I got arrested by the fashion police. A couple of years ago I was training for a triathlon, and I was in the habit of leaving the house at an ungodly-early hour to get my workout in. Since I was trying to be polite and let my wife sleep, I would grab clothes out of my dresser and get dressed in the dark. It showed.
One morning, my 17 year-old daughter saw me and spewed her orange juice across the kitchen. Then she asked in a horrified, high-pitched voice,
“you aren’t planning on leaving the house wearing THAT are you?!?!”
I didn’t get it. I wasn’t wearing plaid with polka-dots. It wasn’t a polyester leisure suit. How bad could a blue/green & white patterned shirt with old WSU shorts, tube socks with green stripes, and blue running shoes be?
What followed was 3 months of her trying to educate me about the nuances of color and pattern matching.
One of the great things about clothing choices, is that everything can be changed in 5 minutes (or in my daughter’s case; 45 minutes). Unfortunately, the results of exercise selection take longer to change. It can take years of rehab and corrective exercise specialists to undo the results of unbalanced exercise habits.
Still, a lot of people approach their workouts the same way I had been choosing my outfits; kind of a “whatever’s convenient” methodology. We have an idea that we need to get the whole body, but how? How do we decide which exercise to do next? To answer these questions, I offer 4 basic guidelines for determining exercise order.
Begin Big– Start with the biggest muscles, the most complex exercises, and the most demanding technique first. We never, EVER, use only one muscle for an exercise. During every lift, muscles are doing 1 of 4 things; moving the weight (called prime movers), assisting (called synergists), stabilizing some other part of your body still so that the prime movers can pull on it, or relaxing (because you really don’t need your big toe flexed while you do curls) By starting with the biggest muscles, you make sure that the limiting factor in the workout is that prime mover, and not a stabilizer. The upside to using this order is that you will see significant strength gains. The downside is that it is easy to fall into a routine and get stuck in a rut.
Circuit Training– The idea behind setting up a circuit, is to let the upper body rest while you are working on the lower body. The advantage is that there is never any down time; you are always working something. The drawback is that it often requires a decent amount of space to set up the circuit, and unless you are part of a class others can ace you out of the Lat Pull machine while you are doing Calf Raises.
Push and pull– The concept of push and pull exercises is similar to circuit training. The difference is to rest from pushing motions (push-ups, overhead press, tricep extensions, etc) happens while you are working the pulling motions (pull-ups, rows, hamstring curls, etc). Again, there is never any down time. A major advantage is that this can keep the body balanced. A disadvantage is that you can overload mutual stabilizers (the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blade in a bench press also hold your shoulder blade still
during a seated row), so it is important to vary the body area as well as push-pull motions.
Super-sets– Sometimes called a compound-set is when you perform 2 exercises without a rest in between, often with the same motion or piece of equipment. One of my favorites on this is to do leg presses on a machine where I can really load up heavier weight than I can stabilize on my own, then jump immediately to body-weight squats on a bosu. I have a friend who loves to do power-cleans, front squats, and dead-lift all as a single super-set; all done with the same barbell. Advantages include time and equipment efficiency. Disadvantages include limited options for which exercises to pair together.
These are just rules of thumb. Nothing is set in stone. You can use these strategies individually, or combine them in a mix-and-match. You are not going to get pulled over by the exercise police if you don’t, but if you DO follow them, you WILL look better when you leave the house.