June 08, 2022
The body has a ton of muscles. Like over 600 muscles. While you’re not necessarily going to be training every muscle in the gym, there are a lot to choose from. In order to create the most optimal and efficient training program, placing multiple muscle groups together is a highly effective way to plan your workout. Therefore, we’re going to tell you what are the best muscle groups to work together. Hint: There’s more than one way.
In this article, you’ll learn:
Bust out your anatomy chart because you’re about to learn about your muscles and the best muscle group combinations.
Before we start this anatomy section, understand this is not going to be a complete description of every single muscle. In fact, it will be anything but. The main point of this section is to simply review the primary muscle groups we train so if you notice a muscle we don’t mention, it’s not because we’re stupid.
The chest muscles aka pectoral muscles are fan-shaped muscles located on the upper chest. Together, the chest muscle group is primarily composed of two different muscles:
Together, the primary function of the chest is horizontal adduction of the shoulder, such as bringing your arms inward as in a chest fly. In addition, it can assist the shoulder in manipulating the arm up and down.
The triceps is a three-headed muscle that lays on the posterior of the upper arm. These three heads are:
Together, the triceps are the primary elbow extensor.
Your shoulder muscles are a group of three heads known as the deltoids, which sit on the shoulder. Due to the shoulder being a ball-in-socket joint, it has extensive mobility, which is manipulated by the three heads. This makes the deltoids unique in that while it’s one muscle group, the different heads can be used in completely opposite movements. The three heads and their functions are:
The back muscle group contains every muscle on the posterior side of the upper body i.e. the back. These are your pulling muscles and they include:
The biceps are a two-headed muscle that lays on the anterior of the upper arm and are responsible for flexing your elbow and controling your forearm. These two heads are the:
However, the biceps also includes other elbow flexors such as the brachialis.
The forearms are located on the lower arm and are responsible for manipulating the hand and wrist as well as being responsible for grip strength.
The glutes are a group of three muscle that are located on your butt (we all know what the glutes are). Together, these three muscles make-up the most powerful muscle group on the human body. The three muscles are the:
The hamstrings are located on the posterior of the upper leg and contain three different muscle groups.
Together, these three hamstring muscles act as the primary flexors of the knee and assist in extension of the hips.
The quadriceps are a group of four large muscles that sit on the anterior of the upper leg.
Together, these four quadriceps muscles are the primary knee extensor and also aid in hip flexion.
The calf muscles sit on the lower leg and consist of two different muscles.
These muscles are responsible for plantarflexion (pointing the toes).
The abdominal muscles - rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, & obliques - sit on the stomach whose primary job is anti-rotation or stabilization of the spine. However, they also assist in flexion and rotation.
When deciding what muscle groups to put together, realize there is no singular answer. And no, this is not a cop-out. The reason being is that you can actually train any group of muscles together and have it make sense. The determining factors of what muscle groups to put together lies in your answer to two questions:
This will make a big difference in what is the best way for you to group muscles together. That being said; first, we will go over some general groupings.
Sometimes you will hear of pushing muscles or pulling muscles. For example, one of the more popular splits is the PPL split or Push, Pull, Leg split. This method focuses more on the function rather than specific muscle. It is about opposing muscle groups. A major benefit of this method of grouping muscles is that it puts muscles together that manipulate the body in a similar manner. Generally, these complimentary muscle groups work together biomechanically making it easier to maintain an appropriate training frequency.
For example, let’s say you trained the back muscles and biceps separately and trained each twice per week. Your program might look something like this:
Because you train the biceps virtually every time you train the back, you’re actually training the biceps 4x a week! However, by keeping pulling muscles together, you can be sure to not overtrain various muscles.
Here’s what a basic push/pull muscle grouping looks like.
Your upper body pushing muscles are those that push a weight away from the body as in the bench press. These muscles include:
Your upper body pulling muscles are those that pull the weight towards the body as in a bent-over row. These muscles include:
The lower body pushing muscles are those that push a load away from the body, such as a back squat. The individual muscles include:
The lower body pulling muscles are those that pull a weight up. The best resistance training exercise example is the deadlift. Lower body pulling muscles include:
One method, generally seen in “bro splits”, is to simply train the muscles by body parts. For examle, what this means is to have a “chest” day where all you train is the chest. However, remember that the chest is composed of several different muscles, so these days would use isolation exercises for each indivudal muscle within the chest muscle group.
Another easy way to group muscles is simply by putting them into upper body muscles and lower body muscles, aka an upper lower split. This is pretty self-explanatory but looks like this:
As you saw above with the push/pull muscle grouping, you can combine the upper and lower muscle groupings with other variables.
One thing to keep in mind when grouping muscles together for your workout routine is that what you’re doing is essentially writing a program. Therefore, in order to optimally group muscles together, you need to keep in mind that it needs to follow some basic rules of program design. Follow these rules and guidelines when grouping muscles together.
When grouping muscles, in order to optimize strength and muscle growth, studies have shown that training each muscle two times a week produces optimal results. Training a muscle twice a week allows the optimal amount of training and recovery so that your muscles are in a perpetual state of growth.
Something we have learned over our years of coaching is that different training variables can dictate what muscle groups should be trained together. Perhaps the best example of this is when choosing what muscles to pair when training for strength.
