Workout Structure and Exercise Order

The number of muscle groups trained per workout needs to be considered when designing the resistance training program. There are three basic workout structures to choose from: (1) total body workouts, (2) upper and lower body split workouts, and (3) muscle group split routines. Total body workouts involve exercises that work all major muscle groups (i.e., 1 or 2 exercises for each major muscle group). They are very common among athletes and Olympic weightlifters. In Olympic weightlifting, the primary lifts and variations are total body exercises. Usually, the first few exercises in the workout sequence are the Olympic lifts (plus variations). The remainder of the workout may be dedicated to basic strength exercises. Upper and lower body split workouts involve performance of only upper body exercises during one workout and only lower body exercises during the next workout. These types of workouts are common among athletes, power lifters, and bodybuilders. Muscle group split routines involve performance of exercises for specific muscle groups during a workout (e.g., a back and biceps workout in which all exercises for the back are performed, then all exercises for the biceps are performed). These are characteristic of bodybuilding programs.

All of these program designs can be effective for improving athletic performance. Individual goals, time and frequency, and personal preferences determine which structures are selected by the strength and conditioning professional or athlete. The major differences among these structures are the magnitude of specialization present during each workout (related to the number of exercises performed per muscle group) and the amount of recovery time between workouts. Individual needs determine which structure will be used (in addition to the exercises performed) prior to exercise sequencing.

The order of exercises within a workout significantly affects acute lifting performance and subsequent changes in strength during resistance training. The primary training goals should dictate the exercise order. Exercises performed early in the workout are completed with less fatigue, yielding greater rates of force development, higher repetition number, and greater amount of weights lifted. Studies show that performance of multiple-joint exercises (bench press, squat, leg press, shoulder press) declines significantly when done later in a workout (following several exercises that stress similar muscle groups) (35, 36). Considering that these multiple-joint exercises are effective for increasing strength and power, prioritization is typically given to these core structural exercises (i.e., those extremely important to targeting program goals) early in a workout.

For example, Olympic lifts require explosive force production, and creating fatigue reduces the desired effects. These exercises need to be performed early in the workout, especially since they are technically demanding. Sequencing strategies for strength and power training have been recommended (21, 25, 31). It is important to note these can also apply to muscular endurance and hypertrophy training. These recommendations and guidelines are listed in the sidebar.

For hypertrophy and muscular endurance training, some exceptions may exist to these guidelines. Although training to maximize muscle size should include strength training, muscle growth is predicated on factors related to mechanics (force) and blood flow. In contrast, strength training maximizes the mechanical factors. When the goal of training is hypertrophy, training in a fatigued state does have a potent effect on the metabolic factors that induce muscle growth. In this case, the exercise order may vary to stress the metabolic factors involved in muscle hypertrophy.

For example, some bodybuilders have used a technique known as pre-exhaustion. Here, a single-joint exercise is performed first (to fatigue a specific muscle group), followed by a multiple-joint exercise. One example is to perform the dumbbell fly exercise first to fatigue the pectoral and deltoid muscles, and then perform the bench press. When the bench press is examined, many times the triceps brachii muscle group is the site of failure. This theoretically suggests that the pectorals may not be optimally stimulated. With pre-exhaustion, the pectoral group is prefatigued. As a result, when the lifter performs the bench press after the dumbbell fly, it is likely that the pectoral muscles (i.e., the targeted muscles) will fatigue first. Because a higher number of repetitions are performed when training for hypertrophy, less weight is used. This technique improves hypertrophy and muscle endurance to a greater extent than maximal strength.

For muscle endurance training, fatigue needs to be present for adaptations to take place. Thus, the order can vary in infinite ways. For example, during a preseason conditioning phase, a basketball coach may choose to place the squat exercise later in the workout. This will force the athlete to perform the exercise in a fatigued state, which could replicate a scenario encountered during the sport (e.g., being able to perform a squatting movement similar to jumping in the second half of a game).

Exercise selection can also vary when warm-up exercises are used. For example, some athletes choose to perform a single-joint exercise (leg extension) before the squat exercise as a warm-up. The key distinction here is that the leg extension is performed with light weights and does not fatigue the lifter. Thus, warm-up exceptions can be used effectively to prepare for higher-intensity training.

General Guidelines for Exercise Order

When training all major muscle groups in a workout:

  • Large muscle group exercises (i.e., squat) should be performed before smaller muscle group exercises (i.e., shoulder press).
  • Multiple-joint exercises should be performed before single-joint exercises.
  • For power training: Total body exercises (from most to least complex) should be performed before basic strength exercises. For example, the most complex exercises are the snatch (because the bar must be moved the greatest distance) and related lifts, followed by cleans and presses. These take precedence over exercises such as the bench press and squat.
  • Alternating between upper and lower body exercises or opposing (agonist-antagonist relationship) exercises can allow some muscles to rest while the opposite muscle groups are trained. This sequencing strategy is beneficial for maintaining high training intensities and targeting repetition numbers.
  • Some exercises that target different muscle groups can be staggered between sets of other exercises to increase workout efficiency. For example, a trunk exercise can be performed between sets of the bench press. Because different muscle groups are stressed, no additional fatigue would be induced prior to performing the bench press. This is especially effective when long rest intervals are used.

When training upper body muscles on one day and lower body muscles on a separate day, athletes should do the following:

  • Perform large muscle group, multiple-joint exercises before small muscle group, single-joint exercises
  • Alternate opposing exercises (agonist-antagonist relationship)

When training individual muscle groups, athletes should do the following:

  • Perform multiple-joint exercises before single-joint exercises
  • Perform higher-intensity exercises before lower-intensity exercises (The sequence can proceed from the heaviest exercises to those of lower intensity.)

Does It Matter What Order You Perform Exercises In a Workout?

