Exercise Order for Building Muscle
The conventional wisdom is to start each workout with the big compound lifts and, to be sure, there is wisdom in that. Even when programming our compound lifts first, though, there are a few mistakes that a lot of lifters make. The first (and biggest) mistake is that bodybuilders will often stack a bunch of lifts for the same muscle group one after the other. Chest day, leg day, and back day are all examples of poor exercise ordering.
Then, with full-body workouts, choosing which exercise comes first is complicated because we need to choose which of the big compound exercises should come first. Should we squat before we bench press? Conventional wisdom says yes. After all, the squat is the bigger lift. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Next, although it’s generally wise to do our compound lifts first, there are situations where we might want to do isolation lifts first, especially if we have stubborn muscle groups that are lagging behind. There’s some nuance to how to do that, though. We risk making our workouts much worse if we do it incorrectly.
Finally, even after we’ve finished our big compound lifts, there’s still some thinking that should go into how we order our isolation lifts.
The Order of Compound Lifts
Most people know that compound lifts should generally come before isolation lifts. There’s some nuance to that, so we’ll discuss it in the next section, but I thought it would make sense to start with figuring out the best order for our compound lifts.
There are a few different ways of structuring workouts. Some people train one muscle group per workout, starting with the biggest compound lift for that muscle group and then working their way down. Here are some examples of that:
- Chest Day: Barbell Bench Press, dumbbell overhead press, bodyweight dips, triceps extensions, and then lateral raises.
- Leg Day: Front Squats, leg press, leg extensions, leg curls, and then calf raises.
- Back Day: Deadlifts, chin-ups, lat pulldowns, biceps curls, face-pulls.
The problem with that way of training is that, although it works, the exercise order is bad at a foundational level. If we’re doing the bench press, then the dumbbell overhead press, then dips, and then triceps extensions, that’s not a great exercise order because:
- The training volume for our pushing muscles is too high per workout. Muscle growth tends to cap at around 6–10 sets per workout, so after the first couple of exercises, there’s no real point in doing more.
- With every subsequent pushing exercise, those muscles are getting more and more fatigued. For example, if we do a bench press followed by an overhead press, our triceps might be somewhat fatigued during the overhead press, reducing how well we can stimulate growth in our shoulders. By the time we’re doing five different exercises for the same muscle groups, we’re going to start running into real problems with at least some of those muscles being too fatigued.
- The training frequency for the rest of our muscles is too low. Muscles usually stop growing with 24–72 hours after training, so if we aren’t training them a good 3–5 times per week, we’re leaving a lot of muscle growth on the table.
Sorting the exercises into different muscle groups and training one muscle group per day isn’t as effective as training every muscle group every workout. So the best “order” of exercises is more jumbled than that. Better to do squats, then chin-ups, then the bench press. Or deadlifts, then overhead presses, and then biceps curls.
So the very first step, at least for most of us, is to transform that body-part split into a full-body routine. Yes, there are some reasons why we might want to use body-part splits—perhaps simply for the novelty of trying a different style of training—but as a general rule, they tend to be less effective for building muscle.
Anyway, things get more interesting when we talk about the exercise order in full-body workouts, where we have several different compound lifts all competing against one another for that coveted position at the start of the workout. After all, the lift that we do first is the one that we do while we’re still feeling fresh, strong, and energetic. We have more willpower to push ourselves harder.
The conventional wisdom is that we should do the biggest lifts first, and when it comes to compound lifts, the biggest lifts are the squat and the deadlift. This is why programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5 start every single workout with back squats. But is that really the best way to do it? Sometimes, yes. If the lift we’re most eager to improve is the back squat, and if the muscle we’re most interested in bulking up is our quads, then yeah, starting every workout with the back squat makes sense. But what if we’re trying to get stronger at the bench press? Or what if we’re eager to bulk up our shoulders?
Another way of determining exercise order comes from powerlifting. Powerlifting workouts often start with the squat on the first day, the bench press on the second, and the deadlift on the third. Again, this makes perfect sense if our goal is to get stronger at the Big Three powerlifting lifts. But what if we’re most eager to improve our overhead press? Or most eager to bulk up our backs?
