Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is training the largest muscles first the best way? by Jerry Brainum

   Nearly all bodybuilding programs suggest that you start your workout with exercises for larger muscle groups and finish with smaller ones. The rationale is that larger muscle groups require more energy and working them after smaller muscle groups may lead to fewer muscle gains.

   A recent study examined the effects of exercise sequence in the performance of repetitions and perceived exertion, or how difficult the workout felt.1 The subjects were 14 men and four women, average age 20, with at least six months of training experience. They engaged in two different upper-body workouts, with each workout separated by 48 hours of rest. In the first workout they began with larger muscle groups and finished with smaller muscle groups. The second workout reversed the exercise sequence, starting with smaller muscle groups and ending with larger. They did each exercise for three sets of 10 reps, resting two minutes between sets.

   The experiment showed that whether you train large or small muscle areas first, by the third set you’re considerably weaker, as measured in number of reps completed. Exercises done in the middle part of the workout, however, weren’t affected in either workout. Past studies show that by the fourth set of any exercise, you’re 12.8 to 58.2 percent weaker than you were during the first set.

   Most of the subjects said that the workout was considerably harder when they trained larger muscle groups first. That makes sense, since training larger muscle areas requires more energy and produces more fatigue than training smaller muscle areas. Working legs fatigues the average bodybuilder far more than training biceps. For that reason nearly all bodybuilders train larger muscle groups first in any particular workout.

   In some cases training a larger muscle area first is so fatiguing that you simply can’t effectively train smaller muscle groups afterward. I found that to be true when I tried to use the popular push-pull sequence of exercises, in which you work pushing muscles, such as chest and triceps, one day, followed by pulling muscles, such as back and biceps, the following day. Legs are usually trained on the days you train chest and triceps, since attempting to train the two largest muscle groups, legs and back, in one workout is just too hard.

   What I found was that I got a good workout training the initial large muscle group—legs or back—but I had little or no energy left to effectively train the smaller muscle groups. By the time I got to biceps after training back, I hardly felt the curls. The same was true of training chest after thighs.

   From a practical standpoint, as this study shows, the final exercise in any muscle group will be limited by cumulative fatigue. So it’s logical to use a lighter isolation exercise as the final exercise. Arnold Schwarzenegger realized that during his competitive days. When training his biceps, he always finished off with some form of dumbbell concentration curl, usually in a standing, bent-over position. Arnold almost never used more than 40 pounds on the exercise, instead focusing on form and feel.

   Thus, if you attempt to do three large-muscle-group exercises in one workout, the third exercise will promote little added muscle size. Better to finish off with a lighter isolation exercise and just go for the pump and feel, as Arnold did.

1 Siamao, R., et al. (2005). Influence of exercise order on the number of repetitions performed and perceived exertion during resistance training. J Strength Con Res. 19:152-56.

also see Pat Neve's bodybuilding diet book (A Self-fulfillment book) [Paperback]

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The Applied Ergogenics blog is a collection of articles written and published by Jerry Brainum over the past 20 years. These articles have appeared in Muscle and Fitness, Ironman, and other magazines. Many of the posts on the blog are original articles, having appeared here for the first time. For Jerry’s most recent articles, which are far more in depth than anything that appears on this blog site, please subscribe to his Applied Metabolics Newsletter, at This newsletter, which is more correctly referred to as a monthly e-book, since its average length is 35 to 40 pages, contains the latest findings about nutrition, exercise science, fat-loss, anti-aging, ergogenic aids, food supplements, and other topics. For 33 cents a day you get the benefit of Jerry’s 53 years of writing and intense study of all matters pertaining to fitness,health, bodybuilding, and disease prevention.


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