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Order in the Gym Brings Greater Gains

Over the many years that I’ve been helping strength athletes put together programs to fit their individual needs, I’ve learned that one of the most difficult aspects of assembling a functional routine is knowing how to put exercises in the proper order for them to yield the greatest results, whether for daily or weekly workouts.

Where you do an exercise in a routine is often just as important as the exercise you select to strengthen a certain bodypart or specific muscle. Many programs that I look at are no more than a collection of exercises simply thrown together with no thought of sequence, as if several tried-and-true primary exercises done regularly and diligently are bound to produce results. That, of course, is partially right. Excellent exercises done in the incorrect order, however, are much less beneficial than when they’re performed in the right order.

You can often spot the flaw by watching someone train, but not everyone has that luxury. Most go through their sessions without anyone noticing their exercise sequence. So it boils down to the fact that people must identify the mistakes on their own. That’s best done by looking closely at what you did at every workout during the week, which means you have to keep an accurate account of exactly what you did at each session. The more data written down, the more complete the picture will be for when you want to examine it. A training log should include every set of every exercise, how much weight you used for each set and how many reps you did per set. List the actual order of the exercises, and from those facts it will be easy to see the sequence used in a particular session. Eventually you will need to calculate your workload. From that information you can discover why some exercises are doing well and others aren’t progressing at all.

Unless you change direction, you’re apt to end up where you’re heading.
—Chinese proverb

The training log will reveal which areas of your body are receiving a great deal of attention and which are being neglected. That discloses itself in the total workload done for the three major muscle groups: shoulder girdle, back and hips and legs. Calculating workload isn’t difficult, but it does take some time. Multiply the weight on the bar times the number of reps that were done successfully, and you have the total weight lifted for that set. Then add all the totals, and you have the gross total for that exercise for the day. Finally, add all the totals for the week and place them in columns under the three major groups. At a glance you can tell which ­bodypart did the most work that week. If that’s the area that you wanted to have priority, good. If your strongest muscle group is doing a great deal more than your weakest, however, you need to make some changes.

As I mentioned, keeping a detailed account of what you do in the gym at every workout takes a bit of effort. Some prefer to write the numbers down between sets. They’re not doing anything else anyway, and the numbers are fresh in their heads. Others like to do the recording at night. It enables them to mentally review what they did and, in many cases, helps them figure out how to rearrange the program to their benefit. It’s imperative that the recording be done on the same day as the workout. While most believe they can recall every set they did the previous day, I’ve found that very few are able to do so. Even my supersmart premed athletes at Hopkins had difficulty doing that, so write everything down while your memory is vivid.

At the end of the week get the total for the three major groups and examine them for a few minutes. You can do that during commercials on TV; heaven knows there are plenty of them. The last statistic I read was that there are 27 minutes of commercials for every hour program. At the end of the month add all the weekly totals. That’s a most useful figure because it tells you whether you’re moving forward or backward in the work you’re putting in during that month. The monthly total will help you gauge how much you should do the following month. The basic rule I use is that the monthly total should not be increased more than 10 percent. If you discover you’ve exceeded that, it will help explain why you’re suddenly extremely fatigued or nursing a very sore shoulder.

The raw numbers will let you know if you’re overworking a certain area and if you’re doing too little for another part of your body. The training log will also show the order in which you’re doing all the exercises. That might give you a clue to why some lifts are improving and others aren’t.

Sequence is a part of our daily lives, although we seldom think about it. We do almost everything in the same way every day. Yet every once in a while we break that habit and do notice. After eating a meal, I take my supplements, then do dental hygiene. Every so often, though, I’ll have something on my mind and will forget to take my vitamins and minerals before brushing my teeth and using the water pick. So I screw up the sequence and have to go back and take my vitamins with some milk, then deal with my teeth for the second time within a few short minutes.

One of the best examples I ever witnessed of someone getting a sequence screwed up occurred at a friend’s birthday party. There were all kinds of goodies available, and one young man was indulging hard and heavy. My friend John and I were sitting in the kitchen when the young man staggered in, stopped in front of the refrigerator, leaned over, grabbed the door handle, and jerked open the door. It knocked him on his butt and surprised the hell out of him. Sober, he would have known to open the door before leaning over to look inside, but in his dazed and confused state, he got the sequence wrong and paid the price.