When trying to figure out which of the big compound lifts to do first, there is some logic to doing the biggest lift first. If we’re doing heavy deadlifts or squats, then yeah, it can make sense for those lifts to come first. Better to invest our energy into the bigger lifts that will yield more overall muscle growth. However, if we also care about gaining size and strength in our other muscle groups, such as our chests, shoulders, upper backs, and arms, then it can also make sense to have at least some workouts start with the bench press, overhead press, and chin-up.
For example, perhaps one day we start with a few heavy sets of front squats mixed in with chin-ups, giving both lifts equal priority. These lifts tend to pair well together because they can both can be done in a typical rack, and they both stimulate completely different muscle groups, preventing them from interfering with one another. Deadlifts with push-ups are another good combination: both can be done from the floor, and neither will interfere with the other.
For another example, instead of always programming heavy squats first, maybe we start one workout with heavy bench pressing and barbell rowing. Then, afterwards, maybe we do some lighter Zercher squats. That way the “main” lifts of the day are for our upper bodies, but we also include some accessory work for the squat. That way we aren’t always giving top priority to our legs, but we aren’t neglecting them, either.
Overall, we want to make sure that our exercise order lines up with our goals. If we’re especially eager to get stronger at a certain lift, best to do that lift first. For example, if we really want to get stronger at the overhead press, best to start with the overhead press. And if we’re especially eager to bulk up a specific muscle, best to start our workouts with a big lift that targets that muscle. For example, if we really want bigger biceps, best to start with chin-ups.
The Order of Compound & Isolation Lifts
The next thing to consider is how we should order our compound and isolation lifts. We’ve already written about why compound lifts are so important for gaining muscle size and strength, but now I want to talk about how exercise order plays into that.
To provoke muscle growth, we need to challenge our muscles by bringing them close to failure. The number of repetitions we do per set doesn’t matter all that much, what matters is that we challenge our muscles by bringing them close to failure. As a result, a good way of determining how much muscle growth we’re stimulating is simply counting the number of challenging sets we do for each muscle group.
For example, if we do five working sets of the bench press, stopping each set two reps shy of failure, that gives us a training volume of five for our chests. And if we do that workout three times per week, that gives us a training volume of fifteen for our chests.
Pretty simple so far. To build muscle, we need a high enough training volume. And for a set to count towards our training volume, we need to take it close to failure. Things get tricky, though, when we consider that not all muscles contribute equally to a lift, and not all of them will be brought equally close to failure. Going back to our bench press example, let’s imagine that we’re trying to build bigger triceps. Is the bench press bringing our triceps close enough to failure?
If we look at a ten-week study comparing various combinations of the bench press and triceps extensions, we see that doing just the bench press causes a 9.1% increase in chest size, and adding triceps extensions afterwards increases that growth to 10.6%. However, if we do the triceps extensions before the bench press, our chests only grow by 5.6%, cutting our chest growth nearly in half. What’s going on here?
What’s happening here is that when we do the bench press, our chests are often the limiting factor. And so when we bring a set of the bench press close to failure, we’re bringing our chests close to failure, provoking muscle growth.
But if we do triceps extensions first, we’re tiring out our triceps beforehand, making them more likely to limit our performance on the bench press. And so it’s our triceps that are brought close to failure on the bench press, not our chests. That’s why our chest growth plummets if we do our triceps extensions first.
Does that mean that we should always do our compound lifts first? Not necessarily. To add a little intrigue, exercise order affects our triceps in a rather different way:
What we’re seeing here is that our triceps growth virtually the same amount regardless of how we order our exercises. If we do the bench press first, our triceps are somewhat challenged by the bench press, which is fine, and then they’re brought close to failure with the triceps extensions, which is great for building bigger triceps. If we do the triceps extensions first, then our triceps are perfectly challenged by the triceps extensions, and then challenged again fairly well by the bench press. This doesn’t yield much extra triceps growth because in either case, they’ve been challenged enough to grow.
