We all want the best results out of our strength training time & effort.
And I wanted to know for sure which muscles I ought to group together in order to get the most out of my workout.
So I dug into strength & conditioning research, and this article shares the helpful information & insight I found.
Best muscle group combinations
For decades now among dedicated strength trainers, popular combinations of muscles to workout together are some version of these workout splits:
The Push – Pull+Legs Split
- Chest + Shoulders + Triceps
- Back + Biceps + Legs
The Upper – Lower Split
- Back, Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps
- Glutes, Legs, Calves
Strength & conditioning science confirms that versions of these muscle group workout patterns are ideal for achieving our muscle building & strength gaining goals, in large part because they train each muscle area twice a week.
A one muscle per day workout program has worked too
However, note that many an advanced lifter has also achieved both strength & muscle mass gains using a 5-day or 6-day workout routine where only one muscle group is worked per day.
Over the years it’s had many names; the one I’ve heard used the most over the past 15-20 years or so is The Bro Split.
Many roads lead to Rome
Bottom line: the human body is willing to add muscle, lose fat, & get stronger in a wide variety of ways.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant medical and sports science resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
In the coming sections I’ll go into detail why these are among the best muscle groups to workout together.
I’ll also share what strength experts recommend regarding how many different exercises per muscle group and how many sets per muscle group you ought to be doing.
Programming notes before we get into it
Before we get into it, here are a couple of things worth passing along that illustrate how many different ways you can achieve great gains in strength & muscle definition.
Resistance training comes in many forms
Think of all the different ways you can challenge your muscles. You could use free weights or a resistance band or two, or you could simply use your own body weight.
And if your only workout option is at a gym without dumbbells or barbells, a dedicated program of machine exercises will get the job done for you too.
And if you weren’t aware of it, resistance bands have been proven to be just as effective as free weights for building muscle.
(I didn’t always know that but always wondered, so I researched the heck out of which you can read here on heydayDo sometime if interested.)
These are just a few examples among many
Featured below are just three examples of many possible weight training workout schedules:
- the Push – Pull+Legs workout split
- the Upper – Lower workout split
- the Bro Split
And they themselves have umpteen variations as advanced lifters adapt their training to reach their goals.
So feel free to adapt them to your own fitness level and day-to-day routine, but do note the following:
My main criteria here is that all of the main muscles are worked out adequately each week, meaning a sufficient volume of sets & reps in order to achieve our goals.
The 2x/week training frequency + adequate volume has been repeatedly demonstrated in sports science studies to be at least slightly more effective at maximizing strength gains & muscle growth than training schedules that work muscless less frequently or less intensely.
But keep in mind what I mentioned about the popular routine spreading several muscle groups across several (5 or 6) days’ worth proving its value too.
Muscle groups to workout together: why these combos?
There are a few good reasons why those workout splits I listed above are considered excellent ways to get the best muscle building & strength gaining results for yourself.
Focus on the major muscles
As I noted, one of those reasons is that you’re working each major muscle group a couple of times a week.
For example, let’s consider the version of the Push – Pull+Legs workout split I’m sharing here.
Here it is again so we have it handy for this section:
PUSH: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (if you’re new to this, these are the muscles on the back of your upper arms)
PULL+LEGS: Leg Muscles, Back, Biceps
(Abs whenever, 3x/week.)
Remember – many versions are possible with this…for example, Push+Legs – Pull.
In the beginning…there are full body workouts
Beginning strength training workouts often start people off with doing a full-body workout 3x a week, with rest days in between.
For instance, Monday – Wednesday – Friday are workout days where all 7 major muscles are lightly engaged; the other 4 days are off days.
This is fine for beginners, and can yield strength & muscle gains for several months.
Eventually though, you may want to add more sets & exercises in order to keep progressing.
Trying to pile all that extra volume for multiple muscle groups in one day just won’t work:
- the workouts would take a few hours
- you’d be exhausted & sore in no time
Solution: Enter the workout split.
Different muscle groups can be split up onto different days
To create more time to do more sets per muscle AND to create more time to let those muscles rest & recover, we create a can a workout routine like the 4-day workout split** like the Push – Pull + Legs split we talked about earlier.
** – A workout split is the term given for a certain schedule where your weekly volume for a given body part is simply split up onto different days.
