If you spend any time at the gym, there's a good chance you've heard fellow gym-goers talking about whether it's better to train "back and bis" or "back and tris." The truth is that, even though the "biceps or triceps" argument has merit on both sides and being flexible in your training choices is OK, having a back and bicep day does seem to win out in the end. It's just important to remember to train responsibly by taking your fitness level into consideration and allowing time for muscle rest.
Going the back-with-biceps route is a smart and efficient way to work your upper body. Since both muscle groups perform a pulling motion and the biceps are involved in most compound back exercises, training them together allows you to maximize your time in the gym.
Back and Bicep Day
If you're not sure when to include your bicep workouts, you're not alone. From split routines to isolation days, there are a variety of ways to train your arms. One popular method of training biceps is to have a back and bicep day. This classic split routine works great and gives you an excellent workout.
That's because having a back and bicep day allows you to eliminate training the biceps on their own. Certified personal trainer Alex Carneiro explains that having a back and bicep day is a great idea if you're running out of time and need to focus primarily on the bigger muscle — in this case, the back.
Training the Pull Muscles Together
Carneiro says that, since the back and biceps are both "pull" muscles, the advantage of working them together is that you can indirectly get more workload on the bicep without having to target it directly. However, the extra workload will cause you to have less strength to target the bicep muscles later since they've been prefatigued by the pulling from back movements.
Because of this, isolating the biceps on their own training day may not be as effective if your goal is to increase strength and muscle size, especially in your back. That's because, when you do a back exercise, the biceps often assist in the movement.
For example, when you perform pullups, pulldowns or rows, your biceps are secondary movers. This means that, if you train the biceps separately, you may risk overtraining them and not allowing enough rest before the next back workout.
Back and Tricep Day
Another muscle group to consider pairing your back workout with is the triceps. "Back and triceps workouts are a great way to ensure that you get indirect workload on the biceps, but get the direct work on the triceps while still working on the bigger of the three muscles — the back," explains Carneiro.
He says that it's a great option for people who, without enough time to get in more workouts through the week, need to optimize their schedule.
Chest and Tricep Workout
If pairing back and biceps is an effective combination, then it makes sense that stacking chest and triceps is also a smart way to train multiple, complementary muscle groups. "The advantage of working chest and triceps together is that there is an inherent synergy between the two muscle groups," says certified fitness instructor Anthony McClain. In other words, having a chest and tricep workout means you will be working muscles that both require a pushing movement.
Still, it's highly recommended that you do your chest movements prior to tricep exercises since the chest muscles depend heavily on the triceps for pushing. "With a weaker triceps, the chest muscles will not have as much strength to push later on," explains Carneiro. "We always want to put more focus on the larger muscles, and tiring oneself by training triceps first will affect energy levels to train the chest," he adds.
In reference to both pairings of workouts — back and biceps, chest and triceps — McClain says it's important not to exhaust or burn out the arms when trying to max out the back or the chest. "Sometimes we can overwork our arms, and it will have a harmful effect on your one-rep max and overall strength."
Training Biceps and Triceps
Deciding whether to give your arms their own training day or add them to a split routine all comes down to training goals. The good news is that you can (and should) change your routine approximately every six weeks, according to the American Council on Exercise.
This means that, if your current training goal includes overall strength, you can focus on a body-part split that includes a chest and tricep day and a back and bicep day. Then, as you progress through this training plan — or your goals change — you can switch to a body-part split that includes a day just for training arms.
Training Arms for Size
If your goal is hypertrophy or growing your arm muscles, take a tip from Carneiro, who says your strength training routine should definitely include one or more designated tricep and bicep days.
"Focusing on the triceps should be the priority, as the muscle is two-thirds of the arm," he explains. That's why Carneiro says that, if you're looking to optimize arm growth, you'll want to make sure you're performing exercises for your biceps and triceps two days a week. "By training your biceps and triceps two days a week, you're able to put more stimuli on those muscle groups throughout the week," he adds.
Carneiro says that one way to accomplish this is by having a chest and biceps day, which prevents the biceps from getting too tired from the pushing motions, followed by a back and tricep day to ensure the triceps don't get tired by the pulling motions. Later in the week, designate a day just for training arms. This will guarantee stimuli on those muscles more often.
Bicep and Tricep Exercises
While there are endless ways to train your arms, some of the more common bicep and tricep exercises include:
- Dumbbell hammer curls
- Dumbbell bicep curls
- Dumbbell forearm curls
- Dumbbell preacher curls
- Barbell bicep curls
- French arm curls/French press
- Cable tricep extensions
- Weighted dips
- Skull crushers
Additionally, McClain recommends incorporating rotator cuff and other shoulder-stability exercises on this day.
Training With Split Routines
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the effectiveness of any workout often depends on the muscle groups you work together. This is especially true if your goal is hypertrophy or increasing muscle size. Training for size requires a higher training frequency, which means you need to work all muscle groups regularly and at a higher intensity.
While a full body routine does allow you to train all major muscles two to three times a week, it doesn't allow you to do multiple exercises per body part and still get the appropriate rest between sessions. That's the reason why so many people looking to increase both size and strength opt for a split routine.
Examples of Split Routines
There are several ways you can combine muscle groups for a split routine. How you choose to train depends on a variety of factors, including your overall fitness goals and how much time you want to spend at the gym. Since split routines give your muscles enough time for proper rest and recovery between challenging training sessions, you'll be ready to attack each workout with greater intensity and more energy.
One way to split up your routine is to do a push-pull split routine. For this type of workout, you will train the chest, shoulders, triceps, quads and calves (your push muscles) one day. Then, the pull day will focus on back, biceps, glutes, hamstrings and rear deltoids.
Push-Pull Split With Legs
You can also break your week into a two-day split with a leg day. For example, on day one you'll do pushing exercises for the chest, shoulders and triceps, while on day two you'll focus on pulling exercises for the back and biceps. Day three will be dedicated to working your legs.
The four-day split routine works when hypertrophy is the main goal and your training includes high-intensity with high loads. You'll train your back and biceps on day one and your chest and triceps on day two.
On day three, you'll rest. On day four, you'll work your legs, then finish with shoulders on day five. This workout allows you to hit the muscles with several exercises, sets and repetitions.
With this advanced-level five-day split routine, you'll give each body part its own day of training (i.e., chest, back, shoulders, legs, arms). The focus will be on high volume and intensity with each muscle group. Typically, you'll perform four to five exercises per body part (biceps and triceps together) with three to four sets of each exercise, and six to 15 reps.
You'll notice that these splits don't include specific exercises for your abdominals. To keep your core strong, plan to add abdominal exercises with each of these splits. You can perform these moves between sets or at the end of a workout.
The Final Verdict
How you choose to train your upper body depends on a variety of factors, including your fitness level, goals, access to equipment and time you can devote to the gym. While pairing certain muscle groups together, such as biceps and back or chest and triceps, can give you an extra boost in the strength department, there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to strength training.
So, if you want to swap out your back and biceps day for a back and triceps workout a few times each month, go for it. Just make sure you're giving your body enough rest between training sessions and adhering to the basic principles of physical training.
- Alex Carneiro: Personal Trainer
- Anthony McClain: Personal Trainer
- American Council on Exercise: The Do's and Don'ts of Building Muscle
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: Back to the Basics: Hypertrophy
- American Council on Exercise: When Is It Time to Change Your Workout?
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: Determination of Resistance Training Frequency