- There is no single “best” way to combine muscle groups in your training. Some methods are better for some people and others are better for others.
- You want to train each muscle group at least once every 5 to 7 days for maximum muscle gain.
- If you want to build maximum muscle and strength, you want to focus on compound exercises in your workouts.
Deciding which muscle groups to train together can be confusing.
Others say you should train biceps with chest because your arms will still be fresh after benching, so you might as well train them together.
Arnold was known for training his chest and back together, and if that was good enough for The Oak, then it should probably work for you, no?
So, how are you supposed to put all of this into an effective training plan that you enjoy?
All you want is a program that helps you add muscle to all the right places without forcing you to sit in the gym for a couple of hours every day doing workouts that you hate.
Well, I have good news for you:
There is no “best” way to combine muscle groups together in your training. So long as you understand a few basic principles, there are many workable ways to combine them into workouts that not only work, but that you enjoy and can stick to.
Body-part “bro” splits, push pull legs, and upper/lower routines can all work equally well, and which one you use really depends on how many times per week you want to train, how many years you’ve been training, and what muscle groups you want to work on most.
And we’re going to break it all down in this article.
By the end, you’re going to know which muscle groups to train together and why, the best exercises for each, and how to create a workout routine that’s guaranteed to deliver results.
Let’s get started.
- The 6 Main Muscle Groups
- Muscle Group #1
- Muscle Group #2
- Muscle Group #3
- Muscle Group #4
- Muscle Group #5
- Muscle Group #6
- The Calves
- What About the Core?
- The Best Muscle Groups to Train Together
- The 5-Day Workout Routine
- The 4-Day Workout Routine
- The 3-Day Workout Routine
- The Best Exercises for Each Muscle Group
- The Bottom Line on Muscle Groups
Table of Contents
A “muscle group” is exactly what it sounds like–a group of muscles situated close together on your body that perform similar movements.
When it comes to building muscle, the six main muscle groups you should pay attention to are the:
Categorizing muscles into units like this helps us better organize and prioritize our training.
That can work fine if you’re only training 2-3 times per week, but if you increase your training frequency you’ll quickly end up overtrained or injured.
On the other hand, many people focus too much on trying to isolate individual muscles like the biceps.
Every exercise uses a variety of surrounding muscles, so there isn’t much point in trying to only grow a single muscle. Rather, you should look at them as units, or muscle groups.
And here they are…
The main muscle of the chest is the pectoralis major, or “pec” major.
Here’s what it looks like:
The chest muscle’s main function is to bring the upper arm across the body.
Unlike most other muscles, though, the fibers of the chest muscle aren’t all aligned in the same direction.
As you can see, the pec major has multiple “heads,” or places where the muscle fibers attach to the skeleton.
There’s a sternocostal head, which attaches the sternum and ribcage to your upper arm, and a clavicular head, which attaches your collarbone to your upper arm.
Why is this important? Well, how a muscle attaches to the surrounding skeleton changes how you should train it.
Certain exercises, like the flat and decline bench press, emphasize the larger sternocostal head of the pecs, and exercises that involve moving the arms up and away from the chest, like the incline and reverse-grip bench press, emphasize the smaller clavicular head.
The four muscles that make up the bulk of the back, and that we want to focus on developing, are the…
- Latissimus dorsi
- Erector spinae
Here’s how they look:
(The erector spinae aren’t shown on the above chart, but they’re the deep back muscles that run along the length of the spine.)
There are a few smaller bundles of muscle that matter as well, such as the teres major and minor, and the infraspinatus. You can see them here:
As you can see, the lats attach your upper arm to your back to form a winglike shape. Your traps connect your spine to your shoulder blades. The spinal erectors run parallel to your spine, and do exactly what you’d expect–keep your spine stabilized and upright. The rhomboids stabilize your shoulder blades by linking them to your spine.
Now, here’s the goal in terms of overall back development:
- Large, but not overdeveloped, traps that establish the upper back.
- Wide lats that extend low down the torso, creating that pleasing V-taper.
- Bulky rhomboids that create “valleys” when flexed.
- Clear development and separation in the teres muscles and infraspinatus.
- A thick, “Christmas tree” structure in the lower back.
Many people neglect directly training this muscle group because it isn’t a “mirror muscle.” Developing a wide, thick, defined back, though, is one of the best ways to take your physique from “decent” to “exceptional.”
The arms are made of four primary muscles:
- Biceps brachii
The biceps (or, formally, biceps brachii) is a two-headed muscle that looks like this:
Another muscle you need to know about is the brachialis, which lies beneath the biceps brachii and assists it in flexing at the elbow.
Here’s how it looks:
While this muscle isn’t nearly as prominent as the biceps brachii, it plays an important role in the overall appearance of your arms.
