Muscle growth is increased by muscle tension. Whether free weights or machines apply tension does not seem to make a difference.
HOW TO STRUCTURE A WORKOUT FOR MAXIMAL GAINS IN MUSCLE
DOES EXERCISE ORDER MATTER FOR MUSCLE GROWTH SUMMARY
- 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.
BEST COMPOUND EXERCISES FOR MUSCLE MASS
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. 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. 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.
ARE FREE WEIGHTS SUPERIOR TO MACHINES?
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. 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.
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. 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.
HOW TO GET A BIGGER UPPER BODY
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.
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.
EXERCISE ORDER TO GAIN MUSCLE
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.