help you improve on exercises you may have been having difficulty progressing on, and make all-around faster increases in muscular strength and size.

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