Muscle groups to workout together example 1: Push – Pull+Legs Split
So instead of the beginner’s workout routine where you’d hit all the big muscles in the same session on a M-W-F (or T-Th-Sa or W-F-Su) schedule…
…the Push – Pull+Legs split has:
- 3 Push muscles twice a week
- 3 Pull & Legs muscles twice a week
- and the abdominal muscles would get worked on a few times a week whenever.
Here’s how my Push – Pull + Legs workout split has looked most of the time over the past 40 years of free weight training:
- Day 1 Push (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
- Day 2 Pull (Back, Biceps) + Legs (Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings)
- Day 3 Off / Cardio
- Day 4 Push #2
- Day 5 Pull #2 + Legs #2
- Day 6 Off / Cardio
- Day 7 Off / Cardio
Push – Pull+Legs Notes:
* Core muscles like your abs and obliques are typically worked out on non-consecutive days, usually at the end of any of those days above, or on your off days from lifting.
* Day 1 for me is Monday, but this’ll work no matter what day of the week you start it.
Just honor the 2 days on, OFF day, 2 days on, 2 days OFF schedule.
I work my abdominal muscles 3x a week, lately on days 2, 5, & 7…but again, it doesn’t matter which ones, other than never do them 2 days in a row.
* Remember, you could switch the Legs to the Push days if you want, because it doesn’t really matter which side of your upper body you decide to pair with your legs: it’s your call.
We don’t work all 3 large muscles an the same time
This split is successful because we’re no longer trying to train our 3 large muscle groups all together like we did as beginners.
For weight training workout purposes, the human body has three big muscle areas:
- upper legs
We work out these muscle groups the hardest, and each of them requires a lot more energy from us than any of the remaining smaller muscle groups like our arms, shoulders, & abs.
And once you’re past the beginner’s 3-day full body workout period, you’ll be adding more volume & intensity (more sets, heavier weight) to these 3 large muscle groups.
There’s no way you can train all 3 of them equally & effectively if you tried to work them all in the same training session.
That’s a big reason why we use these workout splits discussed in this article.
Ex. 2: The upper – lower split
The upper body/lower body workout split workout is another one of the most popular training schedule these days amongst serious bodybuilders & powerlifters.
If you’re unfamiliar with the upper/lower split, the program simply splits your workout days into those that train your upper body and those where you’ll focus on lower body exercises.
All of the upper body muscle groups (except maybe the abdominal muscles) are done in the same training session, and all of the lower body muscles – from your glutes (butt) through your upper legs and down to your calves – are exercised together on their own day.
Just as with the Push – Pull+Legs split we looked at, there are many different ways to schedule the upper/lower split.
Here’s a popular schedule used with the upper/lower workout split:
- Day 1 Upper Body #1 (Back, Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps)
- Day 2 Lower Body #1 (Glutes & Legs: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves)
- Day 3 Off / Cardio
- Day 4 Upper #2 (Back, Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps)
- Day 5 Lower #2 (Glutes & Legs: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves)
- Day 6 Off / Cardio
- Day 7 Off / Cardio
Training complementary muscles together
Another awesome benefit of strength training using this particular 4-day split workout is that we’ve put complementary muscle groups together on the same lifting days.
Meaning, all pushing muscles on the same day, then all pulling muscles.
Look at the group Chest + Shoulders + Triceps; see how we’re working the push muscles of our upper body.
We have our chest muscles
Notice that all three of these muscle groups are used for the pushing exercises and motions we do in life:
- Bench press/chest press
- Military press / shoulder press
- Triceps extensions, pushdowns, & kickbacks
- Push ups
- Pushing a heavy box or stalled car
- Mowing the lawn
Short word about compound exercises
Many large muscle group exercises are considered compound exercises, named so because they also engage the large muscles’ complementary muscle groups along with multiple joints.
When you start your chest exercises day with a compound exercise like the chest press, your benching is also working your shoulder & triceps muscles in addition to your chest’s pectoral muscles.
Multiple muscles are being activated.
So you see, it makes sense from a sports science perspective to work your shoulders & triceps on chest training day, back and biceps on back day, squats and leg curls on leg day, etc.
You certainly don’t have to do it this way, since there are so many different ways you can effectively group individual muscles together in a workout.
