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March 2011

Are Your Clients Performing the Right Kind of Exercise at the Right Time?




There is no shortage of scientific guidelines for designing aerobic, flexibility and resistance-training programs. Although it is certainly feasible to fulfill the minimum frequency requirements of each form of activity by performing a single activity separately on each day of the week, based on the positive dose-response relationship between higher volumes of physical activity and greater benefits, meeting the maximum frequency recommendations for each fitness activity (11 overall: five aerobic bouts, three resistance bouts, and three flexibility bouts) is encouraged to better optimize health outcomes (see Table 1, below). In the latter scenario, clients will need to perform at least two (or more) activities on the same day, and most likely within the same exercise session. Unfortunately, when combining these components into the same session, there are no clear guidelines for the most appropriate sequencing of activities. This gap in professional physical-activity guidelines is problematic because exercise order can play a vital role in the safety and effectiveness of each session, as well as the overall program. This article examines three Golden Rules for proper physical-activity sequencing, as well as important exceptions to these rules.

Three Golden Rules for Proper Physical Activity Sequencing

1. Aerobic activity PRECEDES other fitness activities. The benefits accrued from engaging in regular aerobic exercise far exceed those received from other forms of physical activity. Importantly, research has shown that the improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness (or VO2max) following three months of equivalent training was nearly 30 percent greater when aerobic activity preceded resistance activity compared to resistance activity coming prior to aerobic activity (Chtara et al., 2005).

For clients primarily interested in losing weight, maximizing the caloric expenditure of the training program should be a key consideration. Research suggests that combining aerobic and resistance activities within the same session (i.e., concurrent training) is a time-efficient strategy for not only fulfilling the frequency recommendations of these two activities, but also providing a favorable boost to the overall caloric expenditure of the program. The most appropriate sequence is aerobic activity followed by resistance activity. This activity order (aerobic preceding resistance) maximizes the caloric expenditure of the actual exercise session itself since energy expenditure from aerobic activities (such as walking, jogging and cycling) is superior to resistance-training activities (ACSM, 2010). Additionally, the post-exercise caloric expenditure (a phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC) is higher when aerobic activity precedes resistance activity. In fact, simply following the aerobic-resistance order will enhance post-exercise caloric expenditure by nearly 11 percent (Drummond et al., 2005).

Table 1. Aerobic, Flexibility and Resistance Activity Guidelines for Adults


Aerobic Activity

Flexibility Activity

Resistance Activity


Modality is rhythmic, continuous, and involves large muscle groups; common examples include: walking/jogging, leisurely cycling, swimming, water aerobics, slow dancing, and step aerobics.

Stretching activities should target the major muscle tendon groups of the body. Static stretching (in contrast to ballistic, dynamic or PNF) is recommended for most adults with physical fitness goals.

Resistance activities include machine/free weights, resistance bands, and similar activities targeting the major muscle groups (abdominals, upper and lower back, chest, shoulders, hips and legs).


Moderate intensity corresponds to brisk walk with noticeable increase in heart rate. Vigorous intensity equivalent to jogging resulting in significant increase in heart rate and quick breathing.

Exercises should be performed to the point of mild discomfort within the natural range of motion.

A resistance exercise that permits 8–12 reps, equivalent to ~ 60% to 80% of one-repetition maximum.


For moderate intensity activities, accumulate at least 30 min/day; for vigorous intensity activities, accumulate at least 20 minutes per day.

Complete up to 4 reps per muscle group, 15–60 sec per static stretch. Overall duration at least 10 minutes.

Complete 2–4 sets for each muscle group. Permit 2- to 3-minute rest intervals between each set.


5 days/week moderate intensity; 3 days/week vigorous intensity; or combination of both.

2–3 days/week

2-3 days/week

Note: PNF = Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation 

Modified from Haskell et al. 2007; ACSM 2010.




2. Resistance training FOLLOWS aerobic activity. If the primary benefit of performing aerobic activity first is maximization of the workout’s caloric expenditure, what effect does this sequence have on the development of muscular strength and/or endurance? There is a mistaken belief that performing aerobic activity first will negatively impact muscular fitness development. However, this perception does not have a strong scientific basis. A recent study clearly showed that intra-session sequencing of aerobic and resistance activities does not negatively influence the change in muscular fitness. At the conclusion of a three-month investigation, it was reported that the improvements in maximal muscular strength, strength endurance, and explosive strength and power were comparable between aerobic-resistance and resistance-aerobic groups (Chtara et al., 2008). A last piece of supporting evidence for aerobic-resistance order is that data exists to show resistance training prior to aerobic exercise impairs muscle metabolism and contraction, contributing to premature fatigue (Drummond et al., 2005). Given the myriad benefits of performing aerobic activity, it would be undesirable to do anything that might compromise a client fulfilling weekly aerobic-activity recommendations.

3. Flexibility activity CONCLUDES the exercise session. Over the past decade, there has been tremendous scientific inquiry on the topic of pre-exercise stretching and its effect on overall performance and risk of injury. Interestingly, there is mounting evidence to suggest that the long-standing practice of pre-exercise stretching plays a inconsequential role in injury prevention. A recent review came to the conclusion that there is very limited evidence to show that pre-exercise stretching reduces the likelihood of an injury during sport and/or training (Small et al., 2008). Moreover, there is accumulating research showing that pre-exercise static stretching (the type most commonly recommended and performed) actually impedes performance. Data exists to show that an acute bout of pre-exercise static stretching can impede muscular strength and running endurance (Rubini et al., 2007; Wilson et al., 2009). In other words, one-repetition maximal-lifting performance, sprint time, vertical jump, and long-distance running performance have all been found to be negatively impacted when preceded by a session of static stretching. These widespread findings warrant sequencing flexibility activities at the conclusion of exercise sessions, following aerobic and/or resistance-training activities. It should be noted, however, that flexibility activities should not be disregarded, as they confer numerous health benefits when performed at the appropriate time during the workout.

