Muscle Groupings in Split Program Design

Question & Answer

Traps with Back or Shoulders?

Barbell Shrug

I noticed that the middle and lower trapezius muscles are worked in back exercises, such as one arm dumbbell rows, but that the upper traps are worked during deltoid exercises such as the military press. My question is when to do shrugs, with shoulders or with back. Is it okay to work the middle and lower traps with rowing exercises during my back workout, and then do shrugs to hit the upper traps during my shoulder workout, or should I keep lower, middle, and upper traps all together on one day?

Although I suggest working Upper Traps on Back Day (See Chest & Back / Legs / Shoulders & Arms Template), working upper traps on shoulder day is also acceptable particularly since the upper trap is worked isometrically as a stabilizer on most front and side delt exercises. Keep in mind, however, during programs where you perform deadlifts or Olympic-style Weightlifts (eg: Power Cleans or Power Snatches) you will likely find you do not need to incorporate isolated upper trap work since the traps are already heavily stimulated during those movements.

With a split program, it is common to have movements that exercise muscles that have already been worked on another day. For example, many back and lat exercises also involve the chest (potentially effecting a push/pull program). In addition many chest and back exercises involve the shoulders and arms (possibly effecting a torso/shoulders and arm program).

The idea is to maximize recovery for muscles of greatest priority while minimizing overtraining for those muscle groups and joints that are prone to injury, like the lower back and supraspinatus. For example, performing squats one day and barbell bent-over rows the next day may increase risk of low back injury over time by overuse, see Lower Back Recuperation.

Training Ambiguous Muscles on Push or Pull Day?

First, I love your site because of the scope of the information and the fact that it is based on science. Now, my issue is with the push vs pull split workouts. I think the hip abductor (a pushing motion) and the hip adductors (a pulling motion) are listed under the incorrect workouts. Shouldn't the hip abductors be listed under the "push" workout and the hip adductors listed under the "pull" workout?

Thank you for your kind words on the ExRx site. You are correct that Hip Adductors and Hip Abductors are switched according to their stated function on the Push and Pull Workout Templates. I understand why this is confusing, but they have been inversely assigned to those particular days according to how these muscles are used on the majority of the main exercises.

Muscle groups are classified push or pull according to their function during direct work. The discrepancy occurs when the muscles are being exercised indirectly through other basic exercises. With the Hip Adductors, weight is pulled toward the midline of the body when they are exercised directly, as in hip adduction work, so then their function is generally classified as 'Pull'. However, during heavy compound lower body movements such as squats or leg presses, the Adductor Magnus, the strongest of the three heads, assists in the lower portion of these movements. A wide stance during those exercises also engages other heads of the hip adductors, the Adductor Longest and Adductor Brevis. To complicate matters, those other two heads assist in the opposite movement, the initial phase of hip flexion.

The case with the hip abductors being placed with the opposite pulling muscles is not as strong. One argument is that, it is the opposite movement of adduction and therefore a pulling muscle by default. However, the more convincing rationale is that, 2 of the 4 hip abductors (Tensor Fasciae Latae and Sartorius) are also involved in hip flexor exercises like leg raises and sit-ups which are considered pulling exercises (opposite of hip extension). On the other hand, the other two hip abductors, the Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus, are involved isometrically to stabilize the hips during single leg push exercises such as step-ups, split squats, and lunges.

I suppose, one could assert that Hip Adductors and Abductors are actually push and pull muscles respectively (opposite of how they are classified now). Such an argument would be based on the general rule in which other ambiguous muscle groups are commonly classified; its function as push or pull muscle is determined not by its isolated movement but by its compound counterpart. This is why front delts are considered pushing muscles (as in shoulder press) and side delts are considered pulling muscles (as in upright rows). Actually, attempting to look at the isolated movement is typically not as insightful and can be quite confusing for some muscle groups.

However, performing hip adductors and abductors on push or pull days might be a relatively inconsequential decision, as compared to what days other major muscle groups are exercised, unless the training focus is on the Hip Adductors and Abductors, or an existing vulnerability (ie: past injury) affecting these muscle groups or joint functions exists. Notice in the Guidelines section at the bottom of the Push/Pull programs where we mention that hip adductors and abductors can be exercised exclusively with either the push or pull workout. Placing these more inconsequential or ambiguous muscle groups in one or the other workout provides an opportunity to balance out workouts that ends up having more or less optional exercises included.

Other examples of ambiguous muscles classifications include the Pectoralis Major, generally thought of as a pushing muscle group (eg: Bench Press, Chest Dips), which also assist during pulling exercises, such as in chin-ups and even pull-ups. This is why recovery can be compromised when performing an upper body push workout following an upper pull workout the previous day, and visa versa. Therefore, it is advisable to plan split workouts so prioritized muscle groups are not exercises the day following a workout in which they have already been involved.

Also consider the supraspinatus which stabilizes the shoulder and assists in both the Shoulder Press (a pushing exercise) and the Upright Row (a pulling exercise). It is reasonable and often advisable to train side delt, technically a pulling muscle, on push day, typically just after front delt work to avoid overusing the supraspinatus, a venerable and commonly injured muscle. However, with the decision to perform upright rows on push day, then we risk compromising the recovery of arm flexors and gripping muscles, with their accompanying joint structures, particularly if other upper body pulling exercises (eg Row, Pulldowns, Arm Curls) are scheduled the day before or the day afterwards. Also see other Sample Split Program Design Flaws.

The goal should be to choose exercises according to your training goals, orthopedic vulnerabilities (possibly judged by past injuries), and group them in a way that permits adequate recovery between each workout. Certain split programs favor the development of certain muscle groups. Likewise, certain splits allow for greater or less recovery of particular muscle groups and joint structures than others. Choose a split program according to training level, goals, schedule constraints, and personal preferences. However, consider periodically changing your split as well as your exercise selection (also see Benefits of Changing Exercises). Doing so may help vary what muscle groups you emphasize and decrease the possibility of overuse injuries which may eventually manifest by favoring a particular splits for extended periods of time.

Placing some muscles into either a push or pull category is far from perfect, as with most classification systems. The main objective of classifying muscle groups is to allow muscle groups' sufficient recovery time between workouts. It's somewhat straight forward when it comes to most muscle groups, but as I've pointed out, there are some cases where compromises and exceptions may be in order.

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