However, there’s no universally “right” order. “Asking for ‘the best exercise order’ would be like asking a chess master what the best move in chess is-it’s going to vary,” says Dariusz Stankiewicz, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Body Evolved, a physical therapy and strength coaching studio in New York City. Touché. (Related: How to Work Out Less and Get Better Results)

That said, it can be daunting to plan your own workout routine if have no idea where to start. These seven rules of exercise order can help.

1. Should you do strength or cardio first?

Should you do cardio before strength training is the million-dollar fitness question. Luciani says the answer comes down to your goals. “If you want to build muscle, you should start with 5 to 12 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity cardio to get your blood flowing.” (That may come in the form of a quick dynamic warm-up or some time on the treadmill or elliptical.) Much more than that could fatigue your muscles too much-you want to be fresh before stepping up to the dumbbells or barbell, which is where you’ll build your strength.

Research backs it up: In one study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers compared workouts of only strength training, running then strength, and cycling then strength. They found that exercisers did fewer reps if they had just run or cycled. Another study found that when exercisers ran on a treadmill first, they couldn’t do as many reps during strength training and also showed reduced muscle power. So, if strength is your goal: Warm up, do your strength workout, then finish with longer cardio bouts if you want to bake cardio into the equation.

However, if you’re training for a race or looking to build cardio endurance, start with cardio-just be careful when you get to the weights. “Prolonged steady-state cardio or high-intensity interval training will tax your body, so only lift as much as you can with good form,” says Luciani. Or consider doing your strength workouts on days when you don’t need to log training miles so you can go heavier. (Grab a set of light weights and try these strength exercises every runner should be doing.)

2. Program plyos first.

Plyometrics have gotten buzz for their ability to make you explosive and strong. Most experts recommend only doing plyometric movements twice a week. And on the days you do them, do them after warming up but before anything else.

While these moves are a surefire way to make you firmer and faster, they shouldn’t be done under fatigue, says Luciani. “Plyo movements are all about all-out effort with good form. At the end of your workout, traditional plyometric movements simply aren’t going to be as explosive-and therefore as effective-as they would at the beginning of your workout.”

What if finishing up your workout with a cardiovascular burn is your jam? Jump wisely. “You could actually get injured if you try anything single-legged or with equipment (think depth jumps, single-leg hops, box jumps, jumping box step-ups, etc.) when you’re already tired,” says Luciani. Her suggestion? Keep it to squat jumps and burpees, and stop when your form gets wonky.

3. Do multi-joint before single-joint.

If you really want to reap the benefits of strength training, multi-joint-also called “compound”-exercises are where it’s at. Compound exercises like the back squat, deadlift, and push press are movements that work multiple joints (ex: your knees, hips, and shoulders) and thus multiple muscle groups at the same time, says Luciani. “They improve full-body strength, elevate the heart rate quickly, and improve coordination and balance too,” explains Luciani.

But here’s the thing: Compound exercises usually require more technique than an exercise that only works one muscle group, which means you want to be as fresh as possible when doing them. That’s why experts-including Luciani and Tony Carvajal, certified CrossFit trainer with RSP Nutrition-recommend doing compound movements first.

Research confirms their recs: One study found that when a group of untrained men did strength work, they saw greater improvements in the moves they did at the beginning vs. those performed toward the end. Axe says can this info can be applied to female exercisers too. (BTW, here’s why more women are trying to gain weight through diet and exercise.)

Then, you can move on to single-joint movements: “Single-joint and single-muscle exercises can usually still be performed well under fatigue, but the opposite isn’t usually true,” says Carvajal. (Think: Barbell back squat then leg extension machine.)

The risk of performing compound movements under fatigue is two-fold, says Luciani. “If you do compound movements when you’re super fatigued, there will be a lapse in technique, which reduces the effectiveness of that exercise for building muscle and teaching safe movement patterns, plus increases your risk of injury.” Yikes.

4. Do high-energy bodyweight moves first.

If you’re just doing bodyweight movements in your workout, you might think order doesn’t matter. But it does-especially if you’re a gym newbie. “Use the same principle as above: Do the exercises that require the most energy first,” says Luciani. Think about it this way: Which takes more energy, a push-up or a calf raise? A push-up. Which takes more energy, a crunch or an air squat? An air squat. A pull-up or a glute bridge? A pull-up.

If you’re a seasoned exerciser, the risk of injury during bodyweight movements is low, regardless of order of exercise. “But people who are just learning full-body movements like the push-up or air squats should do those movements first so that they’re able to preserve form and reap all the muscle-building benefits,” says Luciani.

5. Keep circuits safe.

What if you’re doing a circuit (ex: this 30-minute circuit workout), where you’re doing a variety of moves in succession? Good news: If you can safely perform 15 to 20 reps of all the bodyweight movements in the circuit, you can just go at it. (Related: Here’s the Difference Between Circuit Training and Interval Training)

If you’ve ever taken a boot camp or HIIT-style class, you’ve probably done a circuit that includes weights. That’s okay, too. Just don’t let your ego get in the way, says Luciani. Pick a weight you can safely use to perform 15 to 20 reps. (For more info on circuit training, find out how to build the perfect circuit training workout.)

6. Switch it up.

Many people organize their workout routines based on certain muscle groups. For example, back and shoulders on Monday, chest and triceps on Tuesday, etc. The idea is that this split combines different movement patterns to help you effectively increase muscle growth while reducing risk of injury. However, if you’re doing the same workout every time you hit the gym for leg day, you’re doing it wrong-you should be varying the order of your exercises, says Luciani.

Why? Research shows that people can do more repetitions of the first strength exercise performed than all the other movements in that circuit or sequence. So, for example, “if you always do your push exercises (i.e., chest press) before your pull exercises (i.e., dumbbell row), your pulling muscles won’t get as strong as the pushing muscles!” says Luciani.

