When many people start exercising, they focus on cardio workouts such as running, using the elliptical machine, riding an exercise bike, walking, or rowing. However, it is also important to do some form of resistance training, such as lifting weights.
Strength training not only improves your muscular strength and endurance, but it also can decrease the risk of injury, improve coordination, increase bone density, and support a healthy weight by optimizing your body composition.
There isn’t necessarily a “right“ or “wrong“ way to structure your strength training workouts. Some people prefer to do total body workouts, in which all of the major muscle groups are worked together during the same workout, whereas other people prefer to hit the gym several times per week and work specific muscle groups in the same workout.
So, what are the best muscle groups to work out together? Which muscle groups should your workouts target?
In this article, we will discuss different ways to structure your strength training workouts, focusing on what muscle groups to work out together in the same workout.
We will cover:
- What Are the Muscle Groups You Need to Work Out?
- Which Muscle Groups Should Be Worked Together?
- How to Pair Muscle Groups To Work Out Together
Let’s get started!
What Are the Muscle Groups You Need to Work Out?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults perform at least two total-body strength training workouts per week or that each of the major muscle groups of the body is targeted twice a week for optimal health.
We are often given the advice to work all of the major muscle groups in the body, but what exactly does this mean? What are the muscle groups we should be training in our workouts?
There are at least 600 muscles in the body, but many of these are small muscles, such as those controlling the eye or the smooth muscles lining blood vessels and the digestive tract.
When fitness experts discuss the muscles that should be worked during exercise, they are referring to the skeletal muscles, which are those attached to bones to help move the body. The skeletal muscles make up about 40% of your body weight.
In general, the major muscle groups that should be worked during strength training workouts are divided into several body part regions, as detailed below:
The major muscles of the chest are the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.
There are quite a few muscles in the back, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, serratus anterior, erector spinae, and other spinal extensors.
The muscles of the arms include the biceps, which are on the front of the upper arm, and the triceps, which are on the back of the upper arm. It is also important to train your forearms (such as the brachioradialis) and wrist flexors and extensors to improve grip strength.
The muscles of the legs and hips include the hamstrings on the back of the thighs, quadriceps on the front of the thighs, the glutes in the butt (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus), the calves on the back of the lower leg, and the tibialis anterior on the front of the shin.
The abdominal muscles are part of the core muscle group. They include the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, deeper transversus abdominis, and sometimes the pelvic floor muscles.
The muscle groups in the shoulders include the deltoid, rotator cuff muscles, and levator scapula.
Which Muscle Groups Should Be Worked Together?
Theoretically, you can structure your strength training workouts in any way that works well for you.
There are no rules regarding which muscle groups have to be worked together. You will find plenty of variety in terms of which muscle groups are worked together in the same workout in the strength training plans of weightlifters of all fitness levels.
With that said, many find it helpful to pair certain muscle groups together in the same workout. This not only makes it easier to structure workouts and decide which exercises to do but helps ensure that the muscle groups are getting adequate rest and recovery between days at the gym while still getting enough training per muscle group during the week.
In other words, if you tackle your strength training workout without a plan and just choose random exercises willy-nilly every time you step foot in the gym, you might be overworking certain muscle groups and neglecting others over the course of the week.
There are a couple of factors that will influence which muscle groups you should work out together:
#1: The Number of Days You Train Per Week
The most important factor that will impact which muscle groups to train together in the same workout is the number of days per week you are lifting weights.
The minimum goal should be to target each major muscle group at least twice weekly.
Therefore, if you are only strength training twice a week, you should perform total body workouts each session, working all of the aforementioned major muscle groups in each workout.
With this approach, your workouts might be slightly longer, and you will perform fewer exercises per muscle group than during body parts split routines, but if your strength training workouts are well balanced, you will still be meeting the recommendations for optimal health.
Beginners often start with the total body workout approach and then will progress to a body part split routine as they add more days of training into their workout plan and increase their “exercise vocabulary“ or familiarity with a wider range of exercises for each muscle group.
If you are strength training three or more days per week, you can then begin to make some choices about which muscle groups you want to train together.
#2: Your Primary Training Goal
Your primary training goal and your fitness level also can play a part in coming up with the best muscle groups to train together per workout.
For example, if you are bodybuilding and trying to put on size, it is generally recommended to focus on just one or two major muscle groups per workout to really maximize the workload for the muscles you are training.
On the other hand, if you are a powerlifter or strength training to support a particular athletic activity, you might place greater emphasis on certain muscle groups, such as the legs, and structure your strength training workouts so that you are hitting legs more often during the week and alternating different upper-body muscle groups along the way.
How to Pair Muscle Groups To Work Out Together
When pairing muscle groups in workouts, it often makes sense to experiment and see what feels best for you and your body. With that said, many lifters try to pair muscle groups that are either closely located together in the body or work as synergists for many common exercises.
For example, with the push/pull workout routine, you will pair the muscle groups that work together to facilitate pushing movements (chest, triceps, and shoulders) in one workout and then train the muscle groups that work together to facilitate pulling movements (back, biceps, and sometimes shoulders) in another.
This can be a good strategy because a lot of the exercises will end up working both body parts at once. For example, when you do bench press or push-ups on the pushing day, you are working your triceps and chest simultaneously and in a functional, synergistic way.
Here are a few options for which muscle groups to train together. Note that although the recommendations are to train each major muscle group twice per week, many athletes only train each group once per week, but do plenty of exercises per muscle group.
- Day 1: Push muscles (triceps, shoulders, chest)
- Day 2: Pull muscles (back and biceps)
- Day 3: Legs and abs
- Day 1: Chest and shoulders
- Day 2: Legs
- Day 3: Arms, back, abs
- Day 1: Chest, arm, shoulders
- Day 2: Legs, abs, back
- Day 3: Chest, arm, shoulders
- Day 4: Legs, abs, back
- Day 1: Lower body and abs
- Day 2: Upper body and back
- Day 3: Lower body and abs
- Day 4: Upper body and back
- Day 1: Chest and arms
- Day 2: Legs and abs
- Day 3: Back and shoulders
- Day 4: Legs and abs
- Day 1: Chest and shoulders
- Day 2: Arms and back
- Day 3: Legs and abs
- Day 4: Chest and shoulders
- Day 5: Arms and back
Play around with what works best for you!
If you are thinking about doing upper/lower body splits, check out our guide for help in planning your next workouts: The Upper Lower Split Workout Plan: Your Complete Guide