by Truth Fry January 23, 2023 8 min read
An important, but often overlooked, part of any exercise routine is resistance training. It’s quite common for people to just focus on cardio without really looking into other forms of exercise.
Now, don't get me wrong ... aerobic and cardiovascular workouts are among the best ways to care for your heart, lungs, and muscles. But resistance training can help with isolating and strengthening certain muscle groups. This allows you to train your body in different ways for different purposes.
For example, if you want to build muscle, you need to do some form of resistance training. Some examples would be free weights, machines, barbells, and even bands.
Traditional cardio isn’t going to add muscle like resistance training will ... if any at all.
So, incorporating some amount of resistance training is important for your muscles. Your bones, connective tissue, and metabolism will thank you as well.
Once you realize this and decide to start doing some resistance training ... the question often becomes this:
"Well, what muscles should I train together in each workout?"
My honest opinion is more complicated than a clear black and white answer, but we’ll get to that.
In this article, I will go over different muscle groups and how you can pair them together when you work out to get the most out of your training efforts.
Muscles are broken down into three different categories: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal.
Cardiac muscles are specific to your heart, and smooth muscles mostly make up your organs.
Skeletal muscles are what people most commonly refer to as "muscle." These muscles are connected to the skeleton and help us move our bodies.
Of these skeletal muscles, the fitness community tends to group them into these 6 primary groups:
These groupings can be broken down even further, such as focusing on specific parts of your legs. You may want to focus your workout on your calves, but you'll likely want to work out your upper leg muscles too.
The same focus can be applied to your arms, back, shoulders, glutes, and other muscles.
There isn’t necessarily a strict right or wrong way to combine muscle groups when you work out. However, there are several principles that can guide your workout schedule to optimize both your energy and results.
Let’s take a look at some of these principles as well as a couple other factors to consider in your workout program...
Keep in mind that there are very few exercises that target only a single muscle group. This means most exercises are going to automatically work out more than one muscle.
The body likes to use surrounding muscles for support, and if it’s a heavy load ... then the body may recruit even more muscles to help.
For example, you may include squats in your workout to target your glutes. But squats don't only work your glutes ... they are also a great workout for your hamstrings and quads. So all three of these muscle groups are getting a good workout to perform that single action.
When it comes to designing a workout program ... you can customize your workout routine according to your goals.
If you want to train for strengthening a particular exercise ... then it makes sense to fill the rest of the workout with exercises that support that exercise.
If you want to focus on building specific muscles ... then it might make sense to focus each workout on individual muscle groups rather than pairing them.
If you are training for a sport and need to focus on training a specific set of movements ... you can tailor your workouts to meet those needs too.
The reason people split certain workouts into different days is so they don’t overwork one muscle group. The muscles being used in many exercises will often overlap, so it’s important to take this into account.
Keeping that in mind, the best way to set your schedule could be to pair those naturally-close groups.
Take the previous squats example. Squats recruit your glutes and the muscles of your upper leg. So, it would make perfect sense to pair those muscle groups together.
Popular synergistic muscle group pairings could be:
This type of workout split is also called push-pull-legs, and is arguably the most popular way to train for many gym-goers.
This is a popular split because most chest exercises work the triceps and front portion of the shoulders too. Most back exercises will also work the biceps and rear shoulders. Most leg exercises use the quads, hamstrings, and glutes together as well.
This allows for maximum efficiency in each workout, and provides each muscle group enough rest between workouts. Remember, recovery is just as important as the workout itself.
Another way to look at this is to do your strength training with “opposing” muscle groups.
In other words, working opposing muscles means working opposing muscle groups. An example of this could be training a chest and back day.
Working opposing muscles will likely train some muscles multiple times in different workouts. For example, many chest and back exercises will also train your biceps, triceps, and shoulders.
This means you’ll be training those muscles in 2 different workouts each week. This can be a good and a bad thing, but I’ll get to that later.
Popular opposing muscle groups to work out together include:
The possible issue with this approach for some people though is the recovery aspect. This also depends greatly on how you choose to design the program.
