Many gym users who train strength (especially with the goal of gaining muscle mass ) divide their strength training routines by muscles.

The problem is not only there (which also), but also in that they still believe and classify certain muscles as “big” muscles and others as “small”, when many times the volume of those labeled as “small” is greater than the of those cataloged as “large”.

Misapplication of the definition of “muscle volume”

The strength training is a type of exercise recommended to improve a wide range of parameters related to health , including neuromuscular capacity, cognitive abilities , the insulin sensitivity , the bone density and cardiovascular health , and also practiced to improve aesthetics and sports performance.

The benefits associated with strength training depend on the proper manipulation of the variables that make up the strength training program, which include magnitude of the load , number of sets and repetitions , frequency , rest intervals , selection of exercises , time under tension, muscular action, movement speed and order of the exercises .

Regarding the order of the exercises, there is evidence that this variable can acutely affect the volume and intensity of a strength training session.

However, the chronic effect of the order of exercises on muscle adaptations remains a matter of debate, especially due to the lack of longitudinal research on the subject.

Many studies focused on the order of the exercises have erroneously applied the definition of muscle volume (defined as the total amount of muscle tissue, expressed in cubic units), with respect to classify the muscles as “large” or “small”.

Given the frequent erroneous application of the terms, a recent study published this year 2017 has shed light on the matter.

The visual perception of muscle size seems to be the main problem

These misclassifications (“large muscles” or “small muscles”) persist for both the upper muscles and the lower body muscles.

According to the authors of this study, the problem seems to exist depending on the visual perception of muscle size compared to the actual volume of a given muscle.

For example, several studies have classified the exercises for the triceps brachii as exercises for a small muscle, but in fact, this muscle has one of the largest volumes of all the muscles of the upper body , being even larger than the dorsal wide and the pectoralis major, which are generally considered large muscles.

It is noteworthy that muscle volume values ​​consider their three-dimensional quantity , not simply their length and width (surface area), and therefore these terms should not be confused with each other.

Several studies have tried to quantify the volume of various human muscles.

In a study published in 2007 , the authors created three-dimensional images from magnetic resonance imaging data to establish the volume of muscles of the upper extremities that cross the glenohumeral joint (in the shoulder), the elbow, the forearm and the wrist in 10 healthy young subjects.

The results indicated that the deltoid (combined anterior, middle and posterior heads) has the highest muscle volume (380.5 ± 157.7 cm3), followed by the triceps brachii (long, middle and lateral heads combined) (372.1 ± 177 , 3 cm3), the pectoralis major (combined clavicular and sternocostal portions) (290.0 ± 169.0 cm3) and the latissimus dorsi (262.2 ± 147.2 cm3).

Surprised, right?

Similarly, two more studies published in the years 2012 and 2004 analyzed the muscle volumes of elderly subjects and cadavers, respectively.

Both studies reported that the deltoid was the largest muscle of the upper extremity followed by the brachial triceps and, contrary to popular belief, each of these muscles was larger than the pectoralis major and the latissimus dorsi, regardless of sex.

Therefore, all these results indicate that it is wrong to classify the triceps brachii or the deltoid as a small muscle complex.

Misconceptions also for muscle groups of the lower body

On the other hand, misconceptions about nomenclature also occur in muscle groups of the lower body , in which some studies classify knee extension as an exercise for a small muscle.

However, the quadriceps , the agonist in this exercise, is the largest muscle in the lower limb, as reported by different studies published in 2014 and 2016 .

Therefore, researchers have proposed that claims that relate for example to knee extension and specific exercises for the triceps brachii (such as a tricep thrust on the pulley) and the deltoid (such as lateral elevations) such as “Small muscle” jobs are a poor application of terminology.

On the contrary, since these exercises are movements of a single articulation (monoarticular) , it would be more appropriate to say that the total amount of muscle mass worked is less than during multi-joint exercises .

For example, the leg press works many muscles in addition to the quadriceps ( glutes , hamstrings , ….).

