How frequently should you train the 5 major muscle groups to build muscle?
This article is all about the subject of training splits. And specifically whether or not you should train muscle groups once a week, or multiple times in a 7 day period.
So if you ever wondered if having a day purely for biceps is the best way to build muscle, then I’ve got the answer for you.
Or you may be attempting to train every muscle every day and doing 7 total body session every week. Because some guy told you more frequency is better. If you are doing that, then I’m surprised you’re listening to this podcast. I would have thought you’d be lying in a heap in the corner of the gym. Surely, even reading this article would be too much effort.
So let’s settle the score. And answer the question.
What’s The Best Way To Train All 5 Major Muscle Groups?
Did the bro’s get it right with one muscle group per session? Or is this training folklore from the dark ages that’s actually limiting your progress?
There’s only one way to find out… Read on…
What do we mean by Muscle Groups?
A good place to start is getting on the same page and defining what we mean by muscle groups.
Your body is made up of lots of muscles. They’re what help keep your skeleton in place and assist with locomotion. And by that I mean movement of your body, not the stupid Kylie Minogue dance from 1988.
There’s a reference for the oldies out there. If you were born post 1990 you probably have no clue what I’m talking about. But hey, that’s why they invented YouTube, so go check it out.
There are over 600 skeletal muscles in your body. So trying to train them individually is both impossible and impractical. After all, not even the bro’s do 2nd metacarpal, index finger day, do they?
So we tend to think about muscles in groups when it comes to training.
Aren't There More Than 5 Major Muscle Groups?
And there are 5 major muscle groups you need to give a shit about. These are chest, back, shoulders, legs, and arms.
There is an argument to suggest legs could be split out into different muscle groups. For example, glutes may be something worth looking at separately, particularly if you’re a female who wants a set of pert and peachy glutes to strut about with.
Additionally, take the quad for as an example. The quad is a huge group of muscles with a big cross-sectional area. So training quads effectively is a lot different to training biceps, which are very small in comparison.
So do quads need more focus on more attention in training if the goal is to build muscle? There’s a logical argument for that to be the case. But, as we’ll come on to later, it’s probably not the way to go for you or 93.83% of the population.
Please note, I made that statistic up. But admit it, you thought it was real for second. It’s ok to admit I got you with that one.
Now some bright spark will probably want to go even further than this and message me to say there’s 6, 7, or maybe even 8 major muscle groups. Because he or she feels forearms are a major muscle group.
But let's just not go there.
A Quick Confession
Now before we dive further into the detail, I have a confession.
I’ve written and podcasted about similar topics in the past. And I have to admit my views have evolved and changed over time. So consider this podcast as an update those previous opinions.
I’ve considered going back and editing those posts, but I feel it’s good to show the evolution of thinking and how good trainers and coaches are open to new ways of thinking. Especially when credible research sheds new light on a particular topic.
The worst thing I could be is the keto zealot of the resistance training world. Closed off to reality and stuck with a one size fits all method that rarely fits anyone.
Confession time out the way. I’ve said my Hail Mary’s, so it’s time to get on with the show.
How Frequently Should You Train Each Muscle Group?
As with most things in the fitness industry, the answer as to whether something is good or bad is subjective, as is the concept of better or worse. Because, it depends…
Those two dreaded words no-one wants to hear when they want a clear answer.
But rather than be the cocky moron that looks down on you with disdain when he says “it depends” like you were some fool for even uttering the question in his presence, I’m going to give you a bit more of a useful summary of the situation.
The reality is, you can make progress with any training split.
Train one muscle group per workout and you’ll build muscle for sure. Train multiple muscle groups per workout and you’ll also make progress. So the question is not really about which approach builds muscle, but more which approach builds the most amount of muscle for you, in your situation.
Because in the cold light of day your not a pro bodybuilder. And as you’re not about to step on the Olympia stage any time soon, following Phil Heath’s latest workout programme is probably not the way to go.
Real life gets in the way of that. Work life, family life and a desire to chill and relax every now and then are more important than training twice a day, just so you can have a killer calf workout.
Training Muscle Groups The Bro Way
Let’s look at the bro split.
The bro split is your typical training programme you will no doubt have seen if you’d set foot in Gold’s Gym in the mid-70s. And I’d be willing to hazard a guess that approach still dominates the gym floor if you walked in there today.
