Order of Operations: Manipulating exercise order for growth

If you're reading this site, you're no stranger to powerlifting and strength sports.  Elitefts has been known for 22 years for their knowledge and education in getting people Strong As Hell.  And while powerlifting may be the first love of many athletes and coaches on this site, there's a time and a place to mix things up a bit.

That doesn't mean you're going to run off and do marathons or yoga or underwater basket-weaving.  What it means is that there is a time and a place to step back from heavy loads (high percentages) and build some muscle.  Regardless if you're looking to get bigger or not, go up a weight class or not, or look jacked or not, strength athletes can benefit from even small increases in muscle, muscular size, leverages, etc.

For the sake of this post, you can put yourself in the shoes of an off-season powerlifter or a bodybuilder, where strength is not the #1 priority. (GASP!)

When we focus on strength, our big exercises are first, right? We want to be fresh and rested and ready for a heavy load.  You do some warm-up sets and feel great!  Not to mention 10 minutes between sets and you just might break one of a thousand world records. But have you ever done squats last in your workout? Probably not, because you wouldn't be able to squat nearly as much as if you did them in the beginning.  There's also the risk of doing a technical lift like a squat at the end.  If you're highly fatigued, sure, the load won't be as heavy, but you may be so fatigued that bracing and maintaining position is extremely hard.

(Side note: I've come across many people at many gyms who have a workout plan to follow.  When they get to the gym and they see that the squat racks are taken, they do everything else on the program first, then do squats last.  Now, most of these people are not utilizing the "order of operations" principle here because they are looking for maximum muscle growth.  They are simply just going through the motions of getting the exercises checked off to say they completed them. Totally different story and one for another day.)

But when we are looking at putting on muscle, it's not always the load that matters.  It's effort, fatigue and muscle breakdown.  In short, we can stimulate the muscle to fatigue with LIGHTER loads by ordering our exercises in a fashion that induce some fatigue first.  John Meadows is well-known for doing a "pre-fatigue" exercise before doing a big exercise like squats.  He's looking to warm the muscles up, but also create enough fatigue that the load can be a little less (but not so much that your form is crap).

After having worked with John for a few shows in 2013 and 2014, I took away some valuable lessons and began to play around with the order of exercises for myself and my stage clients.  By placing some compound movements in the middle or end of the workout, we were able to lessen the stress on the joints, not have to use a heavy load and still create some good growth.

Here are a few examples, if you can imagine or even implement some day:

Typical Order (Compound movement before isolation):
Standing BB Overhead press 4x8
DB Lateral raise 4x12

In this series, you should be able to use your "strongest weight" for shoulder press since it's first and you're fresh. Now, let's switch the order around a bit.

DB Lateral raise 4x12
BB Overhead press 4x6-8

As you can imagine, you may not be able to use the same load, but you can see how the effort and fatigue might actually be harder, thus recruiting more muscle. (When we do big exercises first, our bodies use what is most efficient to get the job done. When it gets tired, it's easy to compensate so you don't fail.  When we fatigue the muscle first, it's much harder to compensate because we've already utilized and taxed a ton of different muscle fibers.)

We can take that example a step further into some supersets. Again, most would place a compound movement first in a superset and an isolation movement second (example, DB shoulder press superset with lateral raise). But let's try it this way:

DB lateral raise 3x12
superset with
DB shoulder press 3x10

Remember the goal is fatigue the muscle so as not to have to use a heavy load.

Here are a few other examples of ways I've manipulated exercise order to get some serious fatigue, growth and pump!!

Bicep curls superset with Chin-ups (holy arm swole, Batman!)

DB rolling tricep ext superset with Dips

Leg extensions superset with Leg press or Hack squat (notice we use a machine here, rather than straight back squats. You *could* do back squats, but the machine choices work well because form fatigue on squats will be real here.)

Leg curls superset with DB RDL or stiff leg deadlift

Here's one I did the other day of DB flyes superset with Pushups


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Before you give these a shot, not all "order of operation" protocols need to be supersets.  Many of my stage clients have programs that put compound exercises in the middle for a reason.  I have found that shoulders respond really well to that.  Here's an example:

A. DB Seated Arnold press – 6x20, 15, 15, 10, 10, 10 (compound exercise)

B. DB laterals – 4x12 (isolation)

C. Machine shoulder press – 4x20(compound but on a machine)

D. Cable rear flyes – 4x15 (isolation)

E. Upright rows w/ EZ bar – 4x15

F. Cable laterals – 2x10

Give some of these a try and let me know how you like them.  Remember that when including this type of training, it isn't about the weight lifted... therefore this isn't "ideal" for strength phases or meet prep.  It's great for hypertrophy, off-season work and rehabbing injuries that might need less load (See Dani LaMartina's Instagram for more details on how she utilizes similar ideas to restore tissue in her torn adductor)

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