How to Properly Order Exercises in Your Weightlifting Session
The topic of exercise order is a topic not frequently discussed outside of the circle of veteran coaches, but it is a factor that can have significant effects on the training of athletes. I often run across coaches who slap together training programs with no thought to the issue of exercise sequence and the results can be damaging, especially with new lifters.
For Beginner Athletes:
Beginners are always in need of work in two areas - remediation for balancing and technical practice. If a novice has an especially troublesome area that actually inhibits technical practice, such as kyphosis or range of mobility issues, those problems can be dealt with as part of the warm up.
Otherwise the first two or three exercises in a training session should focus on the worst aspects of the individual’s technique. These should be practiced for a few sets, but should be discontinued if the athlete’s nervous system begins to show fatigue. If the athlete has no glaring technical deficiencies, then practicing of the classic lifts with moderate weight is desirable.
The second area of focus should be strengthening areas of the body that are disproportionately weak. These can be trained with full movements like squatting or pressing, but ones that are not especially explosive. The third area of focus is then to work on developing the physiology of the body in order to effectively take greater training loads by performing movements that are somewhat exhausting. The session can then be concluded with some general preparation exercises that will enhance athleticism and competitiveness.
For Intermediate Athletes:
No question here about what should come first in the sequence for these athletes. They should be practicing snatches, power snatches, power cleans, power jerks, and clean and jerks early in the session while the nervous system is fresh and able to reinforce motor patterns. Even an overly long warm-up will interfere with this aspect of training and should be avoided. The lifts should be practiced with medium to medium-heavy weights (60-80%) depending on the exercise in question.
This training should then be followed by explosive movements such as pulls, extensions, jerk drives, or jumping movements. The third area of priority should be strengthening movements such as squats and presses and other supplemental movements. More load can be placed in these latter two categories in order to improve the ability to adapt to greater workloads. The final area is devoted to improving athleticism and self-induced recovery techniques.
For Advanced Athletes:
Advanced athletes should have their technique well established and as such it is not necessary to begin every session with the classic lifts or power snatches and cleans. Furthermore, these athletes are often training multiple sessions per day. It is permissible to begin the day with a session of squats and pulls to pre-fatigue the muscles involved in the classic lifts. In this manner the fatiguing of certain motor units will cause other motor units to be recruited. This method is particularly effective during the preparation mesocycles, but should be avoided during the pre-competition mesocycles.
Classic lifts should be performed early in the second session and on days with only a single session. The number of exercises included in training diminishes as the lifter advances and as such squatting, pulls, and other strengthening movements may be performed twice a day in order to make up the full volume necessary for the given mesocycle. There will be little emphasis placed on general physical preparation, but more attention given over to restoration activities, especially after strenuous training days.
Exercise sequence is a critical factor in program design. Failure to adequately order the exercises may result in undesirable results, especially when dealing with beginner and intermediate level weightlifters. It is the function of the coach to insure that training is properly designed, and not to let athletes simply perform any type of exercise on a whim.
Photo 2 by Vernon Cunningham, U.S. Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.