Muscle growth is increased by muscle tension. Whether free weights or machines apply tension does not seem to make a difference.



  • To maximize muscle growth, exercise order should first emphasize the lagging muscle groups in the workout when exercise motivation and energy are the highest.
  •  The muscle group you want to grow the most should be performed first.
  •  Start with multi-joint exercises first because they are the most fatiguing.
  •  Single joint exercises stimulate muscle growth in regions of the muscle that multi-joint exercises cannot.


Most people in the gym will say they want to grow a specific body part but rarely change their workout order of exercises. For example, how often have you heard someone say that their calves won’t grow, yet every time they train them, it’s at the end of the workout! If you want a body part to grow, train it first.

In the Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote he had weak calves for much of his career; he prioritized them by training them first for every workout. It wasn’t until he started training his calves first that he truly grew them.

A meta-analysis of 11 studies found no impact of exercise order on muscle growth; however, for strength, whatever exercise you perform first had the greatest impact on strength gains.[1] The study found that exercise order had no effect on muscle groups such as the arms, deltoids, and quads, but it may adversely affect other muscle groups like the chest.

A previous study in 2018 found that performing multi-joint exercises first had a small favorable effect on the legs. In contrast, other body parts, such as the arms, had no meaningful impact.[2] It should also be mentioned that machines and free-weight exercises can be used for workout motivation and hitting muscle groups from various exercise angles.


For years, it was said that free weights are superior to machines for muscle growth, but a recent study in which subjects performed either free weights or machine exercises led to a similar increase in muscle growth.[3]  In this study, men and women trained for eight weeks on different exercise modalities (i.e., free weight squat and smith machine leg press).

The free-weight squat increased their 1RM free-weight squat by 21.3%, whereas those using a Smith machine improved the free-weight squat 1RM by 13.1%. Both groups had similar increases in lean muscle mass. Another 2021 meta-analysis of 16 studies found that training with free weights led to greater gains in strength in free weight exercises, whereas training with machines led to greater increases in machine weight strength.[4]

The study reinforces the concept of training specificity, which means strength improvements are greater with whatever exercise you regularly perform (i.e., free weight or machines). A similar study compared the effects of training one multi-joint exercise (leg press) or two single-joint exercises (leg extension and kickback) on strength and the transferability of strength between exercises.

Exercise Order and Single Joint Exercises

The single-joint exercise group saw more improvement in their 6RM for leg extension and kickback than in the leg press. Conversely, the multi-joint exercise group enhanced their leg press 6RM more than their kickback.[5] This finding underscores the idea that you gain strength in exercises you practice regularly. Additionally, both free weights and machines resulted in comparable lean mass gains.

Muscle tension promotes muscle growth. It doesn’t matter whether free weights or machines generate this tension. Previous research has shown that exercises using cam or variable resistance, such as Nautilus machines which apply tension throughout the entire range of motion, achieve muscle growth similar to that of traditional machines.[6,7]

As mentioned earlier, variable resistance push-up bands can produce similar increases in strength and size as traditional bench press exercises. These studies point out that despite different loading modalities, all can produce muscle hypertrophy as long as tension is applied for sufficient time.


The chest seems to be an important muscle group to train first. If you think about it, the deltoids, triceps, and biceps are still being used in the bench press, lat pull-downs, etc. The chest is not being exercised in other exercises.

If you perform triceps exercises before an incline or bench press, then more than likely, your performance will be negatively affected because your triceps have been pre-fatigued.

However, your arms are still being exercised during chest movement, so the lower training reps won’t likely affect muscle size because they already have many stimulating reps from the bench press. To grow your chest, it’s best to start with chest exercises first. This is precisely what happened when researchers had subjects perform four weight training protocols:

  •       Barbell bench press plus lying barbell triceps press.
  •       Lying barbell triceps press plus barbell bench press.
  •       Barbell bench press.
  •       Lying barbell triceps press.

Interestingly, pec growth (5.6%) was lower in the group that performed lying triceps extensions before the bench press. Pec growth was greater following the bench press (9.1%) and the bench press followed by lying triceps extensions had similar muscle growth (10.6%). Triceps growth was similar regardless of exercise order, whether they did the bench press first followed by triceps extensions or triceps extension first followed by bench press.[8]

It could be body parts such as the arms are getting additional muscle activation with other exercises such as chest and back that exercise order may not have as much of an impact. In contrast, chest muscles are not being utilized in other exercises.


It is best from a fatigue perspective to keep the multi-joint exercises at the beginning instead of later in the workout. Also, remember that an exercise like the squat will require more coordination than a leg extension. Your form is much more likely to deteriorate when leg extensions are performed first than after squats.

Think about the fatigue you get from squats and deadlifts instead of exercises like forearm curls or calf raises. To maximize muscle growth, exercise order should first emphasize the lagging muscle groups in the workout when exercise motivation and energy are the highest. Exercise order impacts strength gains; therefore, exercises that are the most difficult to perform should be performed first.



The advantage of compound movements like squats and bench press is that it correlates with increases in many muscle groups’ growth as opposed to isolation exercises, which increase individual muscle growth in specific areas. For example, the bench press can result in greater chest muscle activation, triceps, and anterior deltoids.

In contrast, the dumbbell fly had much lesser muscle activation of these muscle groups but greater activation of the biceps.[9] A 2017 study compared a multi-joint workout (bench press, squats, military press, etc.) to a single-joint exercise alternative workout (pec deck, leg extension, dumbbell lateral raise) with equal volume.