Exceptions to the Golden Rules

While the above-mentioned rules will suffice under the majority of circumstances, there are situations where the golden rules do not apply. Consider the following notable exceptions:

1. What if sport performance is the main goal of the client?

Clients with sport-performance goals are more likely to engage in dynamic stretching exercises rather than the traditional static stretching activities recommended for most healthy adults. Dynamic stretching involves movements that mimic specific actions that will occur during exercise or competition. Interestingly, the research findings concerning the effect of pre-exercise dynamic stretching on performance are markedly different than pre-exercise static stretching. Studies have reported significant improvements in acceleration, agility and speed when preceded by a pre-exercise bout of dynamic stretching (Chaouachi et al., 2009). For that reason, flexibility activities that consist of dynamic exercises for the purpose of enhancing performance can be sequenced prior to aerobic or resistance activities.


2. What if your client is performing high-intensity aerobic activity?

Clients with goals that require high-intensity, aerobic activity training bouts should refrain from performing subsequent resistance training activities in the same session. It has been reported that high-intensity endurance exercise preceding resistance activity leads to neuromuscular fatigue and, consequently, limits maximal muscle force production that can be generated during resistance training (Leveritt and Abernthy, 1999). Alternatively, concurrent training (aerobic and resistance activities in the same session) should be completed on those days when the intensity of aerobic activity will be low-to-moderate.

3. What if clients prefer boot camp or circuit training classes?

An additional variation to combining aerobic and resistance activity is to repeatedly perform short bouts of each throughout the entire exercise session (i.e., integrated concurrent exercise). Circuit training and boot camp classes also implement similar patterns of intermittent, reoccurring stints of aerobic and resistance activities. In this sense, these exercise sessions are markedly different than the serial pattern described earlier where the entire bout of aerobic activity is completed prior to completion of the entire bout of resistance activity. What does the research have to say about the effectiveness of integrated concurrent exercise? Although there are limited findings, research examining this topic has shown that integrated concurrent training improves both muscular strength and endurance (Davis et al., 2008). The take-home message is simple: If your client prefers these types of sessions (circuit or boot camp), there is no reason to impose on them a rigid program of aerobic activity followed by resistance activity.

From Theory to Practice—Getting the Order Right for Your Clients

Numerous factors must be taken into account when designing comprehensive physical activity programs for clients, including appropriate sequencing of activities. The following case study demonstrates how to properly apply the rules of sequencing to a specific client’s needs.

Angie, 34, is a stay-at-home mom who attends the local YMCA three mornings per week. She also walks and stretches with a friend on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. Angie’s primary goals include maintaining her cardiorespiratory fitness and body-composition levels. She also has a family history of heart disease and consequently aims to prevent elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose values. Lastly, she hopes her physical-activity program continues to provide her with the functional capacity and daily energy required to keep up with her three young boys. The program outlined in Table 2 identifies how Angie fulfills each physical-activity recommendation (aerobic, resistance, flexibility) with the correct sequencing. The order of physical activities each day adheres to the three Golden Rules for sequencing presented within the article.

Table 2. Proper Physical-activity Sequencing: Application of the Golden Rules

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Friday Saturday
Aerobic Aerobic Aerobic Aerobic Group Boot Camp*
Resistance Flexibility Resistance Flexibility

* The group boot camp on Saturday mornings is an integrated concurrent training session that combines plyometrics, calisthenics, jogging, and functional training. This class is equivalent to one bout of aerobic activity and one bout of resistance-training activity for the week.


A complete physical activity program for healthy adults includes aerobic, resistance, and flexibility components. Careful planning of the sequence of these activities will ensure a successful outcome for clients.


American College of Sports Medicine. (2010). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (8th edition). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Chaouachi, A., et al. (2010). Effect of warm-ups involving static or dynamic stretching on agility, sprinting, and jumping performance in trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 8, 2001-2011.

Chtara, M., et al. (2008). Effect of concurrent endurance and circuit resistance training sequence on muscular strength and power development. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22, 4, 1037-1045.

Chtara, M., et al. (2005). Effects of intra-session concurrent endurance and strength training sequence on aerobic performance and capacity. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39, 555-560.

Davis, W.J., et al. (2008). Concurrent training enhances athletes’ strength, muscle endurance, and other measures. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22, 5, 1487-1502.

Drummond, M.J., Vehrs, P.R., Schaalje, G.B. and Parcell, A.C. (2005). Aerobic and resistance exercise sequence affects excess postexercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19, 2, 332-337.

Haskell, W.L., et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116, 1081-1093.

Leveritt, M. and Abernthy, P.J. (1999). Acute effects of high-intensity endurance exercise on subsequent resistance activity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13, 1, 47-51.

Rubini, E.C., Costa, A.L. and Gomes, P.S. (2007). The effects of stretching on strength performance. Sports Medicine, 37, 3, 213-224.

Small, K., McNaughton, L. and Matthews, M. (2008). A systematic review on the efficacy of static stretching as part of a warm-up for the prevention of exercise-related injury. Research in Sports Medicine, 16, 3, 213-231.

Wilson, J.M., et al. (2010). Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 9, 2274-2279.



Lance C. Dalleck, Ph.D., is academic coordinator of the Cardiac Rehabilitation/Clinical Exercise Physiology postgraduate program at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. His research interests include improving exercise performance and health outcomes through evidence-based practice, quantifying the energy expenditure of outdoor and non-traditional types of physical activity, and studying historical perspectives in health, fitness and exercise physiology.

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