Why it’s best to train big muscle groups first and then the smaller muscles

Do your squats first, and then calf presses. Do bench presses first, and then triceps extensions. You train big muscle groups first and then the smaller ones. That’s the way most standard training schedules are put together. And now sports scientists at the University of Kurdistan in Iran have discovered why the standard approach isn’t so crazy.

The researchers got 26 untrained male students to do a full body workout on two different occasions. The students did nine basic exercises to train the most important muscle groups in their body. On one occasion the students followed protocol A; on the other they trained according to protocol B.

Why it’s best to train big muscle groups first and then the smaller muscles.

Half of the students were a healthy weight, with an average BMI of 21.83 [N – Normal]. The students in the other group were too heavy, and had a BMI of 30.39 [Obese].

After they’d done a workout, the students were asked to say how tired they were [RPE]. The subjects reported less fatigue after the ‘classical’ workout [A] than after the workout in which they first trained the small muscle groups [B]. The differences in fatigue were not significant, but the trend is clear.


The researchers found more testosterone in the blood of the healthy weight men after doing the classical workout [NA] than after the workout where exercises were done in a different order [NB]. The way in which the workout was built up had no influence on the testosterone levels [OA & OB] of the obese men.


The researchers found no clear effect of training order on the subjects’ cortisol levels. As a result, the ratio of testosterone:cortisol was higher in the healthy weight men after doing the classical workout [NA] than after the workout where exercises were done in a different order [NB].

The same was the case for the IGF-1 concentration. This rose more in the normal weight men after they’d done the classic training than after doing the other training.

Among the overweight men, it made little difference what order they did the exercises in. It seemed that their fat mass inhibited the secretion of anabolic hormones as a result of intensive strength training.

Why it’s best to train big muscle groups first and then the smaller muscles
Oh yes. Almost forgot. In this study, the order in which the exercises were done had no effect on the number of reps that the subjects did. So the total amount of work that the students did was the same in both workouts.

“These results indicate that in resistance exercise training, starting with large muscle group and progressing to small group brings about more beneficial muscular gains”, the researchers summarised. “Our data also reconfirmed previous findings that obesity blunts anabolic hormonal response to resistance exercise in young men.”

“Given the lack of similar studies, further research on a bigger sample size is needed to generalize this result that in a resistance exercise training session more beneficial gain can be obtained by exercising large muscles first.”

Comparison of the Effects of Resistance Exercise Orders on Number of Repetitions, Serum IGF-1, Testosterone and Cortisol Levels in Normal-Weight and Obese Men


Background: Exercise order affects repetition performance and acute hormonal responses to resistance training (RT) programs.

The purpose of this study was to compare the acute effects of two different resistance exercise orders (REO) on number of repetitions and serum Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), testosterone and cortisol levels in normal-weight and obese men.

Materials and Methods:
25 untrained college-aged men were assigned to either obese (n = 11) or normal-weight (n = 15) groups. Subjects performed two REO protocols in 2 exercise groups. In the first group subjects began with large-muscle group and progressed to small-muscle group (Protocol A), while in the other group subjects performed the same exercise but in reverse sequence (Protocol B). Each activity was performed in 3 consecutive sets of 10 repetitions maximum to near fatigue.

REOs did not affect number of repetitions in none of the groups. The average rating of perceived exertion was higher for protocol B in both groups. IGF-1 and testosterone increased immediately post exercise for both protocols and in both groups, however immediately post exercise increase in IGF-1 and testosterone were lower in obese group. Cortisol response to REO was weaker in obese group.

Performing large muscle group exercises first in RE training and progressing to small muscle group produced greater anabolic hormonal response relative to reverse sequence in normal-weight young adult men. Anabolic hormonal response to REOs was blunted in the obese group.

Source: http://asjsm.com/?page=article&article_id=30503

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