You’ve made the commitment to the gym.
You’ve got your trainers, your new workout clothes and music ready on your phone. But you step through the doors of the gym and you don’t know where to start.
Do you start with cardio or weight training?
You just don’t know what to do first!
The free weights look bewildering. You’ve probably heard that you should do them, but they look complicated.
The treadmills look safe, you’ve done running before. So that’s where you end up. Good old cardio. Thirty minutes might pass, you’ll burn some calories and you’ll get out of breath a little. But, if you’re looking to build a healthy, functional and great looking body, you need to look at expanding your horizons and challenging yourself in different ways.
The problem is with relying on cardio alone to improve your fitness is that you’re leaving so much of your potential on the table.
If you simplify fitness right down to its very bones there’s really only four things you need to improve to be healthier and fitter (which leads to looking fantastic).
These are strength, mobility, conditioning (cardio) and skill. Let me explain these a little.
There are many kinds of strength, but it can be broadly defined as your ability to produce force. It’s how much horse-power you’ve got. Most people need more strength in their bodies. Weights, specifically free-weights are the best way to build your strength.
Overall strength is always important, but strength also plays a big role in our mobility. So targeted strength work can also make us move and feel better.
The modern term for being ‘supple’. It’s a blend of flexibility and stability- which can broadly be described as how healthy the structures and connective tissues of your body are.
Improving posture and your ability to adopt correct technique for performing movements would fall into this category as would trying to alleviate injury and pain as well as avoiding them in the future.
If strength is your horse-power, conditioning is your fuel efficiency. Often also called your 'cardio'. It’s your work capacity or how well adapted you are to the demands of an exercise.
Conditioning is subjective to the activities you plan on doing, but a level of general physical preparedness (GPP) is something everyone should be looking to achieve before specialising in a certain sport or activity. GPP is your life fitness, you’re ability to at least turn your hand to any task you may get thrown at you without getting so out of breath you need a long sit down.
Every movement is a skill. Moving well is one of the most important skills you can learn for your health and longevity. Skills are perhaps the least measurable quality of fitness, but you know when you see it. You should be aiming to be improving your skill level every time you exercise.
All movements take skill- running is a skill, jumping is a skill, lifting weights is a skill. Some movements require more skill than others.
You’re probably now even more confused about what you should do first in the gym.
Stay with me a little bit longer and it’ll all make sense.
Here’s a basic template for setting out your gym session-
1. Warm-up and mobility
2. Exercises that demand the most skill
3. Strength work (lift weights)
4. Conditioning (cardio- get the heart rate up!)
5. Cooldown and more mobility.
As a basic rule, you should train the most difficult part of your workout first.
That means the part of your workout that demands the most ‘skill’ should be done whilst you’re fresh and you can concentrate on the quality of your movement.
You really do need to be mindful of how you are moving in order not only to improve in the short term, but to avoid setbacks in the future through injury.
It’s a case of practice not making perfect, but practice making permanent.
That means the first exercises you should do are your compound free-weight movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses and rows.
Focus on doing them with precision and mindfulness and your body will thank you with new strength and better movement!
But, to do these properly you will probably have to address your mobility first.
Training your mobility is a moving target.
It’s about being in-touch with your body and figuring out which muscles are tight, which joints are limited in their ranges of motion and which muscles are switched off.
In short, it’s figuring out what you need to overcome to be able to move better.
As a starting point, if you’re a largely sedentary person with a desk job, who drives a car and walks less than 8000 steps a day you can’t go too far wrong by stretching out your hip flexors (and hips in general), addressing the tightness and discomfort you probably feel in your upper back by working on the tension in your chest, shoulders and between your scapula and then re-activating your core, your glutes (bum muscles) and the muscles of your upper back with deliberate light exercise (a case of feeling the muscles working).
It’ll take more than one session to achieve this, but it will pay dividends in terms of how well you can move and also improve your quality of life in other ways- you will be in less pain, you will sleep better and you will stand taller (mobility might be the single biggest thing you can do right now to help your fitness along!)
