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Knowing WHEN to train individual body parts

Updated on December 23, 2010

So, here's what you need to know

Each body part has it's own secondary body part. Training in the correct order, and on the correct days will insure the best gains in strength, mass, development, and mitigate injuries. The short list is as follows:

Triceps are secondary (even primary) to all upper body pressing movements. The triceps must shorten to articulate at the elbow joint. That means one would never (except as a pre exhaust, which is pointless here) train triceps before any bench press (incline, decline and supine), nor before any type of shoulder press. The reasoning is simple. When performing any of those lifts, the triceps are receiving primary stimuli. Most people's triceps fatigue before the pecs or deltoids. Bench pressers that get hung as soon as the upper arm becomes parallel with the floor lack sufficient triceps strength (or their grip is too narrow).

Biceps are secondary to all rowing movements- even the upright row. Therefore, biceps should never be trained at the beginning of a back workout.

Quadriceps, hamstrings and adductors are all heavily involved in all squatting movements, deadlifts. leg press and hack squat (very little hamstring in the hack squat).

Abdominals and spinal erectors are all needed for Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts, and even heavy military press (the ONLY thing that's a military press is the STANDING barbell shoulder press). Seated presses are not military presses!

Based on these tenets, constructing a basic workout should be simple. Although some pre exhaust principles would suggest some body parts are isolated first ie: Leg extensions before leg presses. The order of basic moves has some reasoning behind it, too. That will be secondary in this article.

This is my schedule, along with my clients schedule. I do this for maximal recovery:

Monday- back

Tuesday- chest

Wednesday- off

Thursday- legs (quads and hams)

Friday- deltoids, biceps (for my clients- I don't train bis), triceps, and calves. Forearms can fall here, too.

I train abdominals throughout the week. Some people like to incorporate them in between sets of other exercises. Training abs is important, but there must be a balance between ab training and lower back/hip training.

A schedule such as this one allows for the best recovery. It takes seven days for a muscle group to recovery during heavy lifting times.

The following capsules will discuss training exercises in optimal order.

Constructing the workout

In most cases, all compound movements (those involving the articulation of two or more joints) should come first. I say "should" because there are occasions when you may want to pre exhaust part of a group, but that's another broad subject, and will be discussed later.

These "basic compound movements" (by basic I'm referring to barbells) are any chest press (four joints, and the wrist doesn't count- the acromioclavicular joint is the fourth), which also counts for many shoulder presses- the deadlift (two joints- hip and knee) the squat (two joints just like the deadlift), bent over barbell row (two- shoulder and elbow- the AC joint bears no weight here).

The reasoning behind this, in simple terms, is quite simple. These techniques involve the most muscles. They tax secondary muscles as stabilizers, too. That means the most metabolic activity occurs during these exercises, speaking in terms of energy depletion. That said, that's why I say "simple terms". Some people will opt to train more isolated movements first, simply because they may lack the same intensity while performing them after the heavy loads. There are some risks involved in doing this, so this is an advanced technique. Beginners never need isolation movements anyway (unless there's a medical reason). Too many beginners get wrapped up in isolation moves, when they clearly don't have the need yet, nor the proper strength and form.

As a powerlifter, my deadlifts start my back workouts (excluding rack work- which sometimes comes later). My bench press starts my chest workouts, and my squats start my leg workouts. During the "off season", which is just the time I designate to not improve those lifts exponentially, I may vary that order slightly. I use these periods to work out the bugs in my lifts, so very advanced techniques are applied. Unlike many powerlifters, I do a fair amount of physique training in my off periods. Powerlifting isn't MY JOB, so I can stray from that path when I desire.  During peak training, though, all "finishing moves" are omitted.

Also, as a powerlifter, I do any assistance work ie: triceps, calves, biceps (which I don't train- except for the occasional reverse curls and pronation/supination), and abdominals (which are always done standing- yes, there are a great many ab exercises that can be performed while on your feet- and I refer to these as "functional strength" training- my left side from the hip down was paralyzed five years ago, therefore I need this standing training) within another body part's workout. Triceps with chest (as I omit all delt training while peak training), bis would be with back, abs fall all over the place, but oftentimes with every workout (sometimes up to 3,000-3,500 reps per week), and calves may fall anywhere, too- but never the day before leg day.

So, back day would be the deadlift, bent over barbell rows, seated or standing cable rows, then pull downs or any other similar movements where less weight would be used. Biceps, were I to train them, would come at the very end. Many bodybuilders will have a separate arm day.

Chest day would be barbell (supine) bench press, barbell incline press (most bodybuilders would do inclines first, as the upper chest in more difficult to build), then any flyes (which I only do incline flyes) then triceps.

Leg day would be barbell squats, leg press, hack squat (only off season), unilateral leg extensions, unilateral leg press, then any assistance work. I do not train hamstrings in any isolation movements. My hamstrings get plenty of work from my squats, deadlifts, leg presses etc..

Shoulders are always military press first, wide grip upright rows (narrow grip only really hit the trapezius, and deadlifting takes care of them just fine!), then any isoltaion I care to include. Again, shoulders are omitted in my peak training, and are replaced by speed training for the bench press. None of these are to be considered stone cold rules for anyone else, though the same principles apply most of the time. Especially for a beginner!


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