In fact, if we compare just triceps extensions against a combination of both triceps extensions and the bench press, we see fairly comparable growth. What we’re seeing here, then, is that it’s the triceps extensions that are responsible for almost all of our triceps growth. We’re also seeing that exercise order has almost no impact. The only thing that matters is that they have a lift that’s bringing them close enough to failure.
Now let’s flip that example around. Let’s say that we’re doing a combination of the bench press and pec flyes. How would exercise order impact chest and triceps growth?
Using the same logic, we’d expect that exercise order wouldn’t impact chest growth very much. After all, our chests would be brought close to failure by both the bench press and the pec flyes. Their training volume wouldn’t be affected by exercise order. But then when it comes to triceps growth, we’d expect much better results if we did the bench press first. After all, if we pre-fatigued our chests by doing pec flyes, our performance would suffer on the bench press, and our triceps would get quite a bit less stimulation. So in this case, doing the compound lift first would have little effect on our chests but a big impact on our triceps.
Now, you think, doesn’t this mean that’s always a good idea to do our compound lifts first? Generally, yes, that’s true. But if we have a stubborn muscle, we could imagine a situation where we want to do an isolation lift for that muscle first. For example, if we have trouble stimulating our chests on the bench press, then the bench press might not do a very good job of bulking up our chests. We might be able to fix that by doing a bit of chest work beforehand. We might turn our chests into the limiting factor on the bench press.
So a better rule of thumb is that for overall hypertrophy, yes, it’s better to do our compound lifts first (study). But if we’re trying to emphasize certain muscle groups, there might be situations where doing our isolation lifts first is better. That’s a finer detail, sure, but most people have at least a couple of stubborn muscle groups. And most people could benefit from spending at least a few months of the year doing specialization routines that focus on certain areas more than others. That might be an opportunity to play around with exercise order.
Pre-Fatiguing Muscles to Boost Growth
There’s an idea that’s popular in bodybuilding culture that if we pre-fatigue a muscle with an isolation lift, then we’ll be able to get better activation during our compound lifts afterwards. For example, first, we’d do a set of pec flyes to pre-fatigue our chests, and then we’d do our bench press afterwards. Because our chests are already fatigued from the pec flyes, we’d expect the bench press to hit them even harder, and thus stimulate extra growth in our chests.
Thinking about this logically, our chests are our limiting factor in both the bench press and the pec fly anyway, so switching the exercise order wouldn’t really change very much for our pecs. In either case, our pecs are being brought close to failure with every set, and so regardless of how we order the exercises, the training volume for our chests is the same. For most people, then, it shouldn’t have a big impact on chest hypertrophy. If anything, it will just reduce our performance on the bench press, and thus hinder our ability to stimulate muscle growth overall (although there’s some debate about that).
However, if our pecs are especially stubborn, perhaps we aren’t bringing them close to failure on the bench press. In that case, if we pre-exhaust them with pec flyes, they might become our limiting factor when we bench. In that case, we’d expect the pre-exhaust technique to improve our chest growth. Perhaps at the expense of our triceps or shoulders, yes, but if our pecs are lagging behind, that might be a worthwhile trade.
But that’s not quite how things play out. With the bench press, it’s actually possible to do the lift with just our chests, just our shoulders, or just our triceps. Contracting any of those muscles will move the bar up. And so if we pre-fatigue one muscle group beforehand, we may just force the other muscles to work harder. For example, in this study, we see that pre-exhausting the pecs before doing a set of bench press increases triceps activity. Now, the next question is whether that extra triceps activity would increase muscle growth, and we don’t know. It’s always hard to guess based on EMG research. It might.
With other lifts, though, such as the squat, if one muscle group is too tired, then we’ll be unable to perform the lift. When squatting, if our spinal erectors are too tired, our backs cave in. If our glutes are too tired, we can’t open up our hips. If our quads are too tired, we can’t stand up. All of our muscles have to do their share or we fail the rep. This means that we need to be much more careful when pre-fatiguing muscles prior to squatting. The last thing we’d want to do is tire out our quads with leg extensions and then do our squats afterwards, getting far less overall muscle growth out of them.
