Those who write time management books and planning diaries always talk about setting priorities with “To Do” lists. This is good advice because to achieve your goals it’s best to focus first on those tasks that will provide the most impact, increasing the likelihood they will get completed. Likewise, a sensible guideline in training is to perform the most effective exercises early in the workout. The popular name for this approach is Priority Training.
What are the most effective exercises? There are a number of factors to consider – here are a few:
1. Exercises that recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers
For example, the triceps has three heads: long head, lateral head, and medial head. You should generally perform exercises that work all three heads rather than just one or two. An excellent resource on what exercises work which muscle groups is Target Bodybuilding by Per A. Tesch, PhD. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Tesch was able to determine which muscle groups were used in 60 common exercises, many of them arm exercises, and how hard they worked.
A practical way to determine which exercises activate the most muscle fibers is by how much weight can be used in those exercises, obviously assuming that proper form is respected. Therefore, dips on V-bars will do far more for your triceps development than triceps kickbacks, and triceps pushdowns will not be as effective as close-grip bench presses or seated-half presses in rack for rapid strength and mass gains in the triceps. For the elbow flexors, one-arm Scott hammer curls will recruit more fibers than lying prone dumbbell curls or incline bench concentration curls.
2. Technical complexity
Compound exercises with a high technical component, such as the Olympic lifts and their variations, need to be performed first in a session; also in this category are exercises used in the training for strongman competition, such as keg and sandbag lifts. These exercises require a great deal of concentration and coordination, and therefore they should be performed when the trainee’s energy levels are highest and the nervous system is rested and in a wakeful state. Thus, a snatch should be performed before a push press, a push press before a squat, and a squat before a biceps curl.
A. Power Clean, 7 x 3, 11X1, rest 150 seconds
B. Front Squat, 6 x 5, 4, 3, 3, 4, 5, 3010, rest 150 seconds
One bonus of this training method is that it saves time. Many complex exercises involve a large amount of muscle mass, and as such they serve as an effective warm-up for other exercises. For example, if you started your workouts with the military press, you might need three just warm-up sets before you would be ready for maximal-effort sets.
3. Muscle fiber type
For optimal recruitment of the fast-twitch fibers from an exercise, one must train them when the central nervous system is fresh; hence, at the beginning of the training unit (or session). Here is an example of a workout that starts with an explosive exercise followed by a strength exercise.
A practical example of how to apply this principle would be when working the calves. The gastrocnemius is roughly 60 percent fast-twitch fibers, and the soleus is approximately 88 percent slow-twitch fibers; therefore, the gastrocnemius should be trained first. By the same logic, in the case of elbow flexor training, the brachialis should be trained before the biceps brachii because the brachialis has more fast-twitch fibers than the biceps brachii. Other examples of muscles that are primarily fast-twitch include adductor longus, biceps femoris, pectoralis major, psoas, rectus abdominus, and triceps.
There are exceptions where you would perform a slow speed exercise before a fast speed exercise in a superset. This is the cast with contrast training, where a heavy weight is used first in a superset to stimulate the nervous system before an explosive exercise. Here is an example.
A1. Back Squat, 8 x 3, 4010, rest 45 seconds
A2. Barbell Jumps, 8 x 6-8, 10X0, rest 180 seconds
4. Training Goal
The order of the exercises will change as the goals of the individual change. A chain is only as strong as its weakness link, and the exercise order should be arranged to reflect these goals. For example, when many bodybuilders decide they want to compete, they often find that their calves are relatively weaker compared to their other body parts. As such, calf exercises should be performed first, or at least early, in a training session. The same principle applies to sports specific training.
A short-term training goal for a downhill skier might be to improve hamstring strength in the off-season. Often the stress on the quadriceps from practicing their sport is enough to maintain, and even increase strength in the quadriceps. However, without supplemental weight training, during the season it’s easily possible to develop a relative weakness in the hamstrings. As such, performing hamstring exercises first in a workout can help athletes achieve structural balance.
Now that you have your priorities straight, it’s time to get to work!