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Does exercise order matter?

Posted Oct 04 2011 9:28pm

You’re in the middle of the gym wondering what you should do first. Resistance training, cardio or stretching? So, you’ve decided to hit the weights first. Great! Now, here comes the next question:  Should I do the squat first or the lat pull down? Does it matter?

Weights first. No yet!

Lifting weights relies on a totally different energy system than when you do your cardiovascular activity. When you do resistance training (anaerobic workout), the energy supply is expended very fast which allows you to exert maximal effort but for a very short period of time.  This is why you can do a heavy squat for 8-10 reps but not for 20 minutes. Instead, when you jump into the treadmill for 30 minutes or so your energy supply is slower, but this allows you to work for a longer period of time.

When energy supply is the issue, you should hit the weight room first to make the most out of this session, followed by cardio. This is the general guideline for mainly everyone who is exercising for weight management and fitness in general.

The overall idea behind lifting weights first, followed by the cardiovascular exercise, is that by the time you start the aerobic session, the fat metabolism will contribute more to the energy supply since you’ll rely on oxygen to keep fueling your mechanical work.

We’ve told that after working out there is something called Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen consumption (EPOC), where the calories keep burning once the exercise session is over. Does the exercise order have an impact on EPOC?

A study from University of Porto, Portugal, shows that the exercise mode order (lifting weights before doing cardio in a treadmill for 30 minutes and vice versa) does not affect the EPOC magnitude and duration.

However, if you have any cardiovascular issues, studies show that aerobic training should go after resistance training.  This is because a normal exercise response to lifting weights is to increase arterial stiffness while aerobic workout decreases arterial distensability. But don’t disregard the resistance workout yet.  One of the benefits of this type of training is that increases blood flow to the limbs which also has a positive impact on the blood pressure.

Looking for your PB

However, this is not such a straightforward advice. The intensity and overall goals play a role in the decision of what to do first. If you plan to do a very low intensity arm resistance routine while the cardio is set a high intensity – close or above your 80% heart rate max -  you should switch the order.

Likewise, if your goal is to achieve your personal best in your next race you should do your cardio first and then lift weights. This way, your overall neuromuscular system will be fresh to tackle your primary goal.

But what if your goal is to improve your strength and your aerobic capacity simultaneously? Unfortunately, both exercise types share some cellular events that make it really hard to maximize your potential in both areas at the same time. The best advice when looking to get stronger and to have more endurance is to periodize your training by planning some weeks where the resistance workout will be performed first. After a while, reverse the order.

Streeeeeeeeeeeetch  it out

I still see people getting into the gym and lying down on the floor to stretch those tight hamstrings (ouch!) without any previous warm-up.  Research confirms that the best time to stretch is after working out when your muscles and soft tissue are warmed enough to increase your range of motion and to wind down you neuromuscular system. Don’t confuse warming up with stretching. You can do callisthenic routine with dynamic moves to warm up which is not holding the stretched muscle for some seconds without any movement.

Likewise, many people confuse stretching with foam rolling. The latter works over the fascia of the muscle and helps to relive the tightness, nodules and tension in the area. Foam rolling should be done after a light warm up and/or at the end of the workout before stretching.

Lower body or upper body?

By now, you should have a better idea of your mode workout order but what will the ideal order should be when lifting weights?

The National and Strength Conditioning Association advises that core exercises should be done first. These moves are multi-joint exercises that work several muscles at the same time and in where stabilizers muscles play an important role in the proper execution of the exercise sort of squats and deadlifts. Similarly, power moves such a power clean, hang clean or snatch should be performed before other core strength exercises.

In general, the National Council on Strength & Fitness points out that the traditional order based goes hard to easy, complex to simple, heavy to light, and fast to slow. Nevertheless, this is not a one-size- fits-all advice. There are many things that play a role in the order of your strength moves.

So, answer these questions about organizing your resistance workout:

a) Is the exercise risk high or low?

b) Are the stabilizer muscles (such as the abdominals, hips and lower back) a key component of the activity?

c) How much neural involvement is needed to perform the exercise? It’s not the same to do a single unilateral overhead split squat than doing a standing biceps curls. There’s a lot of coordination involved in the split squat.

d) Is weight or speed an important factor for successful performance?

e) What affect does fatigue have on the exercise?

If you’re still in doubt of what to do, a study from University of Rio de Janeiro and A.T Still University in Arizona concludes: “If an exercise is important for the training goal of a program, then it should be placed at the beginning of the training session, regardless of whether or not it is a large muscle group exercise or a small muscle group exercise.”

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