Using the incorrect sequence in a workout or in a weekly program can also cause problems. One of the simplest ways to make a program stronger is to give the weakest lift priority in both the daily and weekly routine. I start all my athletes, male and female, on a basic program of just three exercises, one for each of the three major groups. Back squats are my choice for the hips and legs and are always done first in the routine. That’s because the hips and legs form the foundation of strength for the body and so must be given priority. They are the first exercise done each week. Everyone has more energy on Monday than any other day of the week, especially beginners, mostly because they have had two days of rest over the weekend. Therefore, the first exercise in the program at the beginning of the week will receive the most benefits.

After athletes have been training seriously for a long time, usually at least three years, they’re able to work equally as hard on the final exercise in their routine as on the first one. For those just starting out or in the intermediate stage, however, that’s not the case.

The back exercise that I use is the power clean. It’s been called the "athlete’s exercise," and for good reason. In order to do it correctly, athletes have to use several attributes: coordination, quickness, balance and determination. As they gain strength in all the muscles and attachments involved in the exercise, those attributes improve and can be used in whatever sport they’re participating in at the time. In addition, after learning how to power clean, it’s much easier for athletes to learn how to do many other useful pulling movements: power snatches, full cleans and full snatches, clean and snatch-grip high pulls and shrugs. Because it takes a lot of skill to do power cleans the right way, they belong in the second position for the day.

The third exercise will be for the shoulder girdle, or upper body, and will be in the third, or final, spot. While it’s true that the upper body plays a critical role in all sports, that group is not as important as the back or hips and legs in regard to gaining overall strength. The exercise selected depends entirely on why the athlete is lifting weights in the first place. For example, an aspiring powerlifter should do flat-bench presses, since that lift will be part of competitions somewhere down the road. Flat benches also fill the needs of football and rugby players and, to a lesser extent, wrestlers. Anyone who wants to become more proficient in any sport that requires a lot of vertical extension of the arms, however, should consider doing overhead presses or steep inclines rather than flat benches because they will provide more functional, convertible strength. That group includes volleyball, basketball, baseball, tennis, soccer, golf, the throwing events in track, the pole vault and, of course, Olympic weightlifting.

The basic formula of five sets of five reps done three times a week works well and has proven over time to be the best starting program for beginners. It provides the various target groups with direct work, and there is ample time in which to recover. In the first few weeks of training, beginners can and should go just as heavy as they can on all the exercises. That will help them determine their limits and enable them to set up their programs with the appropriate numbers. At that point they need to start using the heavy, light and medium concept. It keeps beginners from becoming overtrained, and the light day affords them the opportunity to hone technique on the three exercises.

I know of several coaches who do not bother with that concept until athletes have moved into the intermediate stage, but I do because beginners have not yet built a solid enough foundation to be able to hammer away without limiting poundage early on. They need that light day. Obviously, on the heavy day athletes will go to max, but the question always comes up of how much should be handled on the light and medium days. Some like to use percentages, and that’s fine if it suits them, but I much prefer a simpler and easier way of finding the right numbers for light and medium days.

I’ve presented this in the past but will do so again because there may be readers who didn’t see it previously, and it can be most helpful to them, especially if they happen to be training a large group of athletes. The top-end weight for the light day will be the third set done on the heavy day. The last poundage for the medium day will be the fourth set done on the heavy day. That makes the paperwork a snap. I give copies of the program to the athletes so they can fill them out. That’s a better way of teaching them the idea than doing it for them. All they have to do is figure the light and medium days from what they did on the heavy day. As the lifts on the heavy days increase, so will the top-end numbers on the light and medium days.

