When you walk into a gym, do you have an idea of what you’re going to do, or do you find the first empty station and start pumping out reps? It should probably be the former.
Whether your goal is to build muscle and burn fat, get stronger, or become more athletic, you need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And an essential step in formulating a thoughtful training plan is choosing the right workout split.
A workout split is how you divide up your workouts throughout the week either by body region, movement, specific body part, or by lift. This divide-and-conquer approach to exercise allows bodybuilders and general gym-goers to focus their efforts in a way that optimizes results.
Instead of hoping for bigger muscles or more strength, you guarantee it by sticking to a plan proven to work. Workout splits allow you to work smarter and harder. Here’s how — and how to choose yours.
Types of Workout Splits
What Is a Workout Split?
Splits are more intuitive than you might think. They’re simply a method of organizing your physical activity around some quality such as specific muscles or a certain region of your body.
At the end of the day, your workout split will be dictated by whatever your end goal is. Someone who’s working out to improve their athleticism, for example, will have a different split than someone solely focused on aesthetics. The same goes for strength athletes. There are three main workout splits, each of which having its own advantages and disadvantages.
The upper-lower split divides your body into two halves that you train separately. You train your entire upper body on one day and your lower half during your next session.
The push-pull-legs split combines both methods and puts you in the gym frequently. You work your “pulling” muscles in one workout, your “push” muscles in another, and your lower body on its own day entirely.
A body part workout split has you train one to three body parts per training session twice per week. It’s a popular option among bodybuilders since body part splits let you train muscles more often for more growth.
A meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine found that this training style resulted in the most hypertrophy, or muscle growth, compared to other training styles. This was backed up by a 2018 study that found that hitting a muscle two times per week resulted in increased muscle thickness and overall body composition compared to other workout splits. (2)(3)
A bodybuilder’s main goal is to have a completely symmetrical physique with full muscle development. For that reason, most bodybuilders pair a larger muscle like the chest with a related smaller muscle like the triceps.
Since both muscles work together in compound exercises like the bench press and push-ups, it makes sense to pair them together. Other standard body part split pairings include back and biceps, and legs and shoulders. So, a body part workout split may look like this:
Sample Body Part Workout Split
Typically, muscles need about 48 hours of rest to recover. Study the split above, and you’ll see that each muscle group gets three days (or 72 full hours) of rest.
Benefits of Body Part Workout Splits
Your focus is set on two muscles for the entire session.
Allows for full recovery.
Less equipment is needed during your session.
You’re less tired since you’re not working out multiple muscles.
Drawbacks of Body Part Workout Splits
If you miss a workout, it takes longer to catch up.
You may become impatient waiting for a specific session.
Some body parts may recover faster than others.
An upper/lower split divides workouts into upper-body focused days and lower-body days. This split is excellent for beginners, people on tight schedules, and those focused on getting stronger. It forces you to prioritize the basics and cut the fat from your program.
If you want to train multiple muscle groups in a single session, you need to be selective about exercises. An upper-body workout targets not just the chest and triceps but the biceps, shoulders, and back.
As such, upper-lower splits often consist of mostly compound movements — exercises that involve more than one moving joint at a time. Single-joint isolation exercises are fantastic in the right contexts (mostly for targeted muscle growth), but they shouldn’t make up the majority of your work during an upper-lower split.
One benefit of an upper/lower split is that you’ll be in the gym less. You’re essentially condensing your workload into four shorter, albeit more focused, sessions per week. Don’t worry about your strength levels, either. You can still get strong, if not stronger, with a lighter training frequency (that is, how often your train).
In fact, a 2019 study found an upper/lower workout split resulted in more muscle size and strength gains when compared to a total body workout done three times per week. Like the body part split, you’re still hitting each muscle at that magical twice-per-week mark that’s been found to be optimal for bodybuilders. (4)
Sample Upper-Lower Workout Split
As you can see, upper-lower splits only put you in the weight room four times per week on average. This helps you focus on the quality of your training rather than how much work you can beat yourself up with.
Benefits of Upper-Lower Workout Splits
You’re in the gym less.
You’re still hitting each muscle twice per week.
You can work on increasing the main lifts.
Drawbacks of Upper-Lower Workout Splits
This workout split is similar to the upper/lower split. The main difference is that a push-pull-legs (PPL) split divides upper-body training into two categories; pulling and pushing. This split is prevalent in the powerlifting community because powerlifters can build their program around the “big three” lifts that they compete in — the bench press (push), deadlift (pull), and squat (legs).
It’s also highly scalable in terms of frequency. Busy lifters can train intensely (meaning with more exercises for more sets and reps) three times per week. Folks with a desire to hit the gym more often can lower their volume per session and do each workout twice a week. You can also train four times per week and add an extra push, pull, or legs session (depending on what you need to work on).
If you opt for the six-day-per-week option, be intelligent about your training intensity and exercise selection. During the first three sessions, you can prioritize the “big three” and lift heavier weights (these are your strength workouts). The last three sessions can be high-volume days to strengthen the smaller muscles, like the biceps, shoulders, and triceps (these are your hypertrophy workouts).
Six days of training is a lot, so don’t overdo it. Suppose you’re a powerlifter or strength athlete. In that case, you can use sessions three through six to focus on alternatives to the “big three,” such as the box squat, deficit deadlift, and floor press.
