Help! What Exercise Should I Do First?

Blog Post

The Cooper Institute
The Cooper Team
Fit Tips
June 11, 2012

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 in the gym to do resistance training. Do you ever feel this way too?

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

In short, research has suggested that exercises should be prioritized so that you do those that best address your individual needs or training objectives first.1 In other words, the area that you want to work the most or have the greatest focus on should be done first in your exercise session. Thus, if your greatest focus is to work the chest, then do chest exercises first.

In a recent research review article2, it was found that individuals could do the most repetitions on the exercises placed earlier in the workout. Exercises done at the end of a workout were associated with fewer repetitions regardless of the size of the muscle being worked or the exercise being a single joint or multi-joint exercise. The review article also reported that greater strength increases were seen by untrained individuals for the first exercise of a 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 and toning the body, and improving performance for a certain activity or sport.

Then after considering your goal, make the first exercise of your routine something that matches that goal best. For example, if your goal is gaining functional strength to do daily tasks easier, then select your first exercise to be a large 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 just working the calves through a calve raise. If your goal is to lose weight and tone the body, then causing the greatest overload or amount of work would be important and multi-joint exercises should be done first. A multi-joint exercise has more than one joint moving at once. An example would be a bench press or push-up compared to a triceps press down that only has one joint moving.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that large muscle group exercises generally be performed first in a training session. This is appropriate for most individuals as most goals prioritize large muscles to be worked. But if you have a specific goal, such as working a specific area or muscle then it may be appropriate to still work a smaller muscle first as it aligns with the findings of this research review.

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

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

1The Cooper Institute. (2012). Principles of Health and Fitness for Fitness Professionals. Dallas: The Cooper Institute.

2Simão, R., de Salles, B. F., Figueiredo, T., Dias, I., Willardson, J.M.. (2012) .Exercise Order in Resistance Training. Sports Medicine, 42(3), 251-265.


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