Let's say you do a chest and back workout on Monday. You may do some chest pressing, chin-ups, front raises, and low rows.
But guess what? Those exercises work more than just your chest and back muscles. You'll also be working your biceps, triceps, and shoulders to an extent.
If you don't plan accordingly, and choose to train your arms and shoulders the next day ... this can increase your risk of injury and hinder your recovery.
So, it’s important to design your workout schedule with recovery in mind too.
Now, don't get me wrong ... training opposing muscle groups together can be a great option for many people. You just have to find what is right for you, and also make sure that you make recovery a priority.
Remember … you can always try different muscle group pairings to see what you like most. There is no master list with every possible pairing, but testing for yourself is a great place to start.
Here are some examples of exercise routines for each of the popular muscle group pairings...
You can think of this muscle group pairing as a push workout.
Most of these exercises are some sort of press or pushing motion. If not, they are still working the right muscles.
Push-Ups — Push-ups target several muscle groups, including your chest, shoulders, and triceps. This is a very functional exercise that always has its place in any workout program.
Bench Press — Likely the strongest movement for your upper body. Your chest, shoulders, and triceps are going to appreciate this move.
Chest Fly — This exercise can help increase your chest flexibility and is a great way to isolate the chest.
Tricep Pulldown — This is a great exercise to isolate the triceps. The stronger your triceps get, the more support you have for other exercises, like the bench press.
Shoulder Press — A strong movement to focus on developing the shoulders. Still utilizes the chest and triceps quite a bit as well.
You can think of this muscle group pairing as a pull workout.
These workouts are all pulling motions, and involve the muscles of the back, biceps, and shoulders in some capacity.
Chin-Ups — This exercise is great for strengthening your lats (large back muscle), biceps, and rear delts.
Low Rows — This is a movement where you may be able to handle heavier loads than many other exercises. It targets the lats, elbow flexors like the biceps, and the rear delts a bit as well.
Bicep Curls — This is a very simple and effective exercise to isolate the bicep. The stronger your biceps are, the more they can support other exercises, like chin-ups and rows.
Bent-Over Reverse Fly — This is a great way to directly target the often neglected rear delt. Keeping these muscles balanced is important too.
Lateral Raises — This is targeting mostly the middle portion of the shoulder. It also involves the traps as well, which is a larger muscle on the back.
You can dedicate your workout to glutes and abs, one of the most common muscle group pairings.
Squats — This is arguably the strongest compound exercise known other than the deadlift. Oftentimes, an experienced lifter can load up heavier weights with squats than most other exercises.
Glute Kickbacks — It’s right there in the name; glute kickbacks are going to engage not only your glutes, but your core as well (and your legs, too).
Sit-Ups — A classic exercise, sit-ups are going to be core-heavy. They can also help with increasing your range of motion through most movements.
Deadlifts — This exercise typically allows lifters to go much heavier, similar to squats. This really targets the glutes, quads, and hamstrings hard. Proper technique is key with this exercise, especially when heavier weights are used.
Romanian Deadlifts — This is one of the best ways to load the hamstrings and glutes with heavy weights. It is important for any athlete to do these to strengthen and protect the knee from injuries.
Don’t forget to incorporate rest days in your program. Depending on how you split the exercises up, it might warrant more or less rest days.
It’s good to allow 1-2 days of rest at least for most programs, but here’s a good rule of thumb...
The more you split up and isolate the muscles as the focus for each workout, the less rest days you’ll likely need to take. The more muscles worked in each workout, such as a full body workout, the more rest days you’ll likely need.
There are so many ways to get moving and get the exercise your body needs. Pairing these different muscle groups is a great place to start focusing your efforts for better results.
It’s also important to think about what specific goals you have in mind. You should try to tailor your workout program to achieving those desired goals.
Finding what muscle groups to work together may take some trial and error ... but it will be worth the time to find what works best for you and your lifestyle.
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BS Exercise Science NASM Certified Personal Trainer NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist