The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Tips to Improve Your Resistance Training Sessions

Written by
Michael Harper, MEd
Posted in
Move more

Thursday, Jan 07, 2016

"Whew, I made it here. Now with all of these choices, what should I do first?” It almost sounds like you could be at Disneyland or Six Flags, but I am actually talking about the thoughts that often go through my head when I walk into the gym to do resistance training. Do you ever feel this way too?

By going to the gym, you are on track for meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The Guidelines include performing at least 2 days of resistance training per week, consisting of 8-10 exercises and using 8-12 repetitions for each exercise. Now, you just need to decide which exercise to start with!

Research suggests that exercises should be prioritized so that you do those that address your individual needs or training objectives first.1   In other words, the area that you want to prioritize should be done first in your resistance training session. For example, if your priority is to develop the chest musculature, then you should perform chest exercises first.

In a recent research review article2, results showed that individuals could do more repetitions when performing the exercises placed earlier in the workout as opposed to those performed later in the workout.  This was true regardless of the size of the muscle being worked, or the whether the exercise was a single joint or multi-joint exercise.  In a single-joint exercise, movement is occurring only at one joint. In a multi-joint exercise, movement is occurring in more than one joint.  For example, while both the shoulder and elbow joints are moving in the bench press exercise (multi-joint), only the elbow joint is moving in a triceps press down (single joint).

The article also reported that among untrained individuals, greater strength increases occurred in the first exercise performed when compared to other exercises performed later in the session.

So as you consider what exercise to do first, think back to what your goal of doing resistance training is. Common goals include: gaining functional strength to do daily tasks easier, developing muscle definition of a certain area, losing weight, toning the body, and improving performance for a certain activity or sport.

After identifying your goal, make the first exercise of your routine something that matches that goal.  For example, if your goal is gaining functional strength to do daily tasks easier, then select your first exercise to be a multi-joint exercise that looks similar to the tasks you are trying to improve. Since daily tasks often involve squatting and lifting, performing a squat, leg press, or lunge might be a good choice that replicates the movement versus only working the calf musculature through a calf raise exercise. If your goal is to lose weight and tone the body, then selecting a multi-joint exercise first is appropriate. When compared to single-joint exercises, multi-joint exercises result in a greater amount of work performed.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that exercises targeting large muscle groups be performed first in a training session. This recommendation is appropriate for most individuals since most goals prioritize large muscle groups over smaller ones. However, if you have a goal of working a specific muscle, then it may be appropriate to work a smaller muscle first based on the findings of this research review.

Regardless of the exercises you choose, remember to keep safety a top priority; don’t let fatigue impact your form. Also remember to do a dynamic warm-up prior to any resistance training session. A few suggestions for dynamic warm-up exercises were shown in a previous blog “Does a general warm-up really help lifting performance?

So, with a little planning you can make your visit to the gym a much more pleasant (and less overwhelming) experience!

Consider taking The Cooper Institute’s Biomechanics class to learn how to select, instruct, and perform appropriate resistance training exercises consistent with the structure and function of the human body.

1. The Cooper Institute. (2013). Principles of Health and Fitness for Fitness Professionals. Dallas: The Cooper Institute.
2. Simão, R., de Salles, B. F., Figueiredo, T., Dias, I., Willardson, J.M.. (2012) .Exercise Order in Resistance Training. Sports Medicine, 42(3), 251-265.