Why Order of Exercises Matters: A Review

To the naked eye, an exercise session can sometimes appear to be a random collection of exercises, thrown together in a random order. But with a little understanding of the science, and the effects that different exercises (and orderings) can have on the human body, we can ensure we’re getting the most out of a session.

Order the exercises in one way, and a session might help improve your cardiorespiratory fitness. Another way, and better muscle stamina may be the result. Even if the number of repetitions are identical and the weight your lifting is identical, the end result can be very different.

To understand why, it’s important to understand a basic truth of exercise programming. Whatever the limiting factor of an exercise session is, that’s what the session will train. Said another way, whatever limits you in that session is what will be improved by that session.

For example, let’s say you’re doing a very heavy squat. The thing limiting you is your strength – your ability to lift more weight. Therefore, the result of that session will be to improve the thing you were struggling with most – strength.

Or maybe you’re running 2km. And you have to slow down because you’re out of breath. This run will train your cardiorespiratory system – so you’re less out of breath next time. Let’s use the same example, but this time it’s the muscles in your legs which slow you down (your muscular stamina). That is, your breathing is fine, but your legs are burning. In this example, with leg stamina being your limiting factor, this is what will be improved.

So what can this understanding tell us about the order of exercises in your next exercise session?

We’re talking here about a session designed to give you general fitness, or what we call ‘GPP’ – general physical preparedness. Which is just a fancy way of saying, we want the exercise session to improve all elements of your fitness – your strength, stamina, power and cardiorespiratory endurance. This style of ‘concurrent’ training is a highly effective way to improve overall health and fitness.

Let’s choose six exercises, and see what effect changing the order will have. Our six movements are:

  1. Push-up
  2. Strict press
  3. Pull-up
  4. Hang power clean
  5. Squat
  6. Run

We’ve got a good mix of different movements there, some that involve lifting weights, some that use your own body as the weight. But there are some common themes. The first two exercises for example, both involve the pushing muscles. The second two, are more pulling dominant. And squats and running are both challenging on the legs.

So if we were to cycle between those six movements in the order shown, chances are, you’d be more limited by your muscular stamina. By grouping the two pushing movements together (the push-ups and strict press), you’ll ‘pre- fatigue’ those muscles, meaning you’ll have to slow down and your work rate will reduce. The same with trying to run after you’ve just done squats – you probably won’t be very out of breath, but your legs will feel wobbly, and you’ll have to slow down.

Now this is fine as long as (and this is the important part) that is the INTENT of that session. If you’re trying to improve your muscular stamina, taxing and overloading those specific muscles is a great training method. But remember, we’re talking about designing an exercise session to improve general health and fitness – multiple elements of fitness at one time. General physical preparedness.

So how could we change the order of the exercises to give more of a cardiorespiratory benefit, while still improving muscular stamina?

We do this by cycling quickly between varying and opposing movements. The order may look something like this:

  1. Push-up
  2. Hang power clean
  3. Squat
  4. Strict press
  5. Pull-up
  6. Run

We go from a pushing movement that uses your own body as the weight, to a pulling movement that uses a barbell. Then to a lower body exercise in the squat. Then, we go back to a pushing exercise, this time using a barbell, then to a bodyweight pulling movement, and finally to a more lower body dominant exercise.

What does this do?

It taxes the body. It creates a positive form of stress, where you have to work hard to rapidly pump blood around to different muscles to deliver oxygen and fuel, and remove waste. We start by sending the blood to the pushing muscles. No sooner has it got there, that we ask it to go to the pulling muscles, and then to the legs. We repeat this pattern, ‘shunting’ blood between different areas of the body.

Our two examples of exercise order have the same exercises, the same reps, the same weights. But the ORDER is different. And that’s the key. Five rounds of the first example would take much longer than five rounds of the second – because we’d have to slow down to let our muscles recover. If we can do the same amount of work in less time, our work rate is higher, our intensity lifts, and the generalised benefits increase.

If we’re looking to get the most bang for our buck – to maximise the benefit of an exercise session, be smart about how you order your exercises. Remember, whatever the limiting factor of a session is, is what that session will improve. So make sure you’re ordering the exercises to ensure that what you want to improve is the same thing that is limiting your performance.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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