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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20 Responses to Dynamic Exercise Order for Greater Strength and Size Gains

  1. Kevin W. April 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Great post Drew, answered my question about variety…and added a unique gripping tool to my christmas list :)

    Regards,
    Kevin W.

  2. Justin Smith April 11, 2010 at 10:33 am #

    Good stuff! It combines the benefits of changing order with progressive overload, sensible exercise choices, etc. If one’s stats are increasing, the increase isn’t dependent on the exercise order, which is what you want to occur IMO. You want to be strong no matter what order of tasks life throws at you.

    Justin

  3. Kata14 April 13, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Great article Drew! Next I will try to change my exercises’ order and see what happen. I am working with these two routines now:

    A.
    Deadlifts
    Dips
    Row

    B.
    TBDL
    Chins
    Overhead Press

  4. Chris April 18, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    There’s a lot of great info on this site that makes a lot of sense, but I don’t really know where to start? Could you point me in some direction?
    Thanks.

    Chris

  5. Christoph Dollis April 20, 2010 at 2:07 am #

    Sounds like a good idea.

    You have more categories, however, than I have exercises in any of my workouts!

    So as a practical matter it means changing the order of maybe two or even four exercises in a workout.

    Which itself sounds like a good idea, especially if others have shown greater real world results from doing so.

    Will give it a shot.

  6. Drew Baye April 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    For briefer routines I would combine categories 2, 3 and 4. Since posting this I have edited down that chapter and simplified these guidelines.

  7. Andy R. April 24, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    I don’t understand. Isolation exercises for lagging or slower to respond muscle groups? It was my assumtion that its the heavy compound exercises which are more conducive in promoting muscle hypertrophy.

    • Drew Baye April 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

      Andy,

      Compound exercises are a more efficient way of working a large amount of muscle mass at once, and may have a greater effect on testosterone and growth hormone output, however isolation exercises can be more effective for stimulating growth in specific muscles.

  8. Evan M April 25, 2010 at 11:44 am #

    thanks for the great info. Does exercise order relate to varying recovery times? For instance some muscles seem to take much longer to recover than others. Should that affect the order of exercise? Or does it affect only the recovery time given to that muscle group? For instance with some exercises I can work to failure with 2 min TUL and then 5 days later do it again and show a good increase either in weight or TUL. But with other exercises it seems I have plautaued until I take 10-14 days for recovery time and only then I see a decent increase. I imagine this might vary significantly for the different muscles and from person to person as well, so it might be hard to generalize, but what are some ways a person can tell that moving the exercise order, or varying their recovery times for different muscles will be best for them?

    • Drew Baye April 26, 2010 at 9:42 am #

      Evan,

      Try using a dynamic exercise order for a few weeks and if you still have muscle groups that progress slowly you may need to reduce the frequency of training for those muscle groups.

  9. Steven Turner April 26, 2010 at 5:42 am #

    Hi Drew,

    I would like to thank you for the advice on exercise order one of my clients was struggling with the shoulder press exercise I normally done this exercise towards the end of the routine and he would always struggle and was making little progress. I moved the shoulder press to the first exercise for a couple of weeks and progress took place immediately.

    Thanks
    Steven

    • Drew Baye April 26, 2010 at 9:36 am #

      Hey Steve,

      You’re very welcome. Good to know the info is helping people!

  10. tim duty April 26, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Drew, if I’m using the 7-10 rep range protocol(3 seconds up and 3 down), a big 5 workout plan, going to failure, water intake being around 3 liters a day,sleep being about 8 hours a night, protein intake about 1.12 grams per lb. of bodyweight, calories high enough to not be too lean or too fat,fat being about 33% of my calorie intake, stress is pretty low, but the second push and pull exercises always do not so great in the workout(they do fine when i put them first), should I do only one pair of push/pull exercises each workout and thus do each pair every other workout? I train every 6th day, so would doing the overhead press and the row one workout and then the chest press and the pulldown the next workout be a good idea given the circumstances? Plus my conditioning during the workout is fine but then about 10 minutes after I start getting nausea, what’s that about? I’m drinking 30 ounces of gatorade with about 15 grams of protein starting about 10 minutes before the workout and finishing it during the workout could that be causing it?

    • Drew Baye April 30, 2010 at 12:24 am #

      Tim,

      Even if you are not doing as well on the second push pull exercises, if you are progressing on them overall I would not cut back yet. The big 5 workout is already pretty low volume. As for the nausea, it could be a lot of things, but I’d be more inclined to think it might be due to not allowing enough time between exercises rather than the gatorade and protein.

  11. Kata14 April 29, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    Drew,

    I always performed biggest muscular groups at the beginning during my work-outs. My order was Legs, Upper Pull and Upper Push.
    My PROS: For Chin-ups, I felt so sore at least 48 hours and noticed a little size gains on biceps. Wow!
    My CONS: Since I’ve changed the exercises order I had a little low-back pain while doing Squats, TBDL or Deadlifts.

    Thanks
    Fabio

  12. tim duty April 30, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    Thanks for the reply Drew. I have seen the fastest results with the dynamic exercise order. It used to take me about 3 months to go from about 150 lbs. to the mid 160′s, with this approach I went from 152.5 to 165 in 1 month with the same bodyfat percentage. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with people! Are all of us still looking at another week or so for your book to be released?

  13. Drew Baye April 30, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    Tim,

    You’re welcome. I’m actually wrapping the text of the book up today, and will be finishing the editing and graphics for it this weekend, so look for it some time within the next week.

  14. Fabio April 7, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Drew,

    What’s your personal feedback after working with this method?
    Did you see any muscular improvement?

    Thank you.

    • Drew Baye April 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

      Fabio,

      I’ve found changing the order often helps if a person is progressing slowly on a particular exercise. This is simpler to do with shorter routines.

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