When well developed, the brachialis looks like a “knot” in between the biceps brachii and triceps, and it noticeably impacts the overall appearance of the arms.
First, it cleanly separates the biceps and triceps when flexed, which better showcases each.
Second, it pushes the biceps brachii up, giving you a better “peak” when flexing.
Here’s a picture that illustrates my point:
The biceps’ job is to flex the arm, or bring your forearm closer to your upper arm. They also supinate the elbow, which means turning your hand upward as if you were about to catch something.
To maximally stimulate the biceps, you typically want to keep your hands turned palm-up toward the ceiling.
The triceps, or triceps brachii, do the opposite job of the biceps, pushing your forearm away from your upper arm.
This is what they look like:
As you can see, the three heads combine to form the distinctive “horseshoe” that can become quite pronounced, when properly developed.
Here’s a shot of Mike, showing what this looks like:
When most people think of arm muscles, they think of the biceps.
Big biceps = big arms…right?
Ironically, the biceps contribute substantially less to overall arm size than the triceps, which are a much larger muscle group.
You can see this clearly in a shot like this:
Small triceps mean small, disproportionate arms, regardless of the size of the biceps.
Last but not least are the forearms, which are comprised of several small muscles:
Forearms are like the calves of the arms.
They aren’t the immediate focus, but if they’re underdeveloped, it’s sorely obvious. If they’re well developed, however, it greatly enhances the whole appearance of the limbs.
You’ll want to train all of these muscles to develop a set of standout arms.
Your shoulders are comprised of three major muscles known as deltoids, and here’s how they look:
The three heads of the deltoids are the:
- Anterior head (front)
- Lateral head (middle)
- Posterior head (rear)
The delts mainly work to stabilize nearby muscle groups like the pecs, lats, and biceps.
The rear delts help the lats and traps bring the arm behind you, the front delts help the pecs bring your arms in front of you, and your lateral delts help the traps, pecs, and other muscles around your neck and upper back raise your arm to the side.
This is important, because the angle at which you press or pull will change how much the delts are trained relative to other muscles. For example, an overhead press will use more anterior delt than upper chest, and a barbell row will use more rear delt than a lat pulldown.
It’s very important to develop all three heads of this muscle, because if one is lagging, it will be painfully obvious.
In most cases, the lateral and posterior deltoids need the most work because the anterior deltoids do get trained to some degree in a good chest workout, and nobody skips chest day. Chest training doesn’t adequately train the other two deltoid heads though, which is why it’s best to include some additional exercises that also train your lateral and posterior delts.
The legs are made up of several major muscle groups:
- The quadriceps
- The hamstrings
- The glutes
Technically, the calves are also part of the legs, but since they require a very different style of training we’ll address those separately.
Each of these muscle groups are best trained by different exercises, and each have “special needs” if you’re going to achieve maximal development and definition.
There are quite a few different leg muscles, so let’s take a moment to discuss them separately.
The quadriceps are a set of four large muscles on the front of your legs:
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus medialis
- Vastus intermedius
- Rectus femoris
(Interestingly, new research indicates there’s a fifth muscle involved, so maybe we should be talking about the quintraceps instead?)
Here’s how they look:
Together the quadriceps muscles work to extend the knees and flex the hips.
When the quads are well developed, they form the centerpiece of the legs.
Case in point:
Now, many people believe that you can get all of the quad development you need from lots of heavy back squatting.
The back squat is a fantastic exercise for your quads (and entire lower body), but for optimal quad development, you should do others as well, including front squats and lunges.
As you’ll see, the best quads exercises that you can do are mostly compound exercises, and mostly involve using free weights.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the back of your legs:
- Biceps femoris
Here’s how they look:
The hamstrings work together to flex the knee, as when you’re doing a hamstring curl, and extend the hips during exercises like the hip thrust and deadlift.
The biceps femoris is also split into two “heads” or sections, just like the biceps in your arm.
Unlike the biceps, however, the hamstrings tend to be one of the most neglected muscles of the lower body.
The quads get most of the attention because they’re larger and more visible, and this can create a muscular imbalance between the front and back of the thighs that looks strange and may increase the risk of injury.
Many people also think that squatting is all you need for your hamstrings, and this is mistaken.
While the squat does involve the hamstrings, the quads do the lion’s share of the work. And this is especially true with the type of squatting that you often seen in the gym (quarter- and half-repping).
So, a good rule of thumb is to always include exercises that target your hamstrings in your lower body workouts, in addition to your quads-dominant exercises.
The gluteus muscles, or “glutes,” are comprised of three muscles that form your butt:
- The gluteus maximus
- The gluteus minimus
- The gluteus medius
Here’s how they look:
They’re for more than just show, too.
