It’s an excuse fitness guru Denise Austin hears routinely from people who say they want to get in better shape but who don’t exercise regularly: “I don’t have time to work out.” To this, the perpetually enthusiastic Austin has a ready response: You can effectively work out two or even three sets of muscles together, at the same time.
“Everyone is time-crunched,” Austin says. But having little spare time doesn’t have to preclude you from getting in better shape, she says. There are exercise routines that allow you to work out multiple muscle groups in as little as 10 minutes at a time. “If you’re doing these correctly, you’re also strengthening your core, which is so important for your spine,” she says. “If you keep your abs strong, you’ll keep your back healthy.”
Dr. George Eldayrie, a primary care sports medicine physician with the Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Florida, agrees that there are numerous ways to mix and match exercises for an efficient workout, “but a general guideline is to target groups of muscles together that do similar things.”
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Common groupings of muscles to work out together include:
— Arms, legs and glutes.
— Biceps, thighs and back.
— Abdominal and back.
— Chest and triceps.
— Chest, shoulders and arms.
A Variety of Ways to Work Out Different Muscle Groups
Dr. Jin Choi, a sports medicine specialist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, says that “all exercises require the use of multiple muscle groups together. It’s rare that a single muscle works in isolation.”
Choi recommends thinking about grouping exercises that target certain areas of the body into either “push” or “pull” exercises. “Push exercises include movements that work out pushing muscle groups together, such as chest, shoulder and triceps, and pull exercises include pulling muscle groups, such as biceps and back,” he explains.
Alongside push or pull exercises, he recommends adding abdominal and leg exercises to round out training and hit all your muscles. And there’s a range of ways to spread these exercises out across the week. “You can do the abdomen exercises along with any of these other groups, but most people either add it to their back exercise days or leg days. It’s usually a good idea to divide the larger muscle groups, such as legs and back, into different days since they tend to use the most amount of energy and can cause too much stress and exhaustion to the body if you do them in the same day,” Choi explains.
By targeting these various muscle groups together, “you can exercise them as efficiently as possible in a synergistic way.” It also allows your muscles time to rest and rebuild on the days you’re working other muscles. This means “you can allow yourself to work out harder knowing that you can focus on these muscle groups for that moment and will have a chance to rest until the next time you’re due to work them out again,” Choi says.
You can also think of your workouts in terms of agonist and antagonist movements, says Matt Camargo, director of sports performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. This refers to how the muscles contract or relax in response to each other to create the movement, and it’s best “because it allows for an efficient process in creating muscular balance from multiple angles.”
You can also simply pair a lower-body exercise with an upper body movement, Camargo says. Examples may include lunges paired with chin-ups or Romanian deadlifts paired with incline dumbbell bench presses. This is a good approach “because it gives ample time to recover within the set,” he explains. “Lower-body exercises predominately cause more fatigue compared to upper-body exercises due to their physiology. While the legs are recovering, in theory, you could perform an upper-body exercise and repeat this for several sets leading to good results.”
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Get Tailored Advice
Before you get started in building a workout program, Camargo says it’s important to think about your training goals and why you want to achieve them: “Formulating the purpose is paramount in influencing quality effort into achieving realistic goals.”
And, before you hit the gym, Camargo says you should keep in mind that when it comes to exercising different muscle groups, more is not necessarily better. That is, engaging in more repetitions and, for weight work, lifting greater volumes isn’t always the optimal approach.
“It’s important to note that any given exercise regimen is only as effective as the ability to recover from it,” Camargo says. “Still, to this day, it gets mistaken that more is better, when less is actually more. That’s not to suggest you should do the bare minimum.” Rather, each workout routine should be tailored to the individual, he explains.
An expert’s insight can help you understand “how one exercise influences the other is critical in getting efficient results,” Camargo says.
Relying on the expertise of a fitness expert or a sports or exercise trainer can also help you conduct your workout more efficiently and safely. “Having a good understanding of how exercise selection and exercise order play a role in programming high-quality workouts can be the difference between reaching training goals and not,” Camargo says.
Doing exercises correctly not only maximizes the benefit to your muscles, it also minimizes your chances of sustaining an injury, Austin adds.
General Guidelines for Efficient Workouts
While you’d be best served to work with a trainer to develop your own optimal workout based on your specific goals and needs, there are some overarching guidelines for how to create an efficient workout program.
— Opt for compound movements. “For muscle training, the best workouts are those that focus on compound movements that require the use of multiple muscle groups at one time,” Eldayrie says. “This helps with overall strength and general fitness.”
— Go big. Focusing on larger muscles is better than smaller muscles because the bigger muscles burn more calories and provide more power and strength gains than focusing on smaller muscles. For example, isolation exercises like biceps curls are good for working on helping define one specific muscle, which may be good for body building and show muscles, but this sort of approach “will take much longer for general strength than a movement that requires multiple muscles working together, such as chin ups,” Eldayrie says.
— Factor in rest. “You should not work out the same muscle groups two days in a row,” Eldayrie adds. Give yourself at least 24 to 48 hours of rest when working out the same muscle groups. “Rest is critical to improve strength and allow for muscle growth and repair after a workout.”
