Here's something you don't hear every day regarding exercise: When it comes to resistance training, more is not necessarily better. Your muscles need a day off between workouts, and while two to three days per week is recommended, more than that generally doesn't provide significant returns. If you want to improve your arms and legs, a three-day routine is perfect, allowing for a two-day full-body workout that includes all the major muscle groups with an extra day to concentrate on arms and legs alone.
While you may be most interested in your arms and legs, good posture, including a straight back and squared shoulders, requires working all of the major muscles. This would include your pecs, shoulders -- front, back and middle -- along with your lats and abs as well as your arms and legs. Since you need to rest worked muscles for at least 24 hours, a good three-day routine would include full-body workouts on Monday and Friday with Wednesday devoted to just legs and arms. You can set it up any way you like so long as you don't work the same muscles two days in a row.
Since most upper-body work involves arm work, on your two full-body workout days you should start with the pecs, shoulders and lats -- in any order -- followed by arm and leg work and then abs. The routine could include something like pushups or flys, military presses and reverse flys for your upper body, some biceps curls and triceps kickbacks for your arms and leg presses and abductor/adductor machine work for the inner and outer thighs. On these days, aim for a lighter arm-and leg-workout, doing just two to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions. Choose weights with which eight reps are fairly easy but 10 or 12 reps lead to muscle failure -- the point at which you cannot do even one more. Rest 60 seconds between sets and don't cheat on the reps. Doing them too quickly or only through your partial range of motion will leave you just as tired in the end but with less to show for it.
Arms and Legs Day
On the middle, or third day, of your three-day routine, you can forget the other muscles and work just your arms and legs. Since you won't have tired your limbs with other exercises as you did the other two days, you can do more strenuous arm-and leg-work that builds strength. One approach is to stick to the same multi-set program you used on your whole-body day while adding a challenge in the form of more weight, more difficult executions -- like biceps curls on a declined bench -- and extra sets or all three.
Other Set Systems
If you're beyond just looking pretty and really want to build muscle, you might want to try different set systems on your arm-and-leg day. Perform super or tri-sets, where you do two or three sets of different exercises -- one right after the other without a rest. A super-set could be dumbbell-weighted squats followed immediately with biceps curls. Or you could try the pyramid method, starting with a weight that you can lift for 15 reps and increasing the weight for each set while decreasing the number of reps until you reach your one-rep max -- the weight you can lift only one time. These methods are not for beginners, and when you get to your one-rep max, use a spotter.
- ExRx: Recommendations for Resistance Training Exercise (ACSM 1995)
- Personal Fitness Training: Theory & Practice, Second Edition; Mary Yoke, MS
Nancy Cross is a certified paralegal who has worked as an employee benefits specialist and counseled employees on retirement preparation, including financial and estate planning. In addition to writing and editing, she runs a small business with her husband and is a certified personal trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).