Her recommendation is simple: Alternate! And if you just want someone else to do the programming for you, try this four-week strength training plan for women.

7. Save abs for the end.

There’s a reason you usually finish classes torching your core: Core circuits should be done at the end of the workout, according to Luciani. “Remember compound movements and full-body moves like the push-up are going to work your core even more than a crunch or plank does. You don’t want to go into those with your core already taxed.”

Looking for an ab finisher routine? Try this 10-minute workout designed to exhaust your abs or these four oblique exercises.

Remember: It can be tempting to throw a workout together like ingredients in a blender. But to get the most out of your time at the gym, spend a little extra time planning out the order that you’re going to do your exercises. When in doubt, Luciani says there’s one main rule: “Exercises that use the most energy and muscle groups should be done first.”

  • By By Gabrielle Kassel

Fitnesspromiddleton’s Blog

Training programs are endless. Everyday someone is coming out with a program claiming to be the best for reaching your weight loss, physical or health goals. Ultimately designing a resistance program is a very individualized process. The needs and goals of the individual are paramount to any training program.

A person looking to gain strength would have a very different program from a person looking to gain muscle size. Outcome goals are not the only considerations in program design. Training experience, health status, time available to train and any special needs a person may have all come into play when designing a resistance program.

However, there are training principles you can follow that will help you get your desired results. Understanding these principles will make your exercise program more effective and allow you to meet your physical fitness goals. These rules apply to all healthy individuals from beginners to elite competitors. They are specificity, overload and progression.


Training, to be effective, must be specific and targeted towards your specific goals or activity you wish to improve. In the exercise science community this is referred to as the SAID principle, standing for specific adaptation to imposed demand.

This principle says that the type of demand (or stress) placed on your body dictates the type of adaptation that will occur. It is the bases for exercise selection and other components of training to assure your goal is reach.

For instance, if your objective is to run a marathon, you would get better results running outside than training on an elliptical. While both activities will stress the cardiovascular system, mechanically running outside will get closer to your goal.

Similarly, if your main goal is simply health, fitness and weight management, you should focus on total body strength, cardio and a healthy diet.

Make sure your training matches your goals.


The principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for training adaptations to take place. Overloading body systems with higher work rates and increased loads causes the body to respond to these extra demands by improving its performance. Without the stimulus of overload, even a well-designed program will see limited improvements.

You need to do more, to get more. Your body is like nothing else. It will adapt to the different stresses you put on it. When you stress the body by lifting a weight that the body is not use to lifting, the body will react by causing physiological changes in order to be able to handle that stress better and better every time you introduce it.

This concept is similar in cardiovascular training. If you ask the heart, lungs and endurance muscles to do work not previously done, your body will begin to change right down to the cellular level to handle that demand.

This is how people get stronger, bigger, faster and increase their physical fitness level.

There are three basic ways to increase overload:

1. Frequency:

Frequency refers to how often you plan to exercise. If you want to improve your fitness there must be regularity to your program, but you need to allow time for recovery.The frequency of an exercise program balances the stress you put on your body though exercise allows your body enough time to heal and adapt.

This means you want give your body enough time to recover and adapt, but you need to continually apply stress to see results.If no new training stimulus is encountered after recovery and adaptation are completed, then performance capacity will eventually decline (1).

While not part of the frequency principal, but just as important to recovery, are sleep and nutrition.You need to get enough sleep for your body to rest and repair properly.Just as you cannot expect the best results if you are not fueling your with good nutrition.

2. Intensity:

Intensity is about balance too. You need to put enough stress on the body to see adaptations, but not too much that it results in overtraining, injury or burnout.

In resistance training volume load (repetitions x load) is a reasonable estimate of work and training stress. This means you can increase workload by lifting heavier weights. Or you could increase the number of repetitions with the same weight. Both would result in an increase in intensity.

However, if applying this method do not forget the SAID principle. While increasing the number receptions in a given set, may make the workout harder it may hamper a strength goal if too many repetitions are performed.

Less obvious was to increase intensity include decreasing the rest time between sets, adding variety (changing the mode of exercise), adding exercises, changing the tempo of the exercise or any combination of these.

3. Duration:

The length of time or duration of the training session can be varied as well. Exercise intensity will determine exercise duration. Generally, the more intense a workout the shorter the length and vice versa. Exercise intensity should be enough so you get proper amount of overload.


If a training program is to produce higher levels of performance, the intensity of the training program must become progressively greater. In other words, to keep seeing benefits you must progressively increase the stimuli. If you do not progress, your body no longer perceives an overload and you will plateau.

If you want to see good results from your program over the long term you will need to apply the principle of progressive overload. Major results take time and dedication, but they will occur if you progress your program properly.

There are many resistance exercises available, but they all can be broken down to core (multi-joint) exercises or assistance (single-joint) exercises. They may go by different name and sometimes you will see exercises referred to as closed chain or compound and open-chain or isolated. These are the same core (multi-joint) exercises and assistance (single-joint), respectively. Probably the easiest way to remember the basic two types of exercise moves is to know the number of joints involved in an exercise, because that what makes them different.

Core (multi-joint) exercises are those that involve movement at two or more joints. They recruit one or more large muscle groups with the synergistic help of smaller muscle groups.

For instance, a chest press is a multi-joint exercise, because there are two joints involved in the movement. Both your shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint) and elbow joints (humeroradial joint and humeroulnar joint) need to move to complete a chest press. The chest press recruits the large chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) and is synergistically helped by the front part of the shoulder (anterior deltoid) and the back of your arm (triceps brachii).

There are core (multi-joint) exercises that put axial stress (or load) on the spine. These exercises require you to stabilize your torso muscles to maintain a neutral spine position. These exercises are core exercises that are also called structural exercises. Any type of squat is a good example of core exercise that is a structural exercise too.

