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Which Muscle Groups Play Nicest Together?

A beginner’s guide on how best to double up on your strength training

If you don’t recognize Ted Rath by name, you may know him from his highly memeable 15 minutes of fame as the NFL’s prototypical “get-back coach.” His job: To physically pull, tug, yank, push, nudge and reposition L.A. Rams head coach Sean McVay throughout games to help him avoid an accumulation of sideline penalties from bumping into referees. 

But when Rath wasn’t engaged in his off-the-books duties of get-back coaching, he could usually be found at NFL practice facilities administering the sometimes equally thankless tasks of a strength-and-conditioning coach. It’s a role he filled for the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins and Rams before he ultimately ascended to Vice President of Player Performance with the Philadelphia Eagles.

All of which is to say, no one knows total body training better than Rath, so I decided to ring him up and ask him about the best practices for training muscle groups simultaneously.

Are there any muscle groups that aren’t only best trained together, but that are most beneficially trained in conjunction with one another?

Absolutely. Each individual has to know what they want their physical end result to be whenever they start training. Let’s say you have someone who just wants to increase muscle and decrease body fat at the same time. I’d break that person into upper-body and lower-body segments. Then I’d have them do a split routine of upper-body days and lower-body days. 

All of the days are going to have an identity. That first upper-body training day might focus heavily on the posterior side of my upper body — the back — through a lot of pulling moments. So we’ll be putting emphasis on the lats because those are the largest muscles in my upper body. During that day, I’m going to attack that musculature because that’s where I’m going to get the greatest bang for my buck. During the next upper-body training session, I might give a little bit more of an emphasis to the pushing muscles, so I’ll incorporate some more chest, interior and lateral deltoid work, some shoulder work and things like that. 

That being said, if you’re asking if you should train certain muscles at the same time, if you’re looking at a five- or six-day training block and you’re looking at the chest day, I’d probably pair my chest exercises with shoulder-based exercises. I’d pair my back exercises with more bicep-based exercises and some of those other assisting exercises that are helping with pulling exercises.

As people are breaking those upper-body days up, is there anything special they should be keeping in mind?

As a general rule, I’m always going to do more pulling exercises than pushing exercises. If I strengthen the back side of my body, it’s going to protect the front side. A lot of injuries can be prevented — or at least mitigated — simply by training the backside of the body more, because that’s where the largest musculature of your body is. 

How do you break up the lower body?

I use essentially the same philosophy. If I look at the lower body, my greatest bang for my buck is going to involve anything that incorporates the hip musculature — specifically the glutes, which are the biggest grouping of muscles in the entire body. The glutes are a prime mover. We’re built to press ourselves forward through the glutes through hips extension. For something like this, the squat is still the king of exercises simply because of the unmatched amount of the body’s overall musculature that’s incorporated into the movement.

If you’re doing a lot of quad dominant work, you can do some single leg squatting, you can do a lot of vertical shin-angle-based exercises where you’re doing a squat to box with a single leg and things like that. So on one day we’re going to emphasize more quad stimulation than you would the hips, and then vice versa on the other day. On that other day, you’re going to work your hamstrings, your glutes specifically and some of those hip-extension exercises with reverse hyperextensions, Romanian deadlifts and things like that. I always like to keep the main thing the main thing. So set an identity for your day based on a large muscle group, and depending on whatever that identity is and whatever your goals are, attack those areas.

You hear it often said that back and biceps and chest and triceps naturally pair together well. As a beginner, is this sound advice to follow?

From a rudimentary standpoint, yes. I classify that as lifting to look good or a bodybuilding type of stimulus. That absolutely falls in line with what I said as far as making sure the main muscle group in your workout remains the main thing you’re focused on. While you’re pressing, you’re still using the assisting muscles of your triceps, your shoulders, your anterior deltoids and all these other little assistors. The fact is, you’ve already fatigued those muscles while targeting the main muscle group, so now you can hit them in your auxiliary block after you’ve done all of the main lifts. 

But if you’re asking what a weekend warrior should do — like an active or avid athlete who runs triathlons or does jiu-jitsu — you should probably train more in line with an athletic population, including total body movements, ballistic movements and plyometric exercises, where you’re training the big muscle groups, but only two or three times a week as opposed to four or five days a week when you take a bodybuilder-type approach.

Are there any muscle groups that you would advise people not to train together? For instance would there be anything necessarily wrong with training chest and hamstrings on the same day?

It’s not going to be harmful. Even if you don’t have the most well-thought-out plan, but you decide to train your chest, then you do some shoulder exercises and then you decide to knock out some hamstring exercises, you’re still going to get a good muscle stimulus, and you’re still going to make gains. Is it the best approach? Probably not. But is it going to be harmful? No.

Something that will potentially put you at risk, and what wouldn’t be a really sound method, would be if you went in on chest day and decided to bang out all of your single-joint tricep work and all of your shoulder raises first. Now you’ve completely fatigued your triceps and your anterior deltoids, along with your internal and external rotators in your shoulders. If you now decide that you’re going to bust out 10 sets on the bench press, you’ve fatigued all of the main muscles that do the supporting, and you’re not going to maximize the benefits of the bench press. You’ve also put yourself at an increased risk for an injury. 

So, if you mismanage the timing and sequencing of your muscle training, you’re not going to get as much growth for the bigger muscles, which are typically the main areas you’re targeting on those training days in the first place.