So that sequence for beginners puts the hips and legs in the priority position, and for a long time that’s where they will stay. On occasion, if the power cleans are lagging way, way behind, I move them up front. Doing power cleans before squats really doesn’t affect the second movement very much, and it will enable athletes to improve on the exercise. I never move the shoulder girdle exercise to first position for beginners. There will be plenty of time to do specialized work on the upper body later, and it’s all right if it falls behind the back and lower body. Strong hips, legs and back are much more important in the formative stages of strength training than are arms, shoulders and chest.

Within a couple of months, or sometimes sooner, the athletes will have established a solid foundation of overall strength and be ready for a different sort of routine, one that will help increase the workload and have more diversity. Instead of just inclining, overhead pressing or doing flat benches three times a week, they now do all three. They can avoid flat benching by either inclining twice or doing weighted dips. There’s a huge selection of exercises for the back to choose from—so many, in fact, that they can set up a two-week program to alternate exercises every other week. The one lift that remains constant is the back squat, unless they want to substitute either front squats or lunges at the light-day workout.

At the same time, sets and reps will vary from day to day. Five sets of five will still fill the bill on the heavy day, but on the other two they can substitute threes, doubles and singles for fives and do a few more sets to increase the workload. At this stage the light day changes in that it’s no longer a relatively easier day, but in many ways it’s the most demanding of all. That’s because good mornings are now in the lineup, and they are never easy, even in the beginning. Plus, if the athletes have opted to do lunges or front squats in place of back squats, both of those leg exercises must be pushed to the max.

I used to tell my athletes that once they’d finished with good mornings on Wednesday, they had the week beat. They soon all agreed. While on the subject of good mornings, I need to point out that you should always do them right after whatever leg exercise is chosen for the light day. Even if they’re way behind where they should be, you should never do them before squatting or lunging. I was watching the football team work out on a Wednesday and noticed a defensive back doing good mornings. I knew there was no way he could have either squatted or inclined, so I asked him why he started with that exercise. He said he didn’t want to be standing around waiting for a squat station to open up and decided to get the hateful good mornings out of the way. "It’s just a light day," he added. Maybe so, but when done correctly, good mornings are exhausting, and while he may have been able to handle the designated weights for the back squats at his light workout, he was running the risk of hurting his lower back and hamstrings because they’d been under stress during the good mornings.

The good mornings also feel a bit lighter after squats and are easier to do because the legs and back are flush with blood from the squatting. Another thing to know about good mornings: Make sure that you don’t do another back exercise, even an auxiliary movement, on the same day you do good mornings, and always have a rest day the day after you hit your lumbars. They definitely need time to recuperate, and if you try to do anything that involves the lower back the following day, you’re inviting an injury.

Several guidelines should help you understand sequence a little better. One is, always work the major muscle groups before turning to the smaller ones. That means doing an exercise for the hips and legs, back and shoulder girdle before working the biceps, triceps, deltoids and calves or using machines to hit the quads, hamstrings and adductors. One of my basketball players was going to the calf machine right after finishing his squats. I stopped him and explained that he needed to put the calf raises at the end of his routine because they were adversely affecting his power cleans. Any pulling movement, particularly one that requires that the bar be pulled quite high, depends on strong calves to help provide the final snap at the finish. When the calves are fatigued, which they certainly will be after a diligent workout on the machine, they can’t provide that final punch.

When athletes wait until the end of the program, however, they can work their calves just as hard as they want without any dire consequences. It’s all a matter of placement and sequence. I’ve had athletes who did the same thing with their upper-body exercises. They’d bench and go right into straight-arm pullovers, which left their arms like noodles when they attempted to do any pulling movement. Taking a break after doing a primary movement before moving to an auxiliary one enables the muscle group to recuperate a bit, and as a result you get more out of the ancillary movement. Just remember, large muscle then small muscle, and you’ll be okay.

Another guideline is that high-skill exercises should be given priority in a workout and also during the week. Wait a second, you might be thinking: If that’s the case, then shouldn’t the power cleans be ahead of the squats? No, because while the power clean is more complicated than the squat, it isn’t that difficult to learn. In fact, I can usually teach athletes how to power clean more easily than I can teach them how to do a squat correctly. All beginners need to work their power pack—hips and legs—more than their back.