The squat involves movement at more than one joint, namely the knee, hip and ankle joints. It uses major muscle groups, namely quadriceps, hamstring and gluteus maximus with synergistic help from of smaller muscle groups, namely gluteus medius and adductors muscles. These two facts make the squat a core exercise. The squat is also a structural exercise because it places an axial stress or load on the spine. You will need to stabilize your spine by recruiting deep core muscles.

When you are performing a squat your torso gets most of its support from the erector spinae muscle group and the transverse abdominals. The erector spinae are a group of deep muscles deep that run the length of your spinal cord. The transverse abdominal muscles run along your sides from your ribs to your hips and are deep to your external and internal oblique muscles. Theses muscles must be stable though the downward and upward movement of your squat. For this reason the squat is a core exercise that is also a structural exercise.

You can further breakdown core exercises by increasing the velocity (speed) of the movement. A structural exercise performed at a higher velocity is called a power or explosive exercise. These would include a push press, power clean, snatch and high pull. These are advance exercises that you could eventually progress towards depending on your specific goal.

Assistance (single-joint) exercise involved movement at only one primary joint or single-joint. It recruits one small muscle group or only one large muscle group area.

For xample, a barbell biceps curl exercise involves movement only at the elbow joint and recruits a small muscle group, namely the biceps. In this exercise the bicep brachii is the primary mover and the brachialis and brachioradialis are the synergistic helpers. . The pec deck fly or dumbbell fly are also assistance exercise, because only one joint is moving and the main focus is the one muscle group, namely the chest muscles, despite the fact the chest is a large muscle area.

Now let’s put these movements into a program. A general rule is to perform core (multi-joint) exercises before Assistance (single-joint) exercise. There are several ways to accomplish this and deciding which one is best for you will depend on your specific goal, level of skill, fitness status and the time you have to train. Here are some common methods that are widely accepted by many exercise science organization, namely National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM).

Power, Other Core, Assistance Exercises:

In this program power exercises are performed first because they require more skill, effort and focus. These are your harder core (multi-joint) exercises. Most new clients would not have power exercises in their program because they require a base of strength and skill. Instead you would just perform core (multi-joint) exercises before assistance (single-joint) exercises. In both programs you are training the large muscle groups first and the small muscle groups second. Your order may look something like:

or less advance

Your skill and experience will determine the level of difficultly of your exercise selection, but if you focus on the outcome the exercise performs opposed to the process you can manipulate any exercise to match your skill level. In other words, if you focus on core (multi-joint) exercises that work the major muscle groups you can then select a less technical exercise that matches the same movement pattern.

The National strength and conditioning Association refers to this process as “regression.” It is the opposite of progression that involves selecting a more technical exercise with the same movement pattern. It is about matching movements to your skill level and you should not view it in any other way.

The chart below provides some examples on how you would change an exercise to match the movement. Other examples are available, but this provides a good idea of how to modify an exercise to match your skill level and how to progress an exercise as you become more proficient at an exercise.

The above diagram shows push and pull movements, which brings us to our next way to sequence your exercise program.

Alternate “Push” and “Pull” Exercises:

You can break down muscle groups my either their pushing or pulling movement. In this type of program you would alternate muscle groups based on their push or pull movement. This type of sequencing would guarantee no two muscle groups would be used for two exercises in a row, diminishing fatigue in the involved muscle.

Push muscle groups contract (concentric portion of the movement) when the weight is “pushed” away from the body. On the other hand, pull muscle groups contract when “pulled” towards the body.

In general, your chest (pectorals), triceps (back of the arm), shoulders (deltoids), rear end (gluteals), quadriceps (front of the leg) and calves are consider push muscle groups. While your back (latissimus dorsi and trapezius), biceps (front of the arm), forearms, abdominals and hamstrings (back of the leg) are considered pull muscle groups.

Alternate Upper and Lower Body Exercises:

When beginning an exercise program you may find it difficult to perform back to back upper or lower body movements. A possible different program design would be to alternate upper body exercises with lower body exercises. If you are somewhat conditioned you could use this method to shorten your workout because you could perform the exercises without needing long rest periods between exercises.

Combination of Other Methods:

A common method of ordering your exercises is to combine two of the previously mentioned methods. For instance you could perform “core exercises” and then “assistance exercise,” while alternation between “push and “pull” exercises. Typically you would begin with the large muscle groups and work your way through to the small muscle groups. This type of sequencing is one of the best for minimizing fatigue at any fitness level. Most of my clients like this method the best.

Compound Sets and Supersets:

Compound sets and supersets are secondary methods of training. They involved completing two exercises in a row without rest in between. When the two exercises train the same primary muscle group, as in chest press and dumbbell fly, the set is called a compound set. If the two exercise work opposing muscle groups, as in chest press and bent over row, then the set is called a superset.

These methods are time efficient and are intended to be more demanding. It is not a place to start if you are untrained.

Understanding the difference between exercise movements is critical in developing your resistance program. Most professional organizations agree that core (multi-joint) exercises should be performed before assistant (single-joint) exercises.

However, the most important factor is that you perform the exercise correctly. You need to use the correct body alignment and breathe though the exertion. You need to move the joints that recruit the targeted muscle group, while stabilizing joints that are not involved in the movement.

Learning to do this takes time and consistency. It will take a while to the gain skill to stabilize your deep muscles of the spine and even how to breathe correctly.

Next up in the series on resistance training are the acute variables to resistance training, namely frequency, rest intervals, number of repetitions, sets and tempo.

All of these variables will be different depending on your goal. Be patient and committed to improving your heal and you will succeed in reaching your fitness goals.