Another example could be the back squat , which works an even greater amount of muscle mass due to the contribution of the stabilizing muscles (including the abdominals, spinal erectors of the spine, trapezius, rhomboids and many others).

Therefore, these multiarticular exercises necessarily involve the activation of more muscle tissue compared to a monoarticular exercise, such as a knee extension.

Multiarticular or monoarticular exercises or even compound or isolation exercises, better options

The table presented below presents the values ​​of muscle volume for a variety of muscles of the upper and lower body, analyzed by different studies over time.

Dorsal width 262.2 ± 147.2
Pectoralis major 290, 0 ± 169.0
Deltoid 380.5 ± 157.7
Triceps brachii 372.1 ± 177.3
Brachial biceps 143.7 ± 68.7
Brachial 143.7 ± 63.7
Braquiorradial 65.1 ± 36.0
Femoral quradriceps 1417.4 ± 440.8
Femoral biceps 269.8 ± 87.1
Gluteus major 764.1 ± 138.0
Iliopsoas 353.0 ± 102.2
Sartorius 126.7 ± 22.4

Given this information, researchers have proposed that instead of categorizing the exercises as belonging to large or small muscle groups, instead they should be classified simply as multiarticular or monoarticular exercises .

A viable alternative classification would be compound exercises ( squat , deadlift , bench press , pulls, paddles , etc.) or isolation exercises (knee extension, femoral curl, lateral shoulder elevations , biceps curl , pectoral contraction machine, thrusts of triceps, etc.).

Both definitions would more accurately reflect the total amount of muscle mass involved in an exercise without reference to the volume of individual muscles worked.

In turn, this avoids potentially misleading statements on the subject.

Change your vision and properly structure your training routine

Many gym users who train strength, especially with the goal of gaining muscle mass , continue to use Weider routines as their “ideal” training method.

These routines, coming from bodybuilding, tend to follow splitting schemes by muscles , that is, the typical day of pectoral + biceps, back + triceps, shoulder + legs, or similar (we are tired of seeing it).

Many of them (if not all) still believe that the pectoral and the latissimus dorsi are large muscles and the triceps or shoulder are small muscles, so they train, as I have said, a muscle that they believe is large (pectoral or dorsal) wide) with one that according to them is small (triceps).

We have already seen how this is not the case, proving that the triceps or the deltoid (all its parts) are larger muscle complexes than a pectoralis major or a latissimus dorsi.

Yes, that triceps and deltoids, which supposedly are two muscles “small” for many, are those that record the highest muscle volumes of the torso !

Change your concept and structure your routine better, dividing your training by movements (push / pull, ….) and not by muscles. These movements are:

  • Thrusts : vertical (military press, dumbbell shoulder press, …) and horizontal (bench press with bar or dumbbell, push-ups, …).
  • Tugs (tractions) : vertical (dominated and milestones) and horizontal (different types of oars).
  • Knee-dominant : as squats and variants.
  • Dominant hip : like a dead weight or a hip thrust.

Train these movements in fullbody routines (thrusts, pulls, dominant knees and dominant hip) or torso-leg routines (torso days: thrusts and pulls, leg days: dominant knee and dominant hip), as no doubt They are more effective routines.

In turn, he trains the core (anti-extension exercises, anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion), and stops doing the typical abdominals (crunchs, sit ups, …). I do not extend this section of the core as I will soon write an article on the subject (attentive!).

If you do not divide your workouts by movements (actions), you have already seen that you can also divide them by number of joints involved (multiarticular or monoarticular), or as compound exercises or isolation (may be another alternative), instead of paying attention to the size of the muscles (which we have already seen as many times over is wrong).

I’m not saying that Weider routines can not be useful at some time (although I would leave them for bodybuilders and little else), but it can practically be said with certainty that they are not the most effective type of training .

Choose according to your objectives, needs and characteristics, if possible with the help of a qualified training professional .