Together, they play a key role in stabilizing your body during all kinds of movement, and generating force in exercises like the deadlift and squat.
Now, if you’re training your lower body correctly, you don’t have to do additional training for your glutes.
That said, if you feel your glutes are a weak point in your physique, or if you just want maximum booty, then you’ll want to include exercises that specifically target them.
The calves are made up of two powerful muscles:
- The gastrocnemius
- The soleus
The gastrocnemius is the large (or not so much) muscle you see when you look at your calf. The soleus is a deep muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius.
Here’s how they look:
These two muscles work together to flex the ankle. The gastrocnemius is involved in knee flexion as well.
When it comes to looks, we’re most concerned with the gastrocnemius, but a properly developed soleus is critical as well because it supports the larger gastroc both in function and visual size.
Due to the way the calf muscles are oriented, it’s best to use different exercises to train each.
There are really only two types of exercises that you can do to effectively train your calves.
1. Calf pressing
If you’re pressing your toes against resistance, it’s a calf press.
2. Calf raising
If you’re using your calves to raise and lower your body against gravity, it’s a calf raise.
And those break down into seated and standing variations.
Standing presses and raises are done with the legs straight and emphasize the gastrocnemius.
Seated work is done, well, seated and with the legs bent, which emphasizes the soleus.
It’s important to do both standing and seated calf work and to emphasize your standing exercises if you want to get the most out of your calf workouts.
The reason for doing both is making sure that your soleus isn’t neglected and the reason for doing more standing than seated work is you want to focus most of your effort on training your gastrocnemius.
The “core,” or the group of muscles around your midsection, is often counted as the seventh major muscle group.
It’s made up of the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, and the internal and external obliques. These muscles all stabilize the spine and help with spinal flexion, bringing your chest closer to your hips.
For the sake of completeness, you could call the “core” a muscle group. In the context of building a workout plan, though, that’s not typically necessary.
This is because if you’re training the other six major muscle groups with heavy compound exercises, your core is getting enough indirect training that you don’t really need a separate workout just for your core.
This doesn’t mean that direct core training is useless, however.
Ab and core exercises aren’t required to get a six-pack, but they can help improve your physique. That’s why you’ll find a little ab training tacked onto the end of some of your other workouts in the plans below.
That brings us to the next question–how are you supposed to pair these muscle groups together?
When it comes to deciding which muscle groups to train on the same day, it really comes down to how quickly you can recover from your workouts.
Research has shown that even in resistance-trained, college-aged men, full muscle recovery can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours.
This is in line with one of the most thorough reviews to date, which shows that training each muscle group every 5-7 days tends to be the sweet spot for building muscle.
As you just learned, there are six major muscle groups, so you’ll typically want to train each muscle group about once per week.
This can be an issue if you’re doing a lot of heavy, compound barbell exercises, though.
You see, most compound barbell exercises hit more than one muscle group.
For example, when you bench press, your chest is the prime mover, but your triceps and shoulders also pitch in.
When you deadlift, you may be focused on growing your back, but your hamstrings and glutes also take a beating.
In other words, most of the best exercises train more than one muscle group at a time.
That’s one of the reasons heavy, compound barbell training is so effective. It’s also why it’s easy to overdo it.
Well, this 5-day workout routine strikes a good balance between adequately training each muscle group and providing enough recovery so you can keep progressing.
Pull & Calves
Legs & Abs
Each workout takes about 45 minutes, each muscle group gets maximal stimulation, your muscles get enough time to recover, and it fits perfectly with most people’s schedules (Monday through Friday with the weekends off).
The 5-day routine also gives you room to add some extra sets for your weak points.
For instance, many guys complain about lack of chest development and thus can add 3 sets of incline pressing to day 4, which can be done before the shoulder training.
Many girls are focused on improving their butt and legs and thus can add 3 sets of squats to day 2, done after deadlifts, and 3 sets of hip thrusts to day 5, done after legs.
If you don’t want to train five days per week, you have a few more options to make sure each muscle group gets the attention it deserves.
Here’s the 4-day workout routine that I recommend you follow…
In this routine, shoulders get their own day, which helps give them the extra work they need to grow in proportion to the rest of the upper body.
Legs & Calves
If you aren’t ready to commit to four days per week, you can still train each muscle group in this three-day per week routine.
This is an old-school bodybuilding routine that has stood the test of time.
The triceps are heavily involved in your chest training so it makes sense to train them directly as well.
The back and biceps relationship mirrors the chest and triceps, which is why they are usually combined.
Legs & Shoulders
These muscle groups are obviously completely unrelated, but they’re what’s left so they get combined. And they make for a tough workout.
This workout routine is almost identical to a traditional push/pull/legs routine, except with extra shoulder volume on the last day.
