I recently got a question that made me realize it's time to do a blog about how the order of exercises you perform in your workout, or more specifically, the order of bodyparts, can affect your results. Here was the question:
"Is there any benefit to working out biceps last on arm day? I feel like whatever muscle you touch last gets the most out of the p.w.o. shake. For instance, I usually do biceps then triceps. By the time I'm done training triceps my biceps have like no pump."
First, I am part of Team Gaspari and I religiously drink my mix of Aminolast and GlycoFuse the minute my workout is over. But I don't feel that the only muscle or muscles benefiting from the shake is whatever I just finished training. For example, if I trained shoulders and triceps, both muscle groups are depleted. It's not like the shake is only going to replenish the glycogen stores in my triceps because I finished shoulders 30 minutes ago.
But getting back to the more important issue here. Say you are training more than one muscle group in a workout, as I do most of the time and I am sure most of you do, unless you train seven days a week and only do one bodypart each day (something I addressed in the last blog, which I don't feel is smart for most people due to accumulating CNS fatigue). In the case of training arms, we used to be told to train triceps first, because the pumped biceps would prevent a full range of motion in triceps movements. That's really only true if you have long biceps that attach at or close to your elbow joint, and even then only if they are extremely large. You could train biceps or triceps first, but I much prefer alternating exercises for each. This can be done either by completing all work sets for a biceps exercise and then doing all sets for a triceps movement, or super set the two for 3-4 supersets of something like barbell curls and skull crushers, or cable curls and cable pushdowns.
There are some rules you should follow regarding order of bodyparts you train in a given workout. You never want to work a smaller muscle first that will be assisting a larger muscle afterward, as in triceps before chest or shoulders, or biceps before back. The smaller arm muscles are already a weak link in the chain as it is, and this would only serve to sabotage the effectiveness of your workout for the larger muscle group. I don't even believe in training the smaller muscles the day before, as I feel they usually won't recover fully in time to do a good job assisting the larger one.
This would also apply to working shoulders before chest in the same workout, something few people do anyway. I happen to do this a lot, but this is only because my chest is close to being as big as it will ever need to be, while a guy with fairly wide hips like me can never have shoulders that are too big and round.
I believe most people should train hamstrings before quads on leg day. Training hams first hardly seems to ever take away from what you do for quads, but on the other hand; rare is the man or woman who can run through a heavy and intense quad workout that can and may include squats, leg extensions, leg presses, hack squats, and lunges and then proceed to do proper justice to his or her hams. In fact, this is why most people have hamstring development that lags far behind their quads. By the time they get to quads, they're usually pretty exhausted and don't have enough gas in the tank to give the hamstrings the hard work they need to grow.
Unless you are older and/or dealing with injuries and chronic issues like arthritis and tendonitis, you should do your free weight compound movements early in your workout. the free weight basics like bench press, squat, military press, and deadlift all require a good amount of balance and coordination, qualities that rapidly diminish as your workout progresses. I noticed this many years ago. Say it was chest day. If I did incline dumbbell presses, I would be able to work up to good sets with anywhere from 120's to 140's. But if instead I did a Hammer Strength machine or two first, I would struggle with 90's! It wasn't that my pressing strength was down that much. I simply couldn't balance heavy dumbbells unless I was fresh. Some people can still squat fairly heavy even after other quad movements, but dumbbells seem to be tough for anyone to do well with if they place them too far into the workout.
Again, there are exceptions to every rule. Someone whose shoulders and triceps tend to take over on any type of chest pressing would be wise to do at least one flye movement beforehand (dumbbell flyes, pec deck) to pre-exhaust the pectorals. If your form on squats is good yet you still tend to feel the glutes and lower back working more than your quads, go ahead and hit the leg extensions hard for a few sets first, even doing things like drop sets and rest-pause to ensure the quads are fatigued. This will cut down on the weight you use for squats, but squatting more means jack if your butt and back are doing all the work anyway.
Generally speaking, a good order to do exercises based on how relatively easy or difficult they are in terms of balance and coordination is dumbbells, barbells, then machines and cables.
These are all just very general guidelines, but some of you should find them helpful.