Q&A: Exercise Order And Performance

Question:

Three of us started doing high intensity training together twenty five days ago (five workouts). We do the “Big Five” routine inspired by Body by Science and one of your books.

  1. Leg Press
  2. Pull Down
  3. Chest Press
  4. Seated Row
  5. Shoulder Press

In that order. (Thinking legs first to get the best growth response?)

We have all been increasing the resistance every workout on leg press and pull down and a little on chest press and seated row,  but none of us are doing better on the shoulder press. I feel really nauseated after the seated row so I need a couple minutes before even doing the shoulder press.

Do we need to change the order of the exercises or just keep going this way? Just wondering why we are gaining in everything except shoulders. Any advice on this ?

Answer:

Every exercise you perform fatigues both the targeted muscles (local fatigue) and your body as a whole (systemic fatigue), increasing the difficulty of subsequent exercises. Because of this you can handle relatively more resistance and will appear to improve performance more quickly on the first few exercises of your workouts than the last, but you have to evaluate your progress on each exercise in the context of the entire workout.

Drew Baye on the MedX Overhead PressAs you progress on an exercise, becoming more skilled at inroading efficiently and using greater resistance, the demand it places on your body increases. This is one of the reasons more advanced trainees require a reduction in workout volume. This means you start every subsequent exercise with greater local and systemic fatigue, reducing the amount of resistance or repetitions you are able to perform compared to if you started each exercise completely rested. If you are moving quickly between exercises and progressing steadily on the first few of your workout just being able to consistently match your previous resistance and reps in good form indicates improvement in the later exercises.

If you aren’t sure about this, occasionally varying the order of exercises may give you a better idea of how much you are improving on the exercises you normally perform later in your workout. Keep in mind, however, that how you perform each exercise is far more important than how much weight you use or for how many repetitions or how much time under load. It is your intensity – the effort you put into each exercise – that matters most.

Assuming you are able to maintain a high level of effort for all five exercises doing leg press first probably won’t make a big difference in growth response due to acute hormonal changes, but because of how demanding it is when done properly some people find it helps to start there.

Being nauseated after a few exercises is normal when starting out if you are training hard. Give yourself just enough rest between exercises that you don’t feel like you will vomit. As your conditioning improves you will be able to reduce the rest between the later exercises without experiencing it as much.

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21 Responses to Q&A: Exercise Order And Performance

  1. Martin December 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    Thanks Drew!

    Your answer was excactly what we needed and gave a lot of insight for our routine! Looking forward to receiving your latest book.

    Greetings from Denmark
    – Martin

  2. Jason December 5, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    Thanks Drew, myself and a few guys have been doing HIT with free weights for the last 6 months; Squats, Deadlifts, Chins and Dips. Starting with a 5/5 cadence and recently a 8/8 cadence (heavy duty). We have now had to split the squats in one session and the deadlifts in another, due to total fatigue affecting the workout. So now we only do 3 sets per session. Is there anything we could add (note: we only have access to bar and dumbells. We found doing deadlifts last really helped with progress in chins and dips.

    • Drew Baye December 5, 2012 at 10:33 am #

      Jason,

      You can effectively train the whole body with nothing more than barbells, dumbbells, and bodyweight. A favorite abbreviated A/B routine of mine to use at home is:

      Workout A:
      1. Squat
      2. Parallel Bar Dip or Bench Press
      3. Bent Row
      4. Lateral Raise
      5. Thick Bar Wrist Curl
      6. Thick Bar Wrist Extension

      Workout B:
      1. Trap Bar Deadlift
      2. Chin Up
      3. Overhead Press
      4. Calf Raise (on a step, using a dip belt to add weight)
      5. Neck Extension (manually resisted TSC)
      6. Neck Flexion (manually resisted TSC)

      • Ondrej December 5, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

        Is there any difference between dumbbell squat and dumbbell deadlift? The movement I do is called “deadlift” in a book about dumbbell training but in reality it looks like dumbbell squat/deadlift videos I found on youtube. It looks like those two exercises become one with dumbbells.

        • Drew Baye December 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

          Ondrej,

          The difference between a dumbbell squat and a dumbbell deadlift is the relative movement around the hip and knee joints. There is a continuum of compound and quasi-compound lower body movements with exercises with little or no hip movement and a lot of knee movement on one end (eg. sissy squats) and a lot of hip movement and little or no knee movement on the other (eg. stiff-legged deadlifts and trunk extension). Both squats and deadlifts are close to the middle of the continuum, but the squat is a little closer to the less hip/more knee end and the deadlift is close to the more hip/less knee end.

      • Nathan December 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

        Drew,

        Is the Lateral Raise a ‘newer’ addition to your basic routines?

        Do you feel most would benefit from the addition of Lateral Raises even if they are Overhead Pressing as well?

        • Drew Baye December 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

          Nathan,

          I’ve done these on and off over the years, usually on workouts where I don’t perform an overhead pressing movement as a way to work the whole shoulder and traps more directly.

  3. Joe December 5, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    Great point about measuring success by the amount of inroading and not weight or reps. I never considered the increased systematic fatigue from increasing weight on one exercise in the rest of the workout.

    • Drew Baye December 5, 2012 at 10:39 am #

      Joe,

      This is something that comes up with clients often because people have a tendency to focus on the numbers, but once we have to change the order (to work around another trainer, for example) and they start with exercises usually performed at the end of their workouts they get it. The post Focus On Your Muscles Not The Numbers goes into more detail on emphasizing the quality of work performed over weight and reps.

  4. Andy December 5, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Drew,
    When experiencing the described situation:
    Do you see an advantage in dividing up the big 5 exercises over two training days in order to achieve the best growth stimulus possible?
    Maybe complementing some single joint movements to balance out the two training days depending on goals and preferences of the trainee.