Now that you know what muscle groups to train together, let’s look at what exercises you should use to train them.
There are two primary types of weightlifting exercises: compound exercises and isolation exercises.
Isolation exercises involve one muscle group and require significantly less whole-body strength and effort. Examples of isolation exercises are the biceps curl, cable flye, and side lateral raise.
If you want to build maximum muscle and strength, you want to focus on compound exercises in your workouts for two reasons:
- You train more muscle groups with each rep, making your workouts more efficient.
- You can use more weight, which means you can expose your muscles to greater levels of mechanical tension (the key driver of muscle growth).
Isolation exercises can and should be used to develop smaller, stubborn muscles like the shoulders and arms and support the growth of larger muscle groups, but they should never be the focus of a workout routine for natural weightlifters.
Just knowing that isn’t enough to build an effective workout routine, though, because there are quite a few compound exercises you could do for each muscle group.
The Best Chest Exercises
Incline Barbell Bench Press
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Flat Barbell Bench Press
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
Dip (Chest Variation)
These are the exercises you must master if you want to build an impressive chest. Period.
Forget cable work, dumbbell flyes, push-up variations, machines, and every other type of chest exercise out there for now.
They just aren’t nearly as effective as the above core, foundation-building lifts and are only for advanced weightlifters who have already paid their dues with heavy pressing to build big, strong pecs.
The Best Back Exercises
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Lat Pulldown (Front and Close-Grip)
Seated Cable Row (Wide- and Close-Grip)
The deadlift is, by far, the most effective back exercise you can do. You just can’t beat it for all-around development and strength, and that’s why I recommend you do it every week.
Next up we have everyone’s favorite–arm exercises. You’ll want to include exercises for both your biceps and triceps for maximum arm development.
The Best Biceps Exercises
E-Z Bar Curl
Short and sweet. This is all you need to build big biceps.
The Best Triceps Exercises
Close-Grip Bench Press
Seated Triceps Press
Dip (Triceps Variation)
Lying Triceps Extension (“Skullcrusher”)
Like with biceps, you just don’t need much variety in your choices of triceps exercises to get those “horseshoe” tris.
The Best Shoulder Exercises
Seated Barbell Military Press or Standing Barbell Military Press
Seated Dumbbell Press or Arnold Dumbbell Press
Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise or One-Arm Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
Rear Delt Raise (Bent-Over or Seated)
Barbell Rear Delt Row
Dumbbell Front Raise
As you can see, I’m a fan of pressing. As with the chest, you just can’t beat heavy pressing for developing your shoulders. And as a natural weightlifter, you’re going to need as much help as you can get in this department.
If all you do is press, however, you’ll find that your middle and rear heads of your deltoids fall behind in development. This is why a good shoulder workout trains all three heads of the muscle by having you press as well as do side raises and something for the rear delts.
Just like any other muscle group, the shoulders can benefit from higher-rep work, but you have to emphasize the heavy weightlifting if you want them to grow.
The Best Leg Exercises
Hack Squat (sled, not barbell)
Single Leg Split Squat (Barbell or Dumbbell)
Barbell Lunge (Walking or In Place)
Leg Curl (Lying or Seated)
Working legs is very simple. Rule #1: Always do squats. Rule #2: Always do squats. Rule #3: You get the point.
The bottom line is that every leg workout should begin with either the back or front squat, with the former focusing on the hamstrings and the latter on the quadriceps.
The Best Calf Exercises
Standing Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise
Calf Press on the Leg Press
Donkey Calf Raise
The calves respond particularly well to a combination of low- and high-rep training. This is probably because the composition of the muscle fibers of the calf muscles can vary significantly from person to person.
Even if you were dealt a bad hand when it comes to calf genetics, they will grow if you give them enough volume.
The Best Ab Exercises
Captain’s Chair Leg Raise
Hanging Leg Raise
Ab Wheel Rollout
Although you don’t need to dedicate a whole training day to abs, it’s worth using a handful of the right ab exercises to develop your core.
If you want to learn more about the best ab workouts, check out this article.
There are countless theories on which muscle groups you should train on the same day.
The answer, though, really boils down to a few simple principles:
- Train each muscle group every 5-7 days to allow for sufficient recovery.
- Use the correct exercises for training each muscle group.
- Combine muscle groups that perform similar movements (like chest and triceps).
One of the most tried-and-true workout routine for accomplishing all of those goals, is this:
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Biceps & Triceps
Day 4: Shoulders
Day 5: Legs & Abs
If you don’t want to train five days per week, you can make this work as a 3 or 4 day routine, too.
Follow that workout plan and eat right, and you’ll have no trouble building muscle.
What’s your take on muscle groups? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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