By Charles Glass
Working larger body parts first is a good rule of thumb to follow, mainly because they require more of your energy to train.
Q: I am 57 years old, but I am still new to training. It was only a year ago that I finally decided to get in some kind of shape. So much of the information out there seems to be geared toward more advanced lifters. Can you please help me out? Does it matter what order you do your exercises in? Today I did biceps and then back. Was that OK? I think I have heard to work larger body parts first, but I don’t know whether that’s correct.
A: Working larger body parts first is a good rule of thumb to follow, mainly because they require more of your energy to train. It’s a lot more demanding to train something like back or chest than it is to work a smaller muscle group like the biceps or triceps. But a far more critical concept for you to understand and apply is to never train a body part before another in which that muscle assists. You gave me a great example of breaking this cardinal rule by telling me that you worked biceps before back. The back is trained with compound movements like rows, lat pulldowns, pull-ups, and deadlifts. All those exercises are pulling movements, and your biceps play an important role in each of them. Furthermore, they happen to be a weak link. If you think about how big and strong the lats are compared to your smaller and weaker biceps, that makes sense. So that’s why fatiguing the biceps first with isolation movements for them like barbell and dumbbell curls is a terrible idea. If you go from there to your back exercises, now your biceps are even weaker compared to the lats. You won’t be able to handle as much weight on your back movements because your biceps, which as we said are used in any pulling motion, are already tired.
The same rule applies to the triceps when it comes to training the chest or shoulders. It’s a little trickier in this case because we do work the chest with isolation movements such as flyes that don’t involve the triceps, and we do various forms of lateral raises for the deltoids that don’t involve the triceps either. But you also need to work the chest with various pressing movements such as incline, flat or decline presses, as well as dips. And the shoulders always need some type of overhead press to train them properly. The triceps contribute toward any movement where you push weight away from your body using the arms.
Another fact to consider is that the anterior or front delts are also involved in any pressing motion. So, you wouldn’t normally want to do those before an overhead press for shoulders. Some people like to do chest and shoulders in the same workout. It makes sense even more if they are a strong point, because that gives you more time to focus on other areas that may need improvement. If you do it, make sure you work chest first and then shoulders.
One way you can work the smaller arm muscles first is if they aren’t involved in the compound movements for the larger body part you’ll be doing second in the workout. For instance, you could train biceps before either chest or shoulders, or triceps before back.
One exception to all this pertains to the legs. The quadriceps are the target muscle for most of us when we do squats, leg presses or hack squats, but these movements also involve the glutes, hamstrings, and calves. It’s OK to do leg extensions first in a leg workout for a couple of reasons. One, they are excellent for warming up the knees and getting blood flowing to your quads. Second, they pre-exhaust the quads so they will fatigue faster in your compound movements. This is ideal for those who have a problem with their hips and glutes taking over on squats and leg presses, which isn’t uncommon. You’ll be using a bit less weight, but you’ll be working your quads much harder if you do extensions first.