Which Muscle Group Should You Work Out First, Larger or Smaller?

Working out at the Gym
Men and women are training together. (Image: IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Getty Images)

Your personal training goals and fitness level should determine the muscle group you work first, large or small. If you are new to resistance training, the order in which you perform your exercises can make a difference in the development of smaller muscles. According to "Influence of Exercise Order on Maximum Strength and Muscle Thickness in Untrained Men," untrained subjects can achieve both small muscle and large muscle gains from working small muscles first, but achieve only large muscle gains from working large muscles first.

Large and Small Muscle Groups

Your largest muscle groups include your legs, back and chest. Your gluteus maximus muscles are the largest in your body. Quadriceps muscles on the front of the thighs and hamstring muscles on the backs of the thighs are also large, powerful muscles. Large muscles in your back are the traps, or trapezius, and lats, or lattissimus dorsi. Your largest chest muscle is your pectoralis major, or pecs. Small muscles that may require special attention, depending upon your bodybuilding and fitness goals, are your forearm muscles, calves of your legs, shoulder deltoid muscles and pectoralis minor in your chest.

Muscle Group Order Based Upon Goals

Muscle fatigue during the later exercise sets of a workout routine results in decreased performance of the muscles worked. With this in mind, tailor the sequence of your routine to fit your overall bodybuilding or functional goals. If you need forearm development, for instance, then exercise this muscle early in your workout sequence, before your arm muscles tire.

Rationale for Large Muscle Groups First

If you exercise your small muscles first, you limit your ability to overload your large muscles, due to fatigue of the smaller, supportive muscles. For example, if your goal is building mass in your chest muscles, working your smaller shoulder muscles first prevents you from lifting enough weight to fatigue your large muscles, according to "Muscular Strength and Endurance" by McGraw Hill Higher Education. Because working a muscle to fatigue is important in building mass, working your smaller shoulder muscles first can hinder your progress in building your chest muscles. When building mass is your goal, you can exercise your small muscles after your large-muscle workout.

Exercise Wisely by Following Protocol

Regardless of how you order your workout routine, begin with five to 10 minutes of warm-up exercises, such as walking, cycling, calisthenics or low-weight repetitions of the exercise you plan to perform. At the end of your routine, cool down with five to 10 minutes of stretching. Stretching while your muscles are warmed up from exercise can increase your flexibility and prevent muscle soreness. If you are new to regimented exercise routines, consult with your medical provider before you begin an exercise program.

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