For example, let’s say you want to run a true strength program with heavy loads (85-95%1RM). While a push/pull split could work, we like to use an upper/lower split primarily due to the primary exercises we can perform with heavy loads. For the sake of this example, the 4 main movements where it’s appropriate to use loads of >90% are:
To be clear, the bent-over row is also a primary movement, but it’s not appropriate for ultra-heavy loads. Therefore, if we tally up the exercises, we see we can get two different groupings:
As you can see, if you did an upper/lower split, the program would be heavily lopsided with 3X as many heavy pushing movements. Therefore, in our opinion, the best 4-day split would utilize an upper/lower split with each session starting with a primary movement. This would look like this:
On the other hand, if you were running more of a general strength program or hypertrophy program where you never used loads heavier than 85% 1RM, you could definitely run a push-pull.
*We are aware there are other ways to run a strength program. This is just an example to illustrate this concept.
The other factor when grouping muscles is determining how many days a week you will be training. For example, we can just use the scenario above. Let’s say that you do want to train 5 days a week. You could keep the same schedule but then just add a back-specific day on the 5th day while taking the back off one of the other upper days. This would look like so:
The reason this works is that you will still train your back on the deadlift days which would satisfy your twice-a-week training. This is because while the deadlift is a lower body exercise, the back is also heavily involved, especially the upper back. In fact, any deadlift variation, such as the Romanian deadlift, is going to work the back. Further, the back has a lot of different muscles and movement patterns so giving it its own day makes sense. (You should be starting to see why it’s essential to understand basic biomechanics).
As far as core and arms, those can really go on any day you have free.
We are not saying certain muscle groups aren’t as crucial as others (although that argument could be made in a particular context). Rather, we are saying some muscles are easier to fully train than others.
The best example would be the shoulders. We LOVE shoulders as they can make a massive improvement on your physique. However, the anterior deltoids are already heavily trained with chest exercises (horizontal press, chest flys), while the posterior deltoids are heavily trained with any back exercise or pulling exercise. Therefore, when compared to the back, you don’t need as many shoulder-specific exercises. The same applies for smaller muscle groups like the biceps and triceps.
Again, this require a basic understanding of biomechanics and anatomy.
As you can see from just these few guidelines, you can really combine any major muscle group depending on your situation. In other words, the best combination will depend on what your training goals are and how many days a week you can train. Any combination can make sense in the right situation while at the same time making no sense in another.
As alluded to above, there are some scenarios where grouping muscles in a specific manner just doesn’t make sense. We’ll go over these below:
While you may see this often, one thing that basically no one needs is a dedicated arm day or core day. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the arms and core aren’t important; it just means that dedicating an entire session to them is likely wasting your time.
Understand that you train your arms in every single upper-body compound movement there is. Whether it’s the biceps during a bent-over row or the triceps in the bench press, they are getting work. In fact, there have been multiple studies that show isolation movements provide no extra benefit in muscle growth, assuming you’re using compound exercises with progressive overload.
This same basic idea works with the core. Assuming you’re performing big barbell movements and even body weight movements (push-ups, chin-ups), your core is actually already getting a lot of activation. Therefore, definitely throw in some isolation (our favorite is the barbell rollout), but an entire day is really just too much.
We need to preface this by first saying there may be totally justified times to train one muscle group more frequently than the others. An example would be an elite lifter who has a lagging muscle that needs a lot of extra attention. That being said, that’s an exception to the rule and most lifters need to follow the rule. That is, have your training split evenly across all your muscles.
An example may be someone training their back and shoulders on one day while only training the chest on another. We give this example because it often happens in the real world. This is an issue because the back has a lot of various muscles and movement patterns while the chest has relatively few. Therefore, doing this overtrains the chest and undertrains the back (Again, I’m sure there are examples of this working, but in general).
After all that, you should now have a good idea of the different muscles you need to be concerned with when training. Further, you should also be familiar with their affiliation with the other muscle groups. That being said, we’re going to now layout the best muscle groups to train together depending on your training frequency.
For those working 3 days a week with a goal of general fitness or hypertrophy, we actually like full-body splits. While you are training muscle groups 3x a week, the volume is generally low enough as you’re training every muscle. In other words, you don’t have the time or energy to train a muscle too much. That being said, we’d start the day with the biggest movements and go from there.
If you want to train strength over 3 days a week, an awesome muscle grouping can be to train the upper body and lower body in two sessions and then train the full body in the third session. However, use the upper and lower body days to train strength and main movements while saving the third session to train the full body with accessory movements.
Lower Body Strength
Upper Body Strength
Full Body Accessory
We went over this above, but if you want to train four days a week, using a basic push/pull split works awesome to group the muscles. That being said, you can just alter the exercise order. For example, in a session, train one muscle group with more compound movements with heavier loads while using smaller accessory work or isolation movements with the other muscle group.
Again, we already went over the best muscle grouping for a 4-day strength program. To recap, you will use an upper/lower split as this allows you to program your main movements.
When it comes to training 5-days a week, you can use the same muscle groups regardless of what your training goals are.
As you’ve seen, you have a ton of options to combine muscle groups, and there really isn’t the best way to train them. As mentioned, your goals and training frequency is going to play a much larger factor when determining how to put your muscles together. You would have to really try to make something that doesn’t make sense. Therefore, just follow these guidelines:
Best Workout Splits by Days Per Week:
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