The bro split would have you doing chest on Monday, followed by back on Tuesday, then shoulders, legs, and arms on consecutive days thereafter. Throw in a couple of rest days in the mix and then your good to train chest again come Monday.
So with this approach you’re hitting one muscle group per day.
The thinking behind this is each muscle group has a degree of complexity to it in terms of the number of muscle, the direction of the muscle fibres, and so on. So in order to train these muscle groups effectively you need to hit them from different angle, using different exercises.
And that takes time, hence the need for a specific day.
Let's Focus On Chest
For example, let’s take every guy’s favourite muscle group, chest.
The chest is made up of multiple muscles, but it dominated by pec major. Your pec major has muscle fibres running in different directions as it originates in several places on your skeleton.
To keep it simple, you have the sternocostal head, which attaches the sternum and ribcage to your upper arm. Then you have the clavicular head, which attaches the clavicle (or collarbone) to your upper arm.
Both of these heads of pec major have muscle fibres that align in different directions. This is why people generally train a flat bench press and an incline bench press movement. Because there is a need to target these muscle fibres specifically.
So in a bro split training session, you would design your workout to work the muscle from all angles. And you’d probably pick 2-3 exercises for each because you want the feeling in your muscles that you trained hard and pounded that muscle group into submission.
And this approach would be no different for other muscle groups, such as back where there’s an even greater complexity of muscles and directions of muscle fibres at play. Even trying to hit all of those in one session is a bit of a mammoth task. And probably a big reason as to why those bro workouts are so fucking long!
Advantages Of Bro Split Training
So are there any advantages to the bro split?
Well, yes there are… Number one, as I’ve mentioned before, you can still make progress training one muscle group per workout and coming back to it 7 days later.
You can spend time targeting the specific muscles within the muscle group and aim to cover off every conceivable angle. Your workout might take a while, but you could do it.
Also, there are occasions where people brand new to the gym attempt a multi muscle group workout and simply wake up the next day unable to move for the next 3 days, let alone contemplate another total body workout.
So, as long as the volume and intensity of the workout is managed effectively a one muscle group per workout approach can work better for some.
Has The Bro Split Had It's Day?
However, the bro split has probably had its day. In particular if you are at a beginner or intermediate level in the gym. Let’s look at why that might be the case.
Firstly, focusing on one muscle group per workout will only really work if you are training around 5 times a week. Because otherwise you simply won’t have enough days in the week to fit everything in.
Plus, if you have one unexpected circumstance in the week, it throws everything off. Maybe you had to stay late at work or pick the kids up from school. Either way, it messed up your routine and you can’t catch it back.
This leads to you skipping leg day and ending up with a massive upper body and chicken legs holding it up. Not the most desirable of physiques, I think you’ll agree.
Training a muscle group from all angles might sound like a great idea (and it is to a certain degree). But at the beginner and intermediate level it’s a degree of precision that is beyond what you need. And you can still get the desired effect with good exercise selection.
What If You Have Specific Goals?
And finally, this approach doesn’t really cater for any specific goals you have for certain body parts.
For example, what woman out there ever put “massive chest” down on their list of requirements? And by chest I’m not talking breasticles, I’m talking actual chest muscles. So by that logic, what would be the thinking in prescribing a specific chest day for that person.
And for the dude who’s already spent years only training arms, does he really need a specific “arm day”? Or would he be better served training shoulders twice a week? Or God forbid train legs more than once a week so you’re less like an upside down weeble.
Is Training Multiple Muscle Groups Per Day / Per Week More Effective For Building Muscle?
So by now you’ve probably got a strong inclination that I’m leaning towards training multiple muscles per workout and per week. But why is that the case?
Now’s the time to dig into the other side of the debate.
Why might training multiple muscle groups per day be more advantageous than training just one.
The Advantages Of Higher Frequency Training
Let’s start by looking at the practicalities of the situation first. But let me first preface this next section by saying most of the audience listening to the show will be at a beginner or intermediate stage of their training. If that’s you, listen in. However, if you’re a pro about to hit the stage, then this one probably isn’t for you.
Ok. So you live in the real world. You have a job, a career, possibly a family, and you even might have a social life. Giving all that up to go train in the gym twice a day, every day of the week probably isn’t going to happen.
As much as you’d probably like to get away from the screaming kids every now and again, disappearing off to the gym for a few hours just as World War 3 breaks out over who ate the last of the Play-Doh probably is going to run the risk of divorce.
