Your bigger muscle groups consist of your glutes, quadriceps, back, chest and hamstrings, and your smaller muscle groups are typically your shoulders, triceps, biceps and calves. Recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine state that you should train your larger muscles before your smaller muscles; however, this does not always apply. The structure of your training will impact which of these muscles are worked the hardest and dictate how various muscle combinations must work together when performing certain lifts.
Work Bigger First
Choosing to work your bigger muscles first has a wide variety of implications on your workout. Overall, you will be able to achieve higher intensities throughout your workout because the largest muscle groups will have a chance to activate without your body already being fatigued from smaller muscle work. This higher intensity means a greater hormonal response to exercise, according to research conducted by Arthur Weltman appearing in the “Journal of Applied Physiology.” Since your smaller muscles won’t be fatigued, you will also better be able to stabilize and control heavier weights. This will reduce the likelihood of injury because your ability to coordinate movement will be better.
Work Smaller First
Choosing to exercise your smaller muscles first can add some variety to your weight training routine and help you bust through exercise plateaus. Smaller muscles are not able to train at high intensities after they are used to help stabilize for bigger muscles during exercise. This limits strength development of these small muscles. Choosing to exercise the smaller muscles first will allow for greater strength development of these muscles.
Considerations for Choosing Your Workout
The increased hormonal response and injury prevention benefits of training bigger muscle groups should cause you to gear your training toward the ACSM recommendations; however, there are times when a smaller first approach should be taken. The American Council on Exercise notes that strength plateaus occurring in training when your body becomes accustomed to the training you perform. Plateaus also can occur when secondary muscles are no longer strong enough to support the training load or when primary muscles don’t have a great enough ability to stabilize to produce movement. These are both areas where training smaller muscles first is most beneficial. Including this type of training will help round out your training program and limit areas of weakness within both big and small muscles.
Splits to Switch It Up
Exercise splits are a way of dividing up and scheduling training to elicit a greater training benefit. When considering big versus small muscle group training, there are several ways to approach the issue for maximal benefit. If maximal strength is your overall goal, separating training of your larger and smaller muscle groups on different days will ensure that each muscle is trained at its maximal potential. If this isn’t possible and your training time is limited, you could schedule three weeks with a big-first approach with one week of a small-first approach to your training. This allows you to get the benefits of large muscle first training while still reaping the benefits of including variance to your routine and some smaller muscle training benefits.
- "ACSM's Resources for the Personal Trainer"; American College of Sports Medicine; 2007
- "NSCA's Essentials of Personal Training"; Roger Earle and Thomas Baechle; 2003
- "NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training"; April 2007
- "Journal of Applied Physiology"; Growth Hormone Response to Graded Exercise Intensities is Attenuated and the Gender Difference Abolished in Older Adults; Arthur Weltman; Dec 2005
- American Council on Exercise: Steering Clear of Strength Plateaus
- American Council on Exercise; What is the Difference Between Total Body Strength Training Routines and Split Routines?; Pete McCall