Sample Push-Pull-Legs Workout Split
PPL splits are a viable option for both muscle growth and strength gains, but they’re fairly intricate to program and thus not suited for rank beginners. If you want to utilize this type of split and pursue a sport like powerlifting, you should probably recruit the assistance of a coach.
Benefits of Push-Pull-Legs Workout Splits
Emphasis on training specific muscles.
Ample recovery time.
Drawbacks of Push-Pull-Legs Workout Splits
Less room for modification to address weak points.
More time in the gym.
More equipment is needed.
Benefits of Workout Splits
Workout splits provide you with a pathway toward a specific goal. There’s not an NFL quarterback out there who doesn’t watch film of the opposing team or converse with his O-line before stepping onto the gridiron — it’s the same concept for bodybuilders and powerlifters.
That’s because the importance of having a regimen has been stressed since the early days of bodybuilding. Steve Reeves and Eugen Sandow developed their own routines to craft physiques that are, to this day, considered by many to be the pinnacle of bodybuilding.
They studied how their bodies reacted to different workouts and recovery times, found what worked best for them, and stuck with it.
Without a plan, your countless hours in the gym will go nowhere. Developing a split allows you to pick a handful of muscles and exhaust them. Then, you give them ample time to recover and prepare for their next session.
This calculated approach allows you to train with maximum effort. You won’t burn out trying to slog through a three-hour-long iron-pumping marathon.
What to Consider Before Picking a Workout Split
The number one thing to keep in mind when picking a workout split is what you’re looking to accomplish, but there are other things to keep top of mind.
Time to Train
The amount of time you have each week to spend in the gym will largely influence your choice of split. Some splits are more efficient at time management than others, just by their nature.
If you’re someone who has a busy work schedule, a six-day split probably won’t be your best bet. On the other hand, upper-lower splits only require you to hit the iron four times a week.
Your training experience is another big factor. Let’s say you’re a true beginner — you’ll probably want to keep your workouts lighter to avoid overstressing your muscles. On the other hand, an experienced lifter will probably need more stimuli to achieve their desired results, so they’ll most likely look for something that has them in the gym more days per week.
You’ll also want to pay attention to which areas of your physique or performance need a bit of extra love. This may influence what workout split you opt for. For example, if you want to develop your arms, you should probably choose a split that provides ample time for isolation exercises like biceps curls or triceps pushdowns.
How to Modify Your Workout Split
There’s a stark difference between your on-paper exercise plan and what you actually end up doing on a week-to-week basis. After all, your gym routine has to play ball with your other lifestyle factors. Here’s how you can make some smart, tactical adjustments to any workout split and keep the gains rolling in.
In a Busy Gym
Having a plan before you walk into the gym is great, but what happens when things don’t go the way you want them to? Let’s say you walk in on leg day, and people are hogging the squat racks.
Odds are you don’t have enough time to wait for them — and this is when you need a back-up plan for what you had scheduled for that day. If you can’t squat, try doing heavy lunges or step-ups. Can’t find an open bench press? Substitute with dumbbell presses. You get the idea.
Training at Home
Crowded gyms aren’t the only obstacles to plan for. Let’s say a blizzard — or a global pandemic (imagine?) — shuts gyms down in your area. What do you do? Don’t work out that day? No, you find a way to make it work with what you have at your disposal.
Let’s also say you’re someone who travels for work. Not every hotel gym is stacked with Hammer Strength machines, and some may only have a few light dumbbells and treadmills (many may only have the latter). Again, make it work by adapting your workouts, either by changing the moves you had planned for that day or shifting the set and rep schemes.
Better yet, make sure to pack portable workout equipment with you if you know you might be somewhere with limited equipment. Beyond resistance bands, TRX suspension training systems are another lightweight option that can easily fit in a suitcase and go with you wherever you go.
To Save Time
If you’re desperate to stick to your training plan but are on the clock, you can employ some time-saving techniques to remain on-program with little lost along the way. For instance, if you run an upper-lower split but need to get all of your lifts done in a pinch, you can superset your rows with your presses during upper-body day.
This may limit the amount of weight you can use, but you’ll get through your entire session. The same idea holds true for protocols like cluster sets, during which you perform only a handful of repetitions with many brief breaks over the course of an extra-long “set.”
In the event you can’t utilize these techniques and want to perform as much of your routine as-written, simply cut out the isolation or accessory movements commonly found at the end of the workout. These movements are valuable, but can be redundant if you’re strapped for time.
Pick a Split
How you organize your training matters almost as much as how much sweat you spill during your actual workouts. You can head into the weight room and wing it, sure — you might even make decent gains for a while along the way.
But if you want to take your performance (and results) in the gym to the next level, you need a solid training split in your pocket. Luckily, the best workout splits are now at your fingertips.
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Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8. PMID: 27102172.
Yue FL, Karsten B, Larumbe-Zabala E, Seijo M, Naclerio F. Comparison of 2 weekly-equalized volume resistance-training routines using different frequencies on body composition and performance in trained males. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2018 May;43(5):475-481. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2017-0575. Epub 2017 Dec 7. PMID: 29216446.
Lasevicius T, Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Laurentino G, Tavares LD, Tricoli V. Similar Muscular Adaptations in Resistance Training Performed Two Versus Three Days Per Week. J Hum Kinet. 2019;68:135-143. Published 2019 Aug 21. doi:10.2478/hukin-2019-0062
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