    • Drew Baye December 5, 2012 at 10:43 am #

      Andy,

      Whether it is necessary to divide up a Big Five depends on individual response to exercise. I prefer to start people with a workout which includes the Big Five plus several simple movements and eventually divide that up as they learn to train more intensely and require a reduction in volume.

  5. Marc December 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Drew,

    This is a great article.

    What tempo have you found works best for Trap Bar deadlifts?

    Thanks,

    Marc

    • Drew Baye December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Marc,

      Move slowly enough to be able to (1) reverse direction smoothly and under strict control without bouncing or jerking the weight, (2) maintain correct body position and path of movement, and (3) focus on intensely contracting the target muscles over the full range of the exercise. In my experience most people need to move at least as slowly as a 4/4 cadence to be able to do all of these, and many need to start much slower to learn to do them correctly.

  6. james December 7, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Drew, i’ve been working out doing muliti biceps,10 degree chest,overhead press,sqats and every other week calf raises. About 5 weeks ago i switched from multi bi’s to torso arm to work my bi’s & back but both my partner and i have not increased on our hold times at all on this exercise. We are progressing well on the others. The torso arm is our first exercise & we do it max contraction style.

    • Drew Baye December 7, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

      James,

      Some people have a difficult time getting past certain time under load or number of reps on some exercises. Try adding a very small amount of weight to the torso arm on each of your next couple workouts and see if you can continue to match your current time.

  7. Martin December 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    Hi again Drew!

    The three of us are still doing the “Big Five” routine and we have some more questions about it.

    First question:
    We do a workout every 6-8 days and two of us are doing better every single workout – especially in the Leg Press ( first exercise ). We are amazed at how much more resistance we can take now than what we could a month ago, and it is even with the same time under load. Fantastic!
    But the last of us, Adam, suddenly stopped his progression in the Leg Press. His movement during the exercise stops around the same TUL ( about 1:30 min ) for 3 workouts in a row, and we are wondering what to do about this? At 1:30 min his “power” just stops completely even though the repetition before the last was not so taxing. He is doing better on the other exercises in the routine, but not the Leg Press.
    Should we just add more resistance and see what happens or is it a sign that he needs more sleep, better quality food and more rest days?

    Second question:
    When you talk about “advanced trainees” need to adjust their workout to a lower volume – what do you mean by “advances trainess” ? Is it people who have been doing HIT for, lets say 6 months – or is it people who can actually push themselves enough to correctly inroad their muscles? How do you know when to adjust the volume or adjust the rest days instead?

    Third question:
    When i workout in the morning i feel very unproductive for the rest of the day and have a hard time focusing on my work ( studying ) because i feel very tired from the workout. On the other hand when i workout in the evening i have no chance of falling asleep. The day after i have a lot of energy and four days after my muscles feel very powerful. Any advice on when to workout during the day?

    Thanks Drew, we really appreciate your help!
    Martin

    • Drew Baye December 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Martin,

      Adam’s difficulty passing ninety seconds on leg press could mean he needs more recovery time for legs but I would try adding a small amount of weight each time and making 1:30 his upper TUL for that exercise before reducing his training frequency or splitting up the workout.

      Being an advanced trainee isn’t a matter of how long you’ve been training but how proficient you are at performing exercises correctly, your ability to push yourself to train with a very high level of intensity, and your level of strength and conditioning relative to your genetic potential. Workout volume or frequency should be adjusted if progress slows and no other causes can be identified (nutrition, sleep, other stresses, etc.).

      The best time to work out depends on a lot of factors and can vary quite a bit between individuals. Over the years I’ve gone through times where I worked out early in the morning, during the afternoons and early evenings, and even in the middle of the night. Like a lot of other things you just have to experiment with it and find what works best for you.

      • Martin December 31, 2012 at 10:51 am #

        Drew,

        Now we are 4 in the group, and we worked out again yesterday. Adam had skipped one workout so he got twice as many rest days to recover since the last workout ( 12 days ).
        He now used more resistance on the ( Technogym ) leg press – he went up 20 pounds and 34 seconds TUL. So it seems he needs more recovery time than the rest of us. Thanks for your advice! It was great motivation for him too, to see the numbers moving again.

        For me the “problem” is now that 50 days ago i used 130 kg on the Technogym Leg Press – and now i am doing 200 kg at a TUL of 1.42 min – that is a 70 kg increase in less than two months, what is going on?! So i have maxed out the machine. Should i find new equipment – or should i do a pre-exhaust before the leg press, so i can continue using the machine? The other machine in the gym is a leg press used by lying on the back, pushing weight upwards. I have an idea that when legs are elevated above heart level it will be very hard to inroad them properly? Any comments on this?

        Thanks!

        • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

          Martin,

          You’re welcome, and I’m glad Adam was able to resolve his leg press plateau.

          If a suitable machine can’t be substituted and I recommend either pre-exhausting the leg press with a hip or trunk extension machine or moving them to the end of the workout. Barbell or shrug bar squats are also an option, but I’m hesitant to recommend them without being able to personally instruct and supervise their performance.

  8. darren January 23, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    I do my leg presses last in the workout because I can’t do anything afterwards! In other words, if I did leg presses first, it would be a one set workout. But I increase reps on leg press every workout despite their being last.

    • Drew Baye January 24, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

      Darren,

      As long as you are able to perform them with a high enough level of effort to make good progress on them that’s fine. I usually have people do compound leg movements earlier in the workout though, because either they have a very hard time putting enough effort into them or they hold back on other exercises in anticipation of them.

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