Original Article

NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training, 2004: p 362; p365 -370

American College of Sports Medicine:Progression Models in Resistance Trainingfor Healthy Adults, 2009

Foundations of Fitness Programming: Natioanl Strength and Conditioning Association, 2015

You’re short on time, but you need to burn fat, and burn it fast. What’s your best option? You could head outdoors and run, but you’d have to jog for an hour to maximize the amount of you fat burning. What if you don’t have time for that? The secret to fat burning fast is to exercise hard enough to harness the power of the after-burn.

So, what the heck is the after-burn anyway? After-burn refers to the additional calories your body uses to recover from an intense workout. After a high-intensity workout, your body burns more calories and body fat for hours or even days after your workout ends. You don’t get that additional calorie burn when you exercise at a moderate intensity. That’s why a short, intense workout can give you more fat-burning benefits than a longer, less intense one.

Short on Time? Fat Burning Fast by Working the Large Muscle Groups

To combine fat burning with strength training, you don’t have to spend an hour at the gym. Do a circuit workout that targets large muscle groups in the back, chest and legs. When you work large muscle groups, you’ll burn more calories. Incorporate as many muscle groups into a given exercise as possible by focusing on exercises that use multiple joints and muscles. These are called compound exercises.

Compound exercises not only burn more calories than exercises than isolation exercises like biceps curls, they also boost levels of fat-burning hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. This helps you burn more fat while building strength at the same time.

Examples of compound exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups include deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, push-ups, bench press and lunges. If you do these exercises, you’ll be getting an effective workout for your upper and lower body. If you move through them quickly with minimal rest between sets you’ll boost the calorie burn more and get your workout done in less time.

Add Some Cardio

You can combine strength training with cardio to save even more time. After doing a compound strength training exercise, do a brief cardio segment. Jump on the elliptical machine or treadmill and put it to work, do jumping jacks, plyometric jumps or jump rope for 60 seconds before proceeding to the next strength training exercise. This kind of combination workout burns more body fat in less time. Using this method, you can get a full body workout with cardio in 30 minutes. Even busy people can spare that amount of time.

The Bottom Line for fat burning?

If you want to burn fat fast, and you have limited time, focus on compound exercises that work the large muscle groups and alternate them with brief periods of cardio. It’s a tough workout, but it gets the job done even when you have limited time to work out.

On Fitness. January/Feb. 2011. “The Body Fat Blitz Workout”

Exercise Physiology. Seventh Edition. Powers and Howley. 2009.

If you’re going to take the time to work out, you probably want to make the most of it. But with so many body parts and muscle groups, it can be hard to know where to start. Workout programs usually aren’t labeled as “full-body” or “body part” routines, but we’ve all heard of “leg days” or “arm days,” versus workouts that do it all. Every program wants you to build muscle, get strong, or lose weight. Choosing between full-body or specific focus routines, however, isn’t easy.

Full-body workouts are more efficient and ideal for beginners

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In a full-body routine, you train every major muscle in your body, like your chest, back, arms, hamstrings and abs, in each workout. They incorporate exercises that engage many of those muscle groups in one movement, like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses, all of which are also called compound movements. Compound movements demand a lot of energy and burn more calories, but they also beat up your muscles and typically require you to rest more between each set of exercise and whole workouts.

The upside is that when you work out the same muscle groups by doing the same or similar exercises multiple times each week, you improve your overall body strength, rather than just in one area. This is what a typical full-body routine might look like (from Starting Strength):

  • Monday: Squats, bench press or overhead press, deadlifts
  • Tuesday: Off
  • Wednesday: Squats, overhead press/bench press, deadlifts
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday: Squats, overhead press/bench press, deadlifts
  • Saturday and Sunday: Off

If you’re just starting to pick up weights, are short on time, or are more interested in shedding some pounds, full-body programs would be your jam.

For the beginner, these programs are more simple, help you learn and constantly practice the major compound exercises, and can lead to major strength and muscle gains because of how often you’re working out the same muscles. In fact, beginner strength programs, like Starting Strength and 5×5, emphasize those full-body movements to help you lay down a solid strength base.

Similarly, compound lifts engage so many muscles that they really get your heart pumping and burn more calories, making them an ideal choice for weight loss goals. For someone who doesn’t have much time to work out, full-body workouts are more efficient, so you don’t have to train as often throughout the week. Each workout in Starting Strength, for example, runs you through three exercises for a couple of sets each, which means you don’t have to spend hours in the gym.


Exercising specific muscle groups help you work on weaker muscle groups

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Everyone has heard of “leg day,” where you work out your lower body to the point of feeling wobbly right after. But “leg day” is just one day out of a whole rotation of body part-focused workouts, or a “workout split.” Using this technique, you break up your routine over a week and focus on specific muscle groups during each workout. These workouts are staggered to give each muscle group time to recover before you rotate back to it, and you train more frequently over the week.

Split workouts give you the chance to isolate and develop weaker muscle groups. Have strong calves but lack upper body strength? There are workouts for that. Also, compound movements may be more efficient, but they often give less love to smaller muscle groups like your rear deltoids and calves. A split routine could look something like this:

Following this program, by the end of the week, you will have worked out your entire body. This means that you work out one major muscle group once or twice each week. These workouts can include a combination of compound and isolation exercises, but they typically would target a specific muscle group for that day.


Split routines are more appropriate than full-body routines after you’re comfortable in the gym and want to start shaping your body a certain way. Maybe you want broader shoulders, so you would add more shoulder and upper chest exercises in your training. This is why bodybuilders typically do split routines.


Full-body workouts are better for beginners, and split routines are ideal for intermediate lifters

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When you choose whether you want to do full-body or split routine workouts, think about how many days you can devote to exercise, your personal fitness goals, your current level of ability and your comfort in the gym.