— Balance your muscle development. You should aim for equal effort for opposing muscle groups — this is that agonist-antagonist idea again. “For instance, the biceps are responsible for flexing the elbow,” Eldayrie explains. “The triceps are responsible for extending the elbow. Your workout should consist of exercises that work both muscle groups to prevent imbalances that can ultimately lead to injuries.” Other examples of this work-balance approach include: the chest as opposed to the upper back; the hamstring as opposed to the quads; and the lower abdominal muscles as opposed to the muscles of the low back. “These do not have to be worked out on the same day, but at least need to be worked out equally by the end of the week,” Eldayrie says.
— Body weight exercises are king. Body weight exercises are very efficient and can eliminate the need for much equipment or access to a gym. “Most body weight exercises involve compound movements and multiple muscle groups,” Eldayrie says. “For instance a pushup requires work from your forearms, triceps, shoulders, chest muscles and abdominals when done with good form. Similarly, a body weight squat, when done correctly with good form, will build strength in the low back, the abdominals, quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings.”
— But consider starting with machines. If you’re new to working out, you may want to start with exercise machines until you’ve got the hang of it, as that can help you learn proper form. “But as strength increases, using free weights will help increase balance and core strength,” Eldayrie says.
— Focus always on form. It’s critical that you maintain proper form when exercising to avoid injury and get the most efficiency out of each movement. Work with a trainer or coach to be sure your form is on point.
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Multi-Muscle Group Exercise Suggestions
Whatever your fitness goal may be, here are five ways to exercise different muscle groups at the same time:
1. For arms, legs and glutes: Bicep curls with standing front lunges.
While holding small weights in both hands, step forward with one leg while lunging down. At the same time, curl one of the weights. Step back and repeat with your other leg and the other arm. “You’re getting multiple workouts in one,” Austin says. This exercise works out your arms, particularly your biceps, as well as your thigh muscles and buttocks, she says. Start out with a weight that allows you to keep your balance. Austin says she uses 5-pound weights, but you may be comfortable working out with less or more weight, and could always build up. Do 30 repetitions, 15 with each leg, Austin recommends.
2. For triceps, buttocks and thighs: Mini-squat with a triceps kickback.
Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart while holding a small weight in each hand. Do a mini-squat, bending your knees and engaging your thigh muscles, while sweeping both weights behind you, toward your back. Stand up straight while bringing the weights forward; then repeat. This exercise works out your biceps and your thigh and back muscles. “This is one of my favorites. It works out different muscle groups,” Austin says. “It keeps your abs strong, which helps keep your back healthy.” This exercise, when done correctly, also strengthens your core, which is important for spine health, she says.
3. Abdominal and back: Low hover, or plank.
Start in a modified straight-legged pushup position, with your elbows on the floor directly below your shoulders, your hips lifted slightly and your abs tight, Austin says. Elongate your abs and back by lifting your pelvis and holding it for 30 seconds; rest and repeat. “Focus on the core of your body, your torso and abs,” she says. Planking strengthens and lengthens both your abdominal muscles and your middle and upper back muscles.
4. Chest and triceps: Bench presses and pushups.
Bench presses and pushups are basic exercises that engage your chest and arm muscles, says Brian Grawe , associate professor of orthopaedics and sports medicine at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. “They work out both of those muscle groups. You’ll be working on both your chest and triceps muscles at the same time with bench presses and pushups.”
For the bench press, Grawe suggests starting by lifting between 40% and 60% of the maximum amount of weight you’d lift at one time, and do two to three sets of eight to 16. For pushups, Grawe advises starting out by doing three sets of 20. Gradually, you can increase the amount of weight you lift while doing bench presses, as well as the number of pushups, he says.
5. Chest, shoulders and arms: Dumbbell floor press.
This exercise helps strengthen your chest, shoulders and arms, says Jonathan Jordan, a personal fitness trainer and group fitness instructor for an Equinox health club in San Francisco. Start by holding two dumbbells with an overhand grip while lying flat on the floor. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Exhale, and at the same time, extend the weights toward the ceiling. Hold the weights for a moment, return to the starting position and repeat. “In this basic move, each arm has to work separately, which can be beneficial for many folks with strength or mobility issues on one side,” Jordan says. “That means that with some weight machines and barbells, your stronger, dominant side can do more of the work.”
Get Creative to Build Consistency
In creating an optimal workout routine for your goals, Choi says the sky’s the limit: “There are countless ways to exercise different muscle groups as efficiently and effectively as possible. The most important part is figuring out what works for you, creating a plan, sticking to the plan and, at the end of the day, staying healthy and having fun.”
Lastly, you have to put in the effort. Camargo notes that “there can be the ‘best’ exercise routine on paper, but it means nothing if consistency and quality effort isn’t there.”
Eldayrie adds, “the best workout is the one that fits your lifestyle the best. If this is your first time starting an exercise routine, start with finding predictable times during the week to do something simple.” Maybe that’s walking or doing home exercises — the exact exercise is less important. What’s more important is getting “your body used to finding time in your schedule for exercising. The intensity and type of workout can change as you gain experience, confidence and strength, but starting with a plan to be more active is the first step to achieving your goals.”