Here’s a familiar scene at the gym: Person enters the gym with earphones on with music blaring in an effort to drown out physical discomfort (but also, unfortunately, body awareness).  Person uses the elliptical, recumbent bike, or treadmill for five minutes to warm up. Person then walks around in an unstructured and unfocused manner, randomly moving from exercise to exercise, all with variable intensities and volumes (for example, five sets of 15 bicep curls followed by two sets of 10 back squats followed by 6 sets of abdominal crunches for 60 seconds each).  At the end of the workout, the person may sit down on a mat and hang out in a forward fold and a pigeon stretch for 30 seconds each. It’s awesome that our example-of-what-not-to-do person is taking time out of their day to move their body and get healthy. Incredible! Love the effort. BUT… there are better ways to go about planning and structuring a workout. After reading this article, my hope is that you learn from our hypothetical gym goer’s mistakes, and instead of unconsciously moving through random, unstructured workouts, you take the time to plan out a well thought out, organized training session so that you may achieve your fitness goals in the most efficient way possible.  In part two, I describe three key principles for structuring workouts (which by the way, is exactly how I structure workouts for most of the personal training clients at Crux Fitness Richmond)…

HOW TO STRUCTURE THE WORKOUT (3 main principles, in order of importance):


  • Start with higher intensity and shorter duration exercises, and move to lower intensity and longer duration exercises.  For example, 15-second all-out sprints would be performed before sit ups.  Similarly, 5-rep barbell back squats would be performed before 20-rep push ups.  And maximum-height box jumps would be performed before planks. Within these examples it should be clear that the more intense exercises that lasted the shortest amount of time were performed before the less intense exercises that lasted longer (e.g. 20 reps will take longer to perform than 5 reps).  Another way to frame this key principle is to prioritize the exercises that require the most amount of mental “pump up”.  This key principle of moving from high intensity to low intensity should take precedent over the other two principles for structuring workouts.  This allows you to properly perform technical exercises correctly to stave off injury. It also allows your central nervous system to squeeze the highest performance out of your musculoskeletal system when you need it the most (i.e. during intense and complex exercises).
  • Start with complex multi-joint exercises, and move to simple single-joint exercises.  Another way to frame this is to perform the exercises that activate the most/largest muscles before performing exercises that activate the least/smallest muscles.  For example, deadlifts would be performed before bicep curls; deadlifts force movement out of the ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder joints, while bicep curls only create movement in the elbow joint.  Furthermore, deadlifts activate a long list of muscles, including but not limited to the soleus, biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, gluteus maximus, quadratus lumborum, and latissimus dorsi.  On the other hand, bicep curls only activate the biceps brachii, brachialis, and a few other elbow and wrist flexor muscles. Similar to the first principle, the principle of performing complex movements before simple movements helps to prevent injury and improve performance.
  • Start with bilateral movements and move to unilateral movements.  In layman’s terms: do the exercises that require both sides of the body first before exercises that require only one side of the body.  Regular squats before pistol squats, preacher curls before bicep curls, or bent over rows before single-arm dumbbell rows. Simple! Keep in mind though, that intensity and movement complexity should be prioritized.  So while I just said to do bilateral movements before single-sided movements, there are exceptions to the rule.  For example, a highly explosive (read: intense) single-arm med ball throw should be performed before a basic tricep cable press down because it is, A) more intense, and B) more complex.  Just as in the other two aforementioned principles, performing bilateral movements before unilateral movements prevents injury and optimizes performance.


Nobody wants to set aside time for the gym and put in full-ass effort for half-ass results.  This is why the way in which you structure exercises within the workout is so important! In every workout, there is a specific way to organize the exercises in order to gain the biggest benefits.  But there’s much more to programming workouts than exercise order – in part 3 of this series I will discuss what exercises to choose based on your health, fitness, or performance goals.

As always, if you’d like to know more about, and start taking responsibility for your own health, fitness, and wellness, please reach out to Crux Fitness Richmond for any of your personal training needs.

Patrick Koo – Personal Trainer at Crux Fitness Richmond

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