If you’re just starting out and want to get in better shape, your best bet is to go with a full-body program. Once you gain more experience, you can graduate to a split routine to focus on strengthening and building specific muscles. Some programs also incorporate a little bit of both: you can follow a split routine and then use full-body circuit training-style workouts to add an extra bit of intensity at the end of a workout, for example. Either approach will help you get stronger, build bigger muscles and make you healthier and feel better.


This story was originally published on 8/17/16 and was updated on 7/19/19 to provide more thorough and current information.

If you’re thinking about getting on that workout grind for the very first time ever, congratulations—from taking care of your mental health to getting better sleep to keeping your heart healthy, there are a ton of reasons to make working out a part of your life. We also know that getting started can be incredibly overwhelming—it feels like there’s a whole world of fitness out there that you’ve never really explored. How do you take that first step in?

Well, the fact that there is a whole world of fitness out there is a beautiful thing. It means you have so many options, that you can customize your workout plan exactly the way you want to. Whether you end up loving morning or night workouts, running or boxing, group classes or at-home videos, there’s no one “right way” to embrace fitness. The best way to learn what works for you is to just get out there and try it—which is both the hardest and the most important step.

If you have no idea where to get started, consider this your road map to finding a workout routine that you can stick to. With a little patience, consistency, and sweat, you’ll forget what life was like before you started working toward your fitness goals.

1. Invest in a good pair of training shoes, a supportive sports bra, and a workout outfit you love.

Finding a pair of comfortable, supportive athletic shoes is one of your first moves, Shauna Harrison, Ph.D., a group fitness instructor and creative director of fitness class booking app Zenrez, tells SELF. The best way to find the right pair is to try on a few in an athletic shoe or sports store and ask an associate for guidance—they’ll be able to make sure you have the right fit and point you in the direction of versatile shoes that are great for a variety of workouts (rather than just running or just CrossFit).

You’ll also want to find a snug, supportive sports bra and a couple of sweat-wicking tops and pants or shorts. “A few cute workout outfits that you feel comfortable in are a great investment because there is nothing like ‘feeling the part’ to get you motivated to get moving,” Lisa Tanker, a certified personal trainer and fitness and lifestyle expert, tells SELF.

2. Start by scheduling just two workouts a week at convenient times.

“As you get started working out, think about long-term consistency. A great question to ask yourself is, ‘How many days a week can you realistically fit into your life?'” says Tanker. She recommends working your way up to three to four days a week, but that doesn’t mean you have to start there.

Begin by scheduling just two workouts a week, Tanker suggests. These can be as short as a 30-minute resistance training workout, Jen Comas, C.P.T., co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, tells SELF. Setting a realistic goal is key to sticking with it, and since you’ll probably be sore after your first handful of workouts, this means you’ll have a few days to recover in-between workouts. On your off days, simply get moving, which can be as straightforward as taking a walk, says Comas. As you build up your stamina and conditioning, increase the frequency and length of your workouts—try to add in a third day of working out around week four of your new routine, says Tanker.

It’s also important to plan your workouts at the most convenient times possible—for example, if you know you’re always exhausted at the end of a workday, it’s probably not ideal to plan a 6 P.M. workout. You’ll be more likely to end up skipping it. Conversely, if you’re just so not a morning person, don’t try to force yourself to make it to a 7 A.M. class. Set yourself up for success by picking days and times you can really commit to.

3. Buy some basic equipment to try at-home workouts.

If you’re not quite ready to jump into a gym setting yet, consider getting started with some at-home workouts. We have a ton you can try—in fact, if you sign up for our October fitness challenge, you’ll get a month of workouts emailed to you for free—or you can follow a reputable program like Comas’ Girls Gone Strong, or start with single workouts like these beginner-friendly strength workouts. Comas also suggests posting on social media to ask what your friends are doing—you might even get a workout partner out of it.

Total Body Training

Harbinger Hypertrophy

Let’s cut the bullshit and get to the brass tacks. For decades, men built slabs of muscle with simple, three day-per-week training programs. They trained their whole bodies in one brief workout session and they grew big and strong. Scoff all you want, but tens of thousands of trainees can’t be wrong.

Well, it’s high time we look into the past, learn from what we see, and build a new future.

We must learn from the successes and just as importantly, the failures. Yes, although this classic hypertrophy plan worked well, it wasn’t perfect. And today we know what we can do to fix the drawbacks.

Let’s break it down right now. The majority of non-steroid injecting trainees who’ve built respectable physiques have done so with the following, undisputable parameters:

  1. They train every major muscle group three times each week.
  2. They keep intensity levels sufficient without overindulgence.
  3. They choose a training volume that can be maintained along with the stressors of life.
  4. They execute compound, multi-joint exercises that have been shown to produce the most hypertrophy.
  5. They keep each training session as brief as possible.
  6. They allow at least 48 hours of recovery between workouts.

I’ve worked with trainees at every imaginable level of the fitness spectrum, and the aforementioned elements are ubiquitous in their most successful hypertrophy programs. So I often wonder why they ever strayed. Why stop doing what’s working?

Usually their reasoning is based along the following statement that I recently heard from a veteran of the iron game: “Hell,” he said, “I don’t know why I ever stopped doing it. I just assumed there was a better way.” Well buddy, I’m here to tell ya, there ain’t no better way!

I’ve written numerous training programs for T-Nation, and they all work. But, oftentimes, trainees don’t seek what I seek. They want to look good nekkid, period. Not only that, but they don’t give a rat’s ass what strength qualities they’re training. All they care about is the most efficient and effective route to the physique they’ve only seen in pictures.

It’s time for a change. I want each and every one of you to see that physique in the mirror, not just in magazines. But as I said, we must also learn from the failures of past programs. Burnout and training injuries were often a “given” in old-school, total-body programs. The reason for this indiscretion is simple: poor planning.

Therefore, this article is based on the successes of the past along with my own successes as a trainer. I’ve learned to properly plan my clients’ programs so results are steadfast and continuous.