It’s just that his method has been proven to work over decades’ worth of successful bodybuilders & physique models, many (most?) of whom did not need to hire a personal trainer to accomplish some very impressive goals.
Large muscle groups help warm everybody up
A nice benefit from this is that by the time you get to your shoulder workout, your shoulder blades, joints, & the surrounding shoulder muscles are totally warmed up from your chest routine.
Your triceps muscles are too, and so after your chest & shoulder exercises, they’re definitely pumped & good to go.
Notice the order we worked out these pushing muscle groups, from largest to smallest: chest > shoulders > triceps.
This applies to legs and pulling muscle workouts too
Seeing this train of thought through, on your Back + Biceps day you’ll work your back first, then your bi’s.
So for example let’s say you were doing one exercise apiece for both your back & your biceps.
You could bust out a few sets of one arm dumbbell rows for your back & follow it up with your sets of biceps curls.
And on Leg Muscles day, you’ll start off with the Queen of all compound exercises, the squat.
Then you can move onto any other muscle-specific lower body exercises you want to do, like leg curls, leg presses, and calf raises.
Note: If you want to do deadlifts on Leg Day like I do, definitely get them in before you move into any of those leg isolation exercises like curls, extensions, etc.
Bottom line: Putting complementary muscle groups to workout together on the same day is very effective.
Remember to do your largest muscle groups first on each day.
Muscles recover better this way
A final great benefit from organizing your various muscle groups this way is that they’ll all have a couple of days to recover together.
You won’t be doing any pushing exercises at all while you’re on your back/biceps or legs’ days.
Nor will you be doing any pulling exercises on your Push days, nor any leg exercises two days in a row either.
Proper recovery time is essential to allow those muscles to refill their energy stores and to repair the tiny tears in your muscles that strength training intentionally causes (that’s how they grow & get stronger).
Reminder: other workout splits are used too
For those of you relatively new to strength training…
…I wanted to reiterate that there are a number of other workout splits that advanced weightlifters may follow from time to time for specific training purposes.
Depending on what the strategy is for certain muscle groups, they’ll tailor their workouts using 3-day, 4-day, 5-day, or even 6-day workout splits.
And they’ll combine muscle groups on their training days using different combinations than the ones in these two popular, tried-and-true workout splits I went over.
For example they might train opposing muscle groups in the same workout.
Examples of opposing muscle groups with your upper body would be chest vs. back, and with your arm muscles you have biceps vs. triceps.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 6-day workout split
Here’s a perfect example of what I mentioned above.
Probably my favorite weight training book of all time is Arnold’s The Education of a Bodybuilder…my copy was given to me almost 40 years ago in 1982 and turned me into an avid lifter:
One of the workout schedules he prepared for us readers is in Chapter 5 “Accelerated Training – Six Days A Week”, and its 6-day workout split looks like this:
Monday & Thursday: Legs, Calves, & Abs
Tuesday & Friday: Back, Chest, & Shoulders
Wednesday & Saturday: Arms (Biceps & Triceps)
Note how he grouped all his bigger upper body muscles together & saved his arm muscles for their own day together.
My results from the 6-day workout split
I followed his exact program from that book — same exercises, sets, & reps — once I had 3 months or so of his beginner’s routine under my belt.
I did it for about a year & a half religiously, and dang did I get strong.
And big: I went from 6’2″ 170 lb. to 210-215 lb. during that time span.
I get sore & tired just thinking about that workout split now, lol…
Different workout splits are often cycled in & out
Also, many experienced lifters cycle between different workout splits throughout the year, usually spending between 6-10 weeks on each one, in accordance with their strength training goals.
I’ve been doing that for 38 years, and it works for me…keeps me from getting burned out on the same thing over & over for months.
Lately due to my age, the cycles are never the same length because my energy level’s never the same over the course of a multi-week training cycle.
So once I start getting the body signals that it’s time to take a break, I chill for a week and then come back fresh with a different workout split.
How many exercises per muscle group?
There’s no “one size fits all” answer to the question of how many different exercises you should do for each muscle group.
Like, how many exercises for my chest or for my biceps should I do on their workout days, or if I should bother to train my forearm muscles.
There are a boatload of different opinions on this issue, which is understandable, if not entirely helpful.
