One of the biggest deterrents for those wanting to start weight lifting (or working out in a gym in general) is that they simply don’t know where to begin. They enter the gym lost, confused, and afraid. I see it all too often– wide-eyed folks come into the gym, wander around for a bit, fiddle with their iPod, jump on a few machines that have instructions pasted on them, train abs, and then hit the cardio machines for what seems like hours. (After all, that is what I used to do too!) If this is your day-to-day gym routine and you are sick of feeling bored and misguided, then look no further. Let’s learn how to pair muscle groups, split up our individual body part training throughout the week, and gain the knowledge needed to plan effective workouts.
Understanding Muscle Movements
The easiest way to understand muscle movements is by the motion you must make to target and work that particular muscle or muscle group. To simplify all of the movement patterns, we will call the motions “push” and “pull”. “Push” describes any movement you must make to push the weight away from your body and “pull” describes any movement you must make to pull the weight into your body. Certain muscle groups complement one another in that they require the same “push” or “pull” movement type to target the muscle.
An example of a “push” movement exercise is the bench press (watch the moving image and focus on the pushing movement). This exercise is used to work the muscles in your chest but also incorporates your shoulders and triceps- all “push” movement muscles.
An example of a “pull” movement exercise is the bent-over row (watch the moving image and focus on the pulling movement). This exercise is used to work the muscles in your back but also incorporates your biceps a bit- all “pull” movement muscles.
For simplicity’s sake we could say the following:
- “Push” movement body parts include: chest, shoulders, triceps, quadriceps, calves
- “Pull” movement body parts include: back, biceps, hamstrings, abdominals
It is important to note that there are exceptions and variations to these movements, especially in working the leg muscles. Leg muscles are large and are often worked using compound movements that incorporate glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. Often it is adequate to work calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps all on the same day. Those that feel their legs are lacking may want to train legs twice a week- one day with a hamstring focus and the other day with a quadriceps focus.
Understanding How to Pair Muscle Movements
Now that we can visualize muscle movements and the body parts they work, it is easy to see how you could pair these movements with one another to your advantage. To get the biggest bang for your workout-buck, it makes the most sense to work complementary muscles within the same muscle movement group each day. For example, it is smart to work chest on the same day as shoulders and/or triceps because these are all “push” movements. Often when you are working chest you are using your shoulders and triceps in synergy with your chest, or as chest muscle stabilizers, during the chest-targeted exercise. It only now makes to work chest on the same day as shoulders and/or triceps.
The same goes for back muscles. It is smart to work back on the same day as biceps because you are using “pull” movements that often activate the biceps during the back-targeted exercise.
Splitting Up Your Body Parts during the Week by Movement
Muscle movements and muscle pairing must be done in a way that allows each body part adequate rest and recovery while still allowing you to hit the gym the next day. It is important to understand that when you are in the gym training you are breaking down the muscle, and the recovery time out of the gym is when your muscles repair themselves and grow. You must set yourself up for success by adequately splitting up training every muscle group across the week while maximizing rest time for each body part. That means not training two upper-body “pull” movement muscle groups on consecutive days or two upper-body “push” movement muscle groups on consecutive days. This also means using lower-body muscle days to break up the days you are working upper-body as these movements typically do not incorporate upper-body, giving those muscles a day off.
An example of a 4 to 5 day split that allows for adequate body part rest:
Day 1: Back and Biceps (Pull and Pull)
Day 2: Lower-Body, Quads Focus, Calves (Lower Body)
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Chest, Shoulders and Triceps (Push, Push, and Push)
Day 5: Lower-Body, Hams Focus (Lower Body)
Day 6: Abs (or incorporate abs into another day and eliminate this fifth day)
Day 7: Rest
Repeat for 4-6 weeks
An example of a 3 day split:
Day 1: Back, Biceps, and Abs (Pull, pull. and pull)
Day 2: Hams, Quads, and Calves (Lower body)
Day 3: Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps (Push, Push, and Push)
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Back, Biceps, and Abs (Pull, pull. and pull)
Day 6: Hams, Quads, and Calves (Lower body)
Day 7: Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps (Push, Push, and Push)
Day 8: Rest
Day 9: Repeat
Putting It All Together
At this point you should be able to select exercises that work targeted body parts and plan out which body part(s) you will work each day you step into the gym! For a complete list of exercise by body part, check out this Free Exercise Database from Bodybuilding.com.
I encourage you to plan your workouts for a four to six week time frame at most and then switch it up again at that time. Sit down, get out a notebook, and write out your plan for the entire week, listing each exercise and desired set/rep amounts. This will hold you accountable to your plan, eliminate gym boredom, and get you fired up about training each day.