Every single time I hit the gym, I perform a total-body workout with most of the following guidelines. I doubt that will ever change. In fact, that’s how I added almost 100 pounds of muscle to my frame. I don’t know why I ever wandered, so I’m here to keep you from running astray.

The Obstacles

The single biggest mistake trainees have made in their quest for the ultimate physique is in periodization parameters. Simply speaking, they keep executing the same damn parameters in hopes of the body not “catching on” to what they’re doing. Big mistake, my friends. Our bodies are designed for one sole purpose: adaptation. If you forget that, then you can forget about ever creating the physique of a Greek God.

Bill Starr came damn close to pulling off one of the best training programs with his classic text, The Strongest Shall Survive. His initial parameters were excellent. Unfortunately, his program wasn’t willing to adapt, so progress on his “Big Three” program came to a screeching halt for most trainees. You can’t endlessly perform the same exercises with the same parameters and keep experiencing results!

A New Generation is Born

Now the dichotomy arises. We must incorporate the variables that withstood the test of time along with a new plan for continued progress. It’s time to take the past, present and future and blend it into a new hybrid plan!

The How

Exercises per Session: 6
Sets per Muscle Group: 2-4
Reps per Exercise: 15-18

Rest between sets for the same muscle group: 60-120 seconds, and 120-240 seconds (antagonist training)

The Why

The first thing you probably notice with the above parameters is variance. This is the key to your consistent hypertrophy success. A lack of variance is the single biggest reason why trainees aren’t still talking about the continuous progress they received from some of the most popular hypertrophy programs. Without consistent change, results will be anything but consistent.

Exercise Selection

Every session is going to consist of six exercises. Why? Because my empirical evidence has shown that natural trainees can consistently maintain six exercises per session without burning out.

It’s imperative to base your exercise selection around compound, multi-joint exercises. Four out of the six exercises for each session must be compound exercises. Six sissy-assed, single-joint isolation exercises ain’t gonna do the trick. But, you can perform a few of my recommended single-joint exercises for two of the six exercises. Here’s the list you must choose from:

Compound Exercises

  • Chest: Incline, flat, decline barbell or dumbbell bench presses. Wide-grip dips.
  • Back: Upright or horizontal rows. Pull-ups or pulldowns with pronated, semi-supinated, and supinated grips.
  • Deltoids: Standing or seated military presses with a barbell or dumbbells utilizing pronated, semi-supinated or supinated hand positions.
  • Quads: High-bar full barbell squats, hack squats or front squats.
  • Lower Back/Hips: Traditional and/or sumo-style deadlifts or Good Mornings. Power cleans or snatches.

Single-Joint Exercises

  • Biceps: Barbell curls, hammer curls or preacher curls.
  • Triceps: Lying barbell or dumbbell triceps extensions, and pronated or supinated grip pressdowns.
  • Deltoids: Front, side or rear dumbbell raises.
  • Hamstrings: Glute-ham raises or leg curls.
  • Calves: Standing, seated or donkey calf raises.

Stick to the above list of exercises for optimal results.

The Total-Body Plan

First and foremost, proper periodization planning is imperative. Without sufficient set/rep/load/rest parameters, even the best exercises won’t produce results. Therefore, I’ve devised the following periodization plan for unsurpassable hypertrophy increases:

Week 1

Workout 1
Sets: 3
Reps:  5
Rest: 60 seconds between sets
Load: Choose a weight that forces you to near-failure for the last rep of the last set. *

* This is the recommended load for all workouts.

Workout 2
Sets: 3
Reps:  8
Rest: 90 seconds between sets

Workout 3
Sets: 2
Reps:  15
Rest: 120 seconds between sets

Week 2

Perform with the same parameters as Week 1, but execute antagonist training for all six exercises (more on this later).

Week 3

Workout 1
Sets: 4
Reps:  5
Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Workout 2
Sets: 4
Reps:  8
Rest: 90 seconds between sets

Workout 3
Sets: 3
Reps:  15
Rest: 120 seconds between sets

Week 4

Perform the same parameters as Week 3, but execute antagonist training for all six exercises.

Week 5

Workout 1
Sets: 2
Reps:  18
Rest: 120 seconds between sets

Workout 2
Sets: 2
Reps:  8
Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Workout 3
Sets: 2
Reps:  12
Rest: 90 seconds between sets

Week 6

Perform the same parameters as Week 5, but execute antagonist training for all six exercises.

Week 7

Workout 1
Sets: 3
Reps:  18
Rest: 120 seconds between sets

Workout 2
Sets: 3
Reps:  8
Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Workout 3
Sets: 3
Reps:  12
Rest: 90 seconds between sets

Week 8

Perform the same parameters as Week 7, but execute antagonist training for all six exercises.


  1. Weeks 1,3,5 and 7 are to be performed with straight sets. In other words, perform one set of the first exercise, rest, perform your second set, and continue for all the recommended sets before moving on to the next exercise.
  2. Weeks 2,4,6 and 8 are to be performed as antagonist training. Every session consists of six exercises so antagonist training is simple; all you have to do is perform three antagonist exercise groupings during each workout. For instance, perform quads/hams, chest/back, and biceps/triceps exercise pairings for the recommended sets and reps.
    Example: Do one set for chest, then one for back, then another for chest, etc. Then move on to the next pairing, like quads/hams or biceps/triceps.
  3. Choose four exercises under the list of compound exercises. Choose two exercises under the single-joint exercise list. Don’t leave out any major muscle groups.
  4. Constantly rotate exercises from each category. In other words, don’t always start your session with a chest/back pairing. You must keep rotating the body parts and exercises you begin each session with.
  5. Don’t perform the same exercise for more than two weeks in a row. For example, if you performed a flat barbell bench press as your chest exercise for Weeks 1 and 2, you must switch to either incline, decline or dumbbell bench presses for another two weeks before switching again.
  6. Increase the load 1.25 to 2.5% with each subsequent workout.
  7. Perform all three workouts within a seven-day timeframe with 48-72 hours rest between workouts.
  8. Be creative! I’m giving you endless options. Just be sure to pick four compound exercises and two single-joint exercises with each session. You can rotate exercises as much as you desire. All you have to do is follow the prescribed parameters.