In my experience, the majority of beginners and intermediates train consistently 3-4 times per week. Some push it up to 5 or 6, but that’s rare. And it’s also probably more than is necessary.
What Are The Options?
You see, when you’re starting out on a training programme for the first time, it’s important to build your training up through phases. Increasing training volume over time is a key aspect of the muscle building process. So if you start out from day one with a ton of volume, it doesn’t leave you much room for progression. Whereas, if you start low and build up, you have plenty of options.
So if you’re training 3 days a week, training a single muscle group per session makes very little sense. 3 total body sessions would be great. Or some form of Push, Pull, Legs set up would work well, although my preference would be for the former.
If you upped training to 4 times per week, then you’re drifting more into the realms of workouts split between upper and lower. The slightly more advanced of you out there could look into splitting this further with a horizontal push / pull session and a vertical push / pull session to add some more specificity to your programme.
Good For Beginners
There are a few benefits to this approach, especially for a beginner. For example, training a body part multiple times per week enables you to learn the movement patterns better and accelerate your skill level with certain exercises.
It’s the same as if you wanted to get better at playing guitar. You’d probably get better if you practiced regularly, rather than have a strum on a Monday night and then coming back to it a week later after you’d forgotten what the hell to do.
So training a squat 3 times a week might be a good option. But you just have to be mindful that you can smash yourself every workout, because you’re unlikely to be able to recover from it.
Additionally, training more muscle groups in one session creates the opportunity to train those muscle groups multiple times per week. And if you manage the volume and recovery correctly, then over time you can increase your effective training volume per week.
And more effective training volume per week, means more muscle.
Think about it this way. If you train chest on a Monday do you REALLY need a full 7 days to recover? Or are you good to go by Wednesday or Thursday? In truth you can recover quicker than you realise (as long as you’re eating well and sleeping enough). And women in particular can typically recover a little quicker too.
It's Not A License For Unlimited Training
But be careful!
Just because more training volume equals more muscle growth doesn’t mean I’ve given you a license to start writing up a programme that has a hundred sets per muscle group. No. There’s a balance to be had between what’s effective and what you can adequately recover from. Add into that the need to actually put a time limit on your workout and you realise the right amount of training volume is a blend of multiple factors.
Focus On Quality
And this leads me on to my next point. And this is the quality of the sets and reps you perform. How often do you get to the end of a workout and the muscle group you’ve been training is so battered, your form on the last few exercises starts to crumble, the reps are a bit shitty and you’re pretty sapped of energy?
A familiar scenario no doubt.
Spreading that volume over the week gives you the opportunity to make each on of those sets count. I’ll openly admit this is a bit anecdotal and based on my experience, but I believe it has merit.
In my own training, I find 2-3 exercises working specific muscle group on one day, followed by another 2-3 exercises working the same muscle group a few days later is more effective than trying to smash 5-6 in one session. The quality of those repetitions decreases with a longer session.
Hit Those Muscles From All Angles
On top of that, if you cast your mind back to when I was talking about muscle fibres and their different angles, then this approach works well too.
Let’s keep talking about the chest as an example. We know that the fibres of the chest run in different directions. And as a bare minimum most people are likely to need exercises to lower pec fibres and others to work the upper pec fibres.
So by splitting the volume over 2 workouts a week, you are also able to split the exercises across the sessions and target specific muscle fibres more intensely.
I’ll give you a real life case in point. I have two workouts a week where I train chest (sometimes 3 depending on what I’m doing). In the first workout, I’ll focus predominantly on lower pec fibres with flat bench press and cable flys. I’ll also add in an incline press. Skip forward a few days later and the workout focuses on upper pec fibres, with very little lower pec work.
This allows me to train the muscle group from multiple angles but also in a way so that my upper pec isn’t fatigued from the prior session and I can go full gas.
So for me it’s win win.
Again, I will say I’m not referencing any specific studies here, so what works for me might not be ideal for you.
Ok so we’re pretty much there on this one. Just one more thing to say on the topic. And that’s training multiple muscle groups per workout can lead to more varied and enjoyable training. And this is a crucial factor for sticking to your training programme long enough to see results.
Plus you’re likely to avoid international chest day and the stampede for the benches!
The bottom line on how to train the 5 major muscle groups
In summary, you can build muscle regardless of whether you follow a traditional bro split or you train multiple muscle groups per workout and per week. In my opinion, the bro split isn’t optimal for most.
But the overriding principle is to do what works for you and do what makes you happy.
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