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The big muscles of the buttocks, back, upper arms, thighs and chest often get all the attention in the gym. After all, these are the ones that you can easily see in the mirror revealing the results of your workout sessions. While working the big muscle groups is important, you must not neglect smaller muscles that can be essential in stabilization, muscle balance and the prevention of injury.
Your big muscles are responsible for major movement in your body. The gluteus maximus is intrinsic in walking and running; your pectoralis major enables you to push and throw; your latissimus dorsi and trapezius allow you to pull and stand up tall; and your hamstrings and quadriceps give you the ability to squat. Working the big muscles in your body results in a greater release of growth hormone, which helps your muscles get bigger and stronger.
Small muscles shouldn't be neglected at the expense of large muscles. Small muscles help the larger muscles do their job. For example, the gluteus medius and minimus at the sides of the hip and thigh region work with the gluteus maximus for optimal lower body functioning; when these muscles are weak, you might experience knee pain, shin splints or Achilles tendinitis. Other smaller muscles include the triceps, brachioradialis of the forearms, deltoids, extensors in the back and the perineum in the pelvic floor.
Classic Training Strategy
A classic training strategy recommends you train the big muscles before small muscles. The theory, as explained by New Mexico University Professor Len Kravitz, is that you can lift more weight when you work the big muscles first - creating a better workout experience. If you work the big muscles first, you also guarantee that they get the most attention and best workout before fatigue sets in. A typical training session designed with emphasis on the big muscles first might start with squats and deadlifts, move on to lat pulldowns and rows, then chest presses, pushups and biceps curls. You would then emphasize smaller muscles through triceps dips, shoulder raises and wrist curls.
Always working big muscles first, or exclusively, can lead to weaknesses in the smaller muscle groups. This may create muscle imbalance and eventual injury, especially if the smaller muscles are important to your daily function or athletic endeavors. Kravitz says that instead of habitually going for the big muscles first, go for the most important muscles first - the ones that you need to function at their best to do the activities you want to do.
If you always do a big-to-small muscle-building routine, shifting to a small-to-big routine could add needed variety to your program. If you always strength train in the same order, your body becomes accustomed to the routine and your gains plateau. One way to add variety is to reorder your exercises. This also helps ensure that your small muscles do not become neglected at the expense of the big muscles.