How To Build Effective Exercise Programs

the PAA system

The choices of exercises and the order in which those exercises are placed during a resistance training plan is an important consideration in program design. The sequencing of the exercises significantly affects both the long and short term expression of muscle strength. Typically, the large muscle groups or heavy multi-joint compound exercises such as the squat, bench press and deadlift should be performed prior to small muscle groups or single joint exercises. Studies show that heavy multi-joint exercises performed later in the session significantly reduces performance compared to when these exercises are performed first.




The main outcome of any resistance training program is to improve upon your current health/fitness levels. This can be defined for many as improvements in muscular strength and/or hypertrophy development. Studies have shown that mechanical tension within the muscle is a critical stimulus for muscle growth and strength. When heavy compound exercises are performed prior to small muscle single joint exercises total load lifted (which is a good representation on mechanical tension on the muscle) is greater. Reductions in performance when these exercises are performed later in the session is a result of fatigue accumulation from a build-up on metabolic by-products, and a reduction in neuromuscular activation. Research suggests that strength exercises performed under pre-fatigued conditions leads to a reduction in both acute and chronic strength and power adaptations. Considering that multiple-joint exercises have been shown to be effective for increasing overall strength, maximizing performance of these exercises by performing them early in a workout may be necessary for optimal strength gains.


As fatigue progresses and accumulates, technique begins to deteriorate. When performing multi-joint exercises, technical difficulty increases as there is a greater degree of freedom involved (more joints moving in different planes of motion). Therefore, from a safety and technical standpoint it also makes sense to progress from multi-joint to single joint exercises to prevent any unnecessary consequences (injury) of muscle fatigue.




Now that we know why large muscle groups should be targeted first, let’s look at how we can program around this.

PAA is the system we use here at APEC. PAA stands for primary, assistance and accessory exercises and is how we design and prescribe our training plans. When working with the general or athletic population coaches need to be able to apply a system to their training program. Simply put, a system is a coordinated body of methods where a method is a way of doing a particular task (loading scheme or the type of activity chosen (running vs cycling)) to active a desired outcome. A systems based approach to programming allows the coach to utilizes multiple different training methods depending on the client’s needs, training goals and the available equipment.




The primary exercise typically involves a heavy multi-joint compound exercise. This exercise should be performed first in the session and should align with the main movement pattern of the session (i.e. upper/lower vertical push, horizontal etc). This exercise typically requires the highest neuromuscular activation and hence it is placed at the start of the program.




This is the second exercise performed in the program which supports and complements the primary exercise and usually targets the opposing or antagonist muscle groups to the primary exercise. This is typically another heavy multi-joint compound exercise, however this can involve more than one exercise e.g. Primary exercise – back squat, secondary exercise – RDL and hip thrust.




Finally we have the accessory exercises. This is where coaches can try and get a bit creative and focus on any particular strengths or weaknesses the client may have. This section is made up of 3 categories (proprioception, Energy system development and hypertrophy) which can be chosen depending on the client’s needs. This is where a lot of the single joint exercises can be placed as they can still be performed with a good degree of technical proficiency in a fatigued state.

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