While it may seem straight forward to choose exercises for an exercise program, there are many variables that can influence how effective the program will be. The number of repetitions, the sets and the rest periods are all examples of these variables. Another important variable to consider is the order of the exercises. In this article we explore what the research suggests about exercise order and how it can influence your results.
A study published in 2020 looked at whether starting an exercise session with multi-joint strengthening exercises or with single joint strengthening exercises was more effective at increasing muscle strength and size. An example of a multi-joint exercise is a squat, where the hips, knees and ankle joints are all involved in lowering the body towards the ground and back up. An example of a single joint exercise is a bicep curl, where the only joint moving throughout the exercise is the elbow that bends and straightens. The results of the study showed that strength increased in both groups. However the researchers found that starting the session with single joint exercises and later performing multi joint exercises led to greater strength improvements in the muscles directly involved in the single joint movement. The reverse was also true, with those performing multi joint exercises first and then single joint exercises gaining larger improvements in the muscles involved in the multi joint exercises. So the key takeaway from this study was to start with the area in which you want or need the greatest strength improvements in.
Another study published in 2018 considered the influence of exercise type and the importance of order when undertaking combined exercise sessions. In this study, older participants were assigned to either a control group who did not exercise, a resistance (strengthening) before aerobic exercise group and an aerobic before resistance exercise group. While the exercise groups showed similar differences in body composition, strength and aerobic fitness, those that performed aerobic exercise before resistance exercises had a reduction in the stiffness within their arteries that was not seen in the other groups. Despite this, previous research has indicated that performing aerobic exercises before resistance exercises leads to reduced strength adaptations when compared to the opposite order. The key takeaway yet again is to start with the areas you want to improve on the most. If your goals are to improve aerobic fitness and cardiovascular health, starting with aerobic exercises and moving on to resistance exercises is more appropriate.
In another study published this year, researchers investigated the influence of different types of exercise and different order (resistance or aerobic exercises first) of exercises on blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. All types of exercise were effective at reducing blood sugar levels, however the resistance before aerobic exercise group had a greater reduction in glucose concentration that was deemed to be clinically relevant. However, different researchers who previously studied the influence of exercise order on insulin resistance and cholesterol profiles found no significant differences between groups and concluded that both exercise groups effectively improved both the insulin sensitivity and cholesterol profile in participants.
As you can no doubt see there is more than meets the eye when choosing the order of exercises that best suits your circumstance. It is important to consider your goals and your health conditions, in addition to other factors such as your experience.