So, so far when we walk into the gym we need to do some mobility work to allow us to move well, then work on our exercises that require the most skill first (those all important squats, deadlifts, lunges etc).
The good news is that this also goes a long way to improving our strength. When it comes to weight training for strength, most of the time it makes sense to do the exercises that need the greatest load and train the most muscle groups first, which very handily are the ones that also require the most skill and concentration and will (if done correctly and with proper intent) also improve your skill level.
If the only strength training you did was a compound exercise each time you entered the gym, then you would get stronger.
However, if you want to get the most out of your training, build some good-looking muscle and improve your mobility and posture then adding a few more exercises on afterward is a great idea.
But always prioritise the movement that demands the most skill first.
There’s a very tired metaphor about filling up a glass with rocks, pebbles and sand- you need to put the rocks in first, then the pebbles around them and then pack the gaps with sand to get the most into the glass.
Your strength training exercise order should be looked at the same way. For example-
1. Squat (rocks)
2. Stiff Leg Deadlift (pebbles)
3. Leg Curl (sand)
The stiff leg deadlifts and the leg curls in this case help to strengthen out the hamstrings and glutes which is great for building an attractive physique (men as well as women!) but also helps rebalance the deficit that is caused by sitting so much.
When we sit down our hamstrings and glutes switch off, but our quads (think front of your thighs) tighten up.
This puts uneven stress on your pelvis, which in turn impacts your lower back (and once one area of the spine starts to be dysfunctional, the rest of it usually follows suit too).
All strength training can and should be looked at like this-
It should keep your body in balance.
Strengthen the weak links and keep the equilibrium of your muscular system centred.
Not only does it make you stronger, but it keeps you healthy too.
Lifting weights might well be the fountain of youth!
Once you’ve done your strength training, now it’s time for some conditioning. So, whereas most people will jump on a treadmill first then make an attempt at some weights, you’re better off doing your conditioning last.
For the average person, conditioning should come last in the line-up. There are always exceptions of course, but 90% of the time you’re best leaving the conditioning till after your skill and strength work.
That’s if you even decide to draw the distinction between your strength and conditioning portions of the workout.
Conditioning covers a broad spectrum and many energy systems that your body uses to fuel it.
You can actually challenge a lot of these systems whilst doing things that you might consider to be strength training. You can use tools and resistance typically thought of as 'Strength Training' to challenge your fitness is different ways!
For example, you could do farmer’s walks where you carry weights in each hand for time or distance.
Whilst it certainly has a strength training element, it also challenges your heart and lungs to keep up! There’s actually a lot of overlap between skill, strength, mobility and conditioning and usually an exercise is improving more than one at a time.
There's evidence to suggest that doing this type of exercise where you raise your heart rate training against external resistance has a greater metabolic effect than just doing a steady state session of cardio. It has come to be known as metabolic conditioning as a result.
In short, it's the kind of exercise that speeds up your metabolism (so you can eat more food!) and as a result can lead to greater fat loss.
So it might not really be a question of weights or cardio, but more lifting weights for cardio!
If you're looking to get stronger and fitter then try organising your workouts like this-
1. Warm-up and mobility
2. Exercises that demand the most skill
3. Strength work
5. Cooldown and more mobility.
Doing things like this will make sure you get the most out of everything you're doing- your getting better at your big movements, you're moving better, you're getting stronger and fitter and MOST IMPORTANT you're staving off injury!
Hopefully now you understand the methodology of selecting your exercise order for the gym and what you should be improving when you do them. It’s certainly not set in stone that you have to do things in that order, in fact if you feel that there’s a goal you need to achieve that prioritises one aspect of fitness over another, you should look to do that first.
But for getting healthy, feeling and looking great, following this framework is a great place to start.
If you have any questions, drop me an email- email@example.com and I’ll get back to you!
You can also find me on Instagram @run_jump_lift and facebook @runjumplift1. If you've enjoyed this article then please follow along on social media for more content!
You can find lot’s more information and handy articles like this on my website- www.runjumplift.co.uk too!
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
If you're interested in learning more, subscribe to the mailing list below-