Monday, August 6, 2007

What's Your Split? Pt. 3

3. Sequence

So you've chosen the number of days in your split (part 1) and you've decided which muscle groups you want to work on the same day (part 2) . You're doing pretty good. The last big issue to consider is the sequence in which to put those days, and where to put your recovery days.

Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups, and compound exercises are the key to muscle growth. The problem this creates is that more muscles need to be relatively fresh than just the one you're focusing on on any particular day.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't work assisting muscles on the same day as primary muscles. You can work triceps on the same day as chest. You have to work triceps after chest, and they'll be a bit tired, but it's one way to hit them hard. What you can't do is work triceps the day before you do chest. It's bad to use a support muscle group that's been worked the day before and is stiff, sore, and prone to injury. Let's split this up by muscle group to see which secondary muscles you'll need in good shape.

Chest: A good chest day will require well-rested shoulders and triceps. The anterior deltoid head assists in most chest movements and is important for stability, and your triceps will straighten your arms while your chest moves them together.

Shoulders: Sore traps can limit a shoulder day, so don't do them the day before. Triceps are the main assisting arm muscles for the deltoids. The biggest exception to this are upright rows, for which your biceps will be your secondary movers. You can have a good shoulder day with somewhat sore triceps because, unlike your chest, the weight your shoulders can move isn't that challenging to your triceps. The same isn't true of biceps and rows. Sore biceps will set the limit for how much weight you can row, and biceps are easily hurt.

Traps: The shrug is the purest trap exercise, and it requires nothing but traps and grip strength. The lower traps are well worked by scapular retraction, which can be done either paired with rows, which will require fresh upper-back muscles, or can be done by themselves, much like shrugs. A tough shoulder workout shouldn't impede your ability to work your traps the next day.

Upper back: Biceps are weaker than triceps, and are the assisting arm muscle for the back, a very powerful muscle group. If you want to see back progress and limit injury, you'll go into back day with fresh biceps, and you'll warm up well. If your lower traps are sore, you won't be able to get the scapular retraction you should at the end of a row. For unsupported barbell and cable rows, you'll need lower back strength. If you exercise lower back the same day as upper back, do it second. Surprisingly, you'll find that your pectorals will hurt on several upper back exercises if you've done chest the day before. It shouldn't hinder your back workout, however.

Lower back: In weighted exercises, the lower back acts isometrically. It is never the main mover in weigh resistance exercise, even those which specifically strength it. The lower back fights to keep your upper body straight against pulling/rowing exercises. It supports the upper body in many exercises where the hamstrings and glutes are the main movers.

Abdominals: Ab targeting exercises require a mix of light support from many areas of the body, depending on the exercise. Because the abs are large and strong, you'll want to at least occasionally give them a day in which they can be worked first. Always tagging them on at the end won't challenge them.

Biceps: When not used in conjunction with the back, the small bicep muscle group is mostly isolated. You will need fresh forearms to support the wrists.

Triceps: Like the biceps, but for pushing movements rather than pulling, the triceps mostly require fresh forearms when not used in compound exercises. You may experience some discomfort doing heavy pushdowns if your abs are sore.

Forearms: Some forearm exercises involve biceps and delts. However, it's more important to consider what muscle groups will soon follow your forearm workout. Sore, tired wrists can be easily injured, and you also increase the risk of dropping a weight on yourself. I wouldn't go into a heavy chest day with sore forearms.

Legs: I thought about breaking up the leg muscles by the major muscle groups, but each group would have been on the list of supporting groups for every other. Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves work best together in the big compound lifts like squat and dead lift. Each can be worked in isolation (except glutes and hams, which, due to the fact that hamstrings connect across two joints, can't be separated), but those lifts are best for burnout. Due to the high weight involved, and multiple plane movements, the legs are supported by the core as a whole. The lower back is especially important, but the girdle of muscles that underlie the visible outer abdominals are all very active during squats and dead lifts. Other than core, you'll find that although sore traps won't limit your leg workout if you can push through the pain, they'll be very sore with a squat bar crushing them, or a few hundred pounds hanging from your arms.

It's impossible to have every assisting muscle group completely healed when you go in for your workout. The body is a complex machine, and there are muscles that you never would have thought of involved in every movement. Group strategically and place recovery days well, though, and you'll be able to push yourself every time you lift.


Tying it together - you are the expert of your own split

Every weightlifter will tell you that he or she knows the secret of the best routine. Some will say that the antagonistic muscle groups should be paired, and not just biceps and triceps, or quadriceps and hamstrings, but chest and back. That may be true for them, but I don't have the ability to work both large groups to exhaustion in the same day. I just don't have that much energy, and I know that. Weight lifting is a lifelong pursuit, and you'll learn something new about your body every day. Don't get frustrated, celebrate every small advance, and you'll soon know how to make your perfect split.

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