For anyone who is doing the quick lifts, snatches and clean and jerks, however, that guideline does apply. Those are very high-skill movements and should be done first in the routine, mostly because they require a great deal of concentration. The body should be rested and the mind fresh when you do those two Olympic lifts. Which one should be done on Monday? It depends on whether the snatch, clean or jerk needs the most attention. If they’re on a par with one another, alternate them every other week. Some do jerks after their cleans, while others separate the two lifts. Whichever is dragging its heels needs to be placed in the number-one spot until it improves.

If the disparity is slight, I alternate snatches with cleans and jerks every other week and do the other one the following day. That means, of course, that the one done on Tuesday will be slightly less productive than the one the day before, but because they’re switching places every week, that works out okay. Yes, I did say Tuesday because my program for Olympic lifters requires that they train four days a week rather than three: Monday heavy, Tuesday light, Wednesday light, Friday medium.

In some cases the jerks are lagging way behind the cleans. Move them up front until they improve considerably. For several winters I stayed with friends in Marin County, California and trained at Dr. Gourgott’s World Gym in Kentfield. An aspiring young Olympic lifter trained there as well, and he would frequently ask me to observe his technique on one of the Olympic lifts. His weakest lift was the jerk, which he always did on Tuesdays. His form wasn’t bad but not perfect either, and over two months he never made any progress at all on the lift.

I’ve learned from experience not to offer someone advice in a gym that I’m not in charge of unless asked. I made an exception in that case, however, because I was sure I knew why he wasn’t making any gains on his jerks.

After a really poor session where he jerked less than he had the previous week, I said, "The reason your jerks are stuck is that you always do them on Tuesday, and on Monday you do heavy squats, heavy cleans and sometimes snatches and close-grip bench presses. Then you add seated presses with dumbbells. Right?" He nodded in agreement, so I went on. "You’re trying to do a high-skill movement on fatigued muscles and attachments. That’s why your form is off and why you haven’t made any gains on the lift."

"What should I do?" he asked.

"Give jerks priority for a while. Do them first thing on Mondays for the next few weeks and see what happens. Jerking before you clean or snatch wouldn’t bother those two lifts all that much, and it doesn’t matter how much you can clean if you can’t jerk it."

That’s what he did, and he broke personal records on his jerks for the next four weeks, improving by 25 pounds. At that point he’d moved his jerks ahead of his cleans and started rotating the two lifts every other week. That worked well for him.

When I began lifting with the members of the York Barbell team in the mid-’60s, I found that they all followed a procedure that enabled them to improve their weaker lifts. They would give priority to the one that needed the most work while at the same time they would strive to keep the other two lifts where they were. Then, when the weaker lift had made significant progress, they’d shift the lift that was now the one lagging behind to the position of priority. So over the course of several months they’d have the three lifts—press, snatch and clean and jerk—in balance, or close to it. Meets were seldom won when a lifter had only one strong lift. It was the total that counted, and the method of constantly seeking out the weaker area and improving it by putting it up front in the workouts helped the team win many contests.

Another way some Olympic lifters had their cake and ate it too was to do double workouts a couple of times a week. Keeping my hips and legs strong was always my biggest headache, since I would do one or two of the Olympic lifts before squatting. If I squatted first, though, my legs were too fatigued to handle much in the snatch or clean. So I began squatting at noon. Then I’d grab a protein shake and eat my lunch an hour later. At four o’clock I’d be well nourished, and my legs would have recovered sufficiently to let me use some decent poundage on whatever lift or lifts I was scheduled to do that afternoon. There was a breaking-in period, of course, because my body had to adapt to the new physical stress, but eventually it worked out to my benefit. My leg strength did improve, and as a result so did my snatches, cleans and jerks.

These ideas apply not only to Olympic lifters and those who are trying to get significantly stronger but also to those who are training to stay in shape. Keep accurate records, and use that information to find your weaker areas. Then make some changes in your routine so that you give those weaker groups priority attention. Sometimes merely by changing the sequence of your exercises you can enhance your overall strength considerably. Which is what strength training is all about.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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