Deadlifts are another example of a lift that can be ruined with pre-fatiguing. If we tire out our spinal erectors before doing a heavy set of deadlifts, our spinal erectors might become our limiting factor, which can prevent us from properly stimulating our hips, hamstrings, and traps.
Here are some good ways that we can pre-fatigue our muscles:
- To boost glute growth (method one): we can pre-fatigue our glutes with some glute bridges, hip thrusts, or lunges before doing our squats. That way our glutes are more likely to be our limiting factor while squatting. Just keep in mind that this might reduce quad growth.
- To boost glute growth (method two): we can pre-fatigue our quads by doing front squats. Then, when we move to glute bridges, hip thrusts, or lunges, our quads will be less able to contribute, and our glutes will need to fire harder. For most of us, this is probably the preferred approach, since it wouldn’t hinder our quad growth.
- To boost quad growth (over back growth): start with the leg press for the glutes and quads, and then move on to squats, forcing us to squat with lighter weights, but still bringing our quads and glutes close to failure.
- To boost chest growth: pre-fatigue our chests with pec flyes and then go into the bench press. Because our pecs are already fatigued, they’re more likely to limit our performance on the bench press, ensuring that we’re bringing them close enough to failure to stimulate growth.
When we’re pre-fatiguing a muscle, we don’t want to absolutely destroy our muscles by going all the way to failure. It’s generally better to stay at least a couple of reps away from failure so that performance on the subsequent exercise is still pretty good. In fact, we might not even want to think of it as “pre-fatiguing” a muscle. Better to think of it as “pre-stimulating” a muscle.
Finally, as a general rule of thumb, the lifts that we do first give us greater strength and muscle gains. By pre-fatiguing our muscles, we’re reducing the effectiveness of our bigger compound lifts, and likely reducing our total muscle growth and strength gains. Pre-fatiguing muscles can be a useful tool, but it’s not something that we should go crazy with.
So as a general rule, pre-fatiguing our muscles probably does more harm than good. Better to go into our compound lifts as fresh and strong as possible. However, for more advanced lifters, if there’s a stubborn muscle group that we’re trying to bring up, or if we’re doing a specialization phase, then pre-fatiguing can be a good tactic to boost growth in a target muscle group.
The most important aspect of exercise order is usually to make sure that we’re doing full-body workouts instead of body-part splits. That will allow us to train our muscles with greater frequency and muscle fatigue won’t be as much of a problem in the workouts we’re doing.
Next, we should usually put our bigger compound lifts first. We recommend focusing on getting stronger at the Big Five compound lifts, and as a general rule of thumb, we like to do those lifts at the beginning of our workouts:
Which of those lifts come first depends on your goals, but we often start our workouts with a small circuit, spreading the priority between two different lifts. For example, we might do front squats mixed with chin-ups, like so:
- Front squats, rest for two minutes.
- Chin-ups, rest for two minutes.
- Front squats, rest for two minutes.
- Chin-ups, rest for two minutes.
- Front squats, rest for two minutes.
- Chin-ups, move on to the next exercise.
After that, we usually program some accessory lifts for muscle groups that we’re trying to focus on. For example, if we’re trying to build bigger biceps, we might do chin-ups and then curls. That way we’re doing the bigger compound lift first, then doing a smaller isolation lift afterwards that focuses on our target muscle group (our biceps).
Another approach is to do a big compound lift and then choose an isolation lift for a muscle that wasn’t properly challenged by the compound lift. For example, we might start our workouts with the bench press (using either dumbbells or a barbell, by the way) and then do triceps extensions afterwards. That way we have the bench press bringing our chests close to failure followed by the triceps extensions bringing our triceps close to failure, and thus stimulating an equal amount of muscle growth in both muscle groups.
Finally, there’s plenty of room for exceptions. If you really want bigger arms, maybe you start every workout with biceps curls and triceps extensions before moving on to your compound lifts. There’s a lot of flexibility here, and exercise order is a good way of giving priority to different muscle groups.
As always, if you want a customizable bulking routine (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you like our approach to gaining muscle size and strength, you’ll love the full program.