The reason there’s no magical number of exercises per muscle group per workout that works for everyone is because:
Everybody has different training goals
Everyone weightlifting has different goals in mind while they’re strength training.
Different goals means different routines.
Everybody has different weightlifting experience levels
There is a huge range of experience amongst all of the people currently lifting weights in our country’s gyms & home gyms, from first-timers to elite athletes, powerlifters, & bodybuilders…to all of us in between.
Broadly speaking, 1-2 exercises per body part per workout is plenty for just about everyone who’s not a serious bodybuilder**.
** – In my article on the 5×5 workout split I’ve built for myself, I share how Arnold Schwarzenegger used to routinely do 3-4 exercises per body part while he was a competitive bodybuilder.
So for most of us mere mortals, we don’t need to do 5 different types of curls in the same workout to get great-looking and strong biceps.
But variety is the spice of life
Certainly, knowing how to do multiple exercises for each muscle group is a great way to avoid feeling stale over the long haul.
For example you could do flat bench for your chest on the first Chest Day of that week, and switch to incline benching for the second workout.
Just be sure not to get away from your staple compound lifts for your larger muscles.
In other words, don’t swap out your squats for leg extensions (eek!), and don’t ditch your pressing exercises (bench/incline bench, military) for light isolation moves like dumbbell flys.
How many sets per muscle group?
There’s no magic number that will work for everyone, for the same reasons mentioned earlier:
- different experience levels
- different training goals
And as you’ll see down in the Training Guidance For Beginners, the sports science recommendations for a beginner’s strength training workout are inadequate for any serious lifter, be they a powerlifter, bodybuilder, or any intermediate-to-advanced weightlifter either.
However, several highly-respected strength & conditioning researchers worked long & hard and discovered facts that are very enlightening & helpful to us, and I included a chart of theirs below.
The red arrows are mine, showing how much more strength & muscle is gained when you do at least 10 sets per muscle group per week, compared to any training volume less than that.
10 or more sets per week = more strength & muscle gains
Training guidance for beginners
Here’s a little general guidance that I can pass along to beginning lifters, courtesy of three of our nation’s health experts.
They all suggest roughly the same thing.
And when they say major muscle groups, they mean our Big 7: chest, back, legs, shoulders, triceps, biceps, abs.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM):
(For all major muscle groups, and # of sets is for each muscle group.)
Novice to intermediate: 1-3 sets, 8-12 repetitions, 2-3x per week
Advanced: 2-6 sets, 1-8 reps
Rest periods: 2-3 minutes for high intensity/heavy loads, 1-2 minutes for low intensity/lighter loads
American Council on Exercise (ACE):
(for beginners) 1 set of 8-12 reps for all major muscle groups, 2-3x/week
From Harvard Medical:
Work all major muscle groups twice a week, doing 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps per set
My 2 cents’ worth: The ACSM, aka the American College of Sports Medicine, are the ones who put out the generic strength training guidelines for our nation.
So it’s no wonder the other two health experts I quoted are more or less tagging along with them.
This level of volume will work for you for the first several months of your weightlifting journey, but as mentioned earlier, you’ll need to “bump up the volume” to keep progressing.
Muscle group training FAQ
Here are answers to a few of the more common questions asked in regards to muscles & weight training.
What muscles can you work out every day?
All muscles require recovery time after a serious workout, so working a muscle group every day is not recommended.
This includes your abs too, even though you may see someone in your gym hammering away at crunches or sit ups every single day.
Overworking any muscle (and overtraining in general) is a very bad decision that could derail your workout goals in a hurry.
All of your 7 major muscle groups – chest, back, legs, shoulders, triceps, biceps, & abs – need that adequate rest & recovery mentioned earlier.
That is how you’ll get the most out of your strength training sessions.
Can I do biceps & triceps together in the workout?
Biceps & triceps can be worked in the same session no problem, and many lifters do just that.
Advanced bodybuilders & weightlifters create all types of workout splits for themselves, and one of them is a workout split that has an “Arms Day”.
What are examples of compound exercises?
Here are (what I consider) the main compound lifts:
- Pull Ups
- Bench Press
- Military Press
- Bent Over Row
I hope this article on muscle groupings and workout splits is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.