At the end of the study, the multi-joint exercise group had better overall cardiovascular fitness. Muscle growth was also similar between groups; however, there was a greater trend for the multi-joint group to gain muscle while losing fat.[10] It’s best to use a combination of both compound movements and isolation exercises for optimal muscle growth.


Some say all you need is multi-joint exercises and that isolation exercises are a waste of time. A 2017 review of the literature found that single-joint exercises were unnecessary to maximize size and were only beneficial for correcting muscle imbalances.[11] However, new research has found that single-joint exercises result in specific increases in muscle growth regions that differ from multi-joint exercises in the past five years. For example, one study compared triceps growth with the following:

  •       Bench press.
  •       Triceps extension.
  •       Triceps extension, then bench press, and
  •       Bench press, then triceps extension.

Triceps growth was +4.6% with just bench press, but bench press with triceps skull crushers resulted in an 11.5% increase in muscle growth in the triceps.[12] Another interesting observation was that the bench press was quite effective at stimulating the growth of the lateral head of the triceps. Still, other regions of the triceps, such as the long and medial head of the triceps, were not stimulated effectively.

The group that trained with skull crushers had more growth of the lateral and medial heads of the triceps. This suggests that single-joint exercises cause regional muscle growth, not stimulated by multi-joint exercises alone.

Studies on Exercise Order and Muscle Growth

A 2021 study found that biceps growth was superior with a single-joint exercise than with a multi-joint exercise. In the study, subjects performed a supinated dumbbell row (multi-joint exercise) with one arm, and the other arm did biceps curls (single-joint exercise). [11] [12]

Subjects performed 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps to failure of each exercise twice per week. If the belief in only using multi-joint exercises held true, then one-arm dumbbell rows would have significantly boosted bicep growth, given the heavy engagement of the bicep. However, bicep curls produced nearly twice the growth in the bicep, at 11.1%, compared to the 5.2% from the dumbbell row.[13]

Another study comparing a multi-joint exercise protocol alone to a combination of single and multi-joint exercises found that a combination of multi and single-joint exercises resulted in greater flexed arm measurement (4.39%) than multi-joint alone (3.50%).[14]


You get more bang for your buck with compound joint exercises, but you still need to include single-joint exercises in your routine. If you are crunched for time, choose the multi-joint exercises as a time saver. For optimal muscle growth, you need a combination of compound and isolation movement because each exercise stimulates muscle growth in different muscle regions.


  •       The exercise order for muscle growth should be the muscle you want to grow the most, should be performed first.
  •       Start with multi-joint exercises first because they are the most fatiguing.
  •       Single joint exercises stimulate muscle growth in regions of the muscle that multi-joint exercises cannot.


1.     Nunes, J. P., Grgic, J., Cunha, P. M., Ribeiro, A. S., Schoenfeld, B. J., de Salles, B. F., & Cyrino, E. S. (2021). What influence does resistance exercise order have on muscular strength gains and muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis. European journal of sport science, 21(2), 149–157.

2.     Avelar et al., “Effects of Order of Resistance Training Exercises on Muscle Hypertrophy in Young Adult Men.”

3.     Shane R. Schwanbeck et al., “Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 34, no. 7 (July 2020): 1851–59.

4.     Kyle A. Heidel, Zachary J. Novak, and Scott J. Dankel, “Machines and Free Weight Exercises: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Comparing Changes in Muscle Size, Strength, and Power,” The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, October 5, 2021.

5.     Nicolay Stien et al., “Training Specificity Performing Single-Joint vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises among Physically Active Females: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” PLOS ONE 15, no. 5 (May 29, 2020): e0233540.

6.     Michał Staniszewski, Andrzej Mastalerz, and Czesław Urbanik, “Effect of a Strength or Hypertrophy Training Protocol, Each Performed Using Two Different Modes of Resistance, on Biomechanical, Biochemical and Anthropometric Parameters,” Biology of Sport 37, no. 1 (March 2020): 85–91.

7.     Simon Walker et al., “Variable Resistance Training Promotes Greater Fatigue Resistance but Not Hypertrophy versus Constant Resistance Training,” European Journal of Applied Physiology 113, no. 9 (September 1, 2013): 2233–44.


8.     Lucas Brandão et al., “Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 34, no. 5 (May 2020): 1254–63.

9.     Tom Erik Solstad et al., “A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males,” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 19, no. 4 (November 19, 2020): 645–51.

10.   Antonio Paoli et al., “Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-Joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength,” Frontiers in Physiology 8 (2017): 1105.

11.   Paulo Gentil, James Fisher, and James Steele, “A Review of the Acute Effects and Long-Term Adaptations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises during Resistance Training,” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) 47, no. 5 (May 2017): 843–55.

12.   Lucas Brandão et al., “Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 34, no. 5 (May 2020): 1254–63.

13.   Pietro Mannarino et al., “Single-Joint Exercise Results in Higher Hypertrophy of Elbow Flexors Than Multijoint Exercise,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 35, no. 10 (October 1, 2021): 2677–81.

14.   Matheus Barbalho et al., “Influence of Adding Single-Joint Exercise to a Multijoint Resistance Training Program in Untrained Young Women,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 34, no. 8 (August 2020): 2214–19.

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