The future of training is here. Take charge and use these guidelines for lifelong hypertrophy gains!

A Look at Compound- & Single-Joint Movement Exercises

Both compound- and single-joint exercises have their merits. When designing a fitness program, the key is to know when and how to use them.

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at a time. Compound movements account for the majority of those used in the course of everyday living, and are therefore of great use in designing programs for functional fitness. For apparently healthy individuals who are trying to get the most benefit from a training program, compound exercises are generally preferred and recommended for a number of reasons.

Because compound movements inherently involve several muscle groups, they burn a greater number of calories. They lead to improved joint stability and muscle balance across a joint, decrease the risk of injury during activities such as sports, and can be performed longer with comparatively less muscle fatigue.

Compound movements that are extremely heavy are often said to have the greatest degree of leverage. When the goal is to optimize gains in both size and strength — and when possible — they are advocated in preference to simple, single-joint movements

Single-joint exercises, as the name suggests, involve a single joint, such as when performing a bicep curl. They can be useful when returning to training after a long break away and they can strengthen areas of the body that might have been debilitated due to illness, injury, or surgery. These exercises burn comparatively fewer calories than compound exercises and if taken to extremes, can lead to muscular imbalances that can increase the risk of injury as well as an unbalanced physique.

When combining workouts, it is advisable to perform compound movements before single-joint exercises. This is because compound movements, due to the involvement of a greater number of muscle groups, are typically harder and require more exertion than single-joint movements. Think of it this way: Would you really want to tire out your calf muscles with heel raises just prior to doing some squats?

The Fallacy of Isolation

Although it might seem like a matter of semantics, it is worth clarifying the distinction for an inquisitive client that the term “single-joint exercise”, which is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “isolation exercise”, should not be confused. The latter, in fact, is an anatomical impossibility with respect to how muscles are worked in resistance training. That is, one muscle cannot function on its own: There are always at least two muscle groups involved in every movement, an extensor muscle, which increases (or ‘opens’) the angle between the two bones and a flexor muscle, which does the opposite.

So putting it all together, when it comes to getting the most from a workout, it’s often best to perform more compound movements and to do them early on in the session.

Single joint exercises

Single joint strength exercises appear to be taking a beating lately with a lot of negative press and comments. This is happening in the fitness industry where losing weight seems to be the main factor addressed. In this case there is no questioning the fact that multi-joint exercises are superior.

But then, single joint strength exercises were never intended for use in losing weight. Multi-joint exercises are more effective in this area but not necessarily with high-intensity.. But, most people – even athletes, are not prepared for higher intensity compound strength exercises without first doing single joint exercises to prepare the body.

In the sports field multi-joint exercises with high-intensity also seem to be preferred. The reasons here however, are quite different. The multi-joint exercise are used for developing a foundation and as a means of increasing strength. But high-intensity is not more effective for developing coordination and all-around strength.

Those who criticize the value of single joint exercises appear to not understand what single joint exercises can do to improve compound or multi-joint exercises. Single joint exercises play many roles in developing athletes that are able to perform on a high level for many years. With the right kind of single joint exercises you can also improve athletic performance greatly.

For example, if there is a specific muscle weakness, (which there typically is with most athletes when it comes to skill execution) single joint exercises can take of the problem much more easily and effectively than doing compound exercises. Understand that compound or multi-joint exercises do not fully tax all the muscles involved for greater strength. In other words, you cannot concentrate on any one single muscle group when you execute a whole multi-joint exercise.

Perhaps an even more important reason why you need single joint exercises is to develop a strong foundation prior to doing multi-joint or high-intensity exercises. This is an often overlooked factor but yet, it is the key to the greatest improvement possible over the years and for the prevention of injury. High-intensity multi-joint exercises do not do this!

In addition, single joint exercises as used in the 1 X 20 RM strength training program, strengthen the muscles and movement pattern in the same manner as used in execution of the competitive skill. This is known as specialized training. Multi-joint exercises cannot do this with the same precision.

With the use of specialized single joint strength exercises you can improve the execution of a skill much more effectively than with any other type of exercises or program. In essence, you duplicate the neuromuscular pathway and strengthen the muscles in the same manner as they are involved in execution of the skill. Only a few compound exercises are capable of doing this.

Unsuccessful or weak execution of a skill is often due to a weakness or breakdown in a specific joint action. When corrected and enhanced, the entire skill is improved. You would never be able to do this if you did the entire skill or exercise all the time and could not isolate the single joint muscles and movement in question.

Another reason you should use single joint exercises, as in the 1X 20 RM strength training program, is to create a specific local effect. This is when the exercise is known as a local exercise. The objective here is to not only develop strength or muscular endurance in a particular muscle, but to improve the function of some of the muscle enzymes as for example, their oxidative capacity.

Doing this helps improve the muscular endurance of the specific muscles. For example, by using the knee drive exercise you can enhance the ability of a long-distance runner to continually drive the thigh forward and maintain the same stride length and speed for the entire race.

There are even more reasons for including single joint exercises but these examples should suffice. Do not ignore these exercises but use them to your advantage to become a better athlete. This does not mean you should not do multi-joint exercises. You should, but use a sound progression beginning with single joint exercises.

For more information, see Biomechanics and Kinesiology of Exercise and The Revolutionary 1 x 20 RM Strength Training Program

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