Just Split It

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photo credit Brian Moss

By Jim Stoppani, PhD

To make continued progress in the gym, you need to know when and how to change up variables in the gym such as the exercises utilized, the amount of weight used, the number of reps performed per set, the number of sets completed for each exercise and for each muscle group, and the amount of rest allowed between sets. Exercise scientists call these acute training variables and they are what make one workout different from another. Frequently changing these variables is critical for making continued progress in the gym.

But before you need to even be concerned with these training variables you need to have a good grasp on how you split up your training for the week. Bodybuilders call this a training split. Your training split determines how frequently you train each week, how frequently you train each muscle group in a week and what muscle groups get trained together. Your training split can also determine how many sets you can perform per exercise and per muscle group and even how intense you can train.

While there is an endless possibility of training splits that can be employed there are several common ones that fit a variety of experience levels and schedules, and have been proven to be effective after decades of use by bodybuilders. Your current training split may be something you just adopted due to a training partner or a popular fitness competitor’s training split. While it may be a good split, it may not be the best split for you. Even if it is a great split for you, like reps and sets and exercises, you should also change up your training split from time to time to. This is beneficial for several reasons. For one, just like if you kept the acute training variables the same every single workout, if you keep your training split the same month after month, your muscles would adapt and would get stale, limiting your progress. Another reason to change your split is that if you train the same muscle groups together in the same order, the muscle groups that are trained later in the workout can not be trained with the same intensity as the first muscle group that is trained, which limits your results. Changing your split up allows you to train different muscle groups first in your workout.

The Just Split It program will teach you the four most common training splits bodybuilders use and have you trying each split to determine which one works best for you.

Split #1) Whole-Body Training Split (3 days per week): The whole-body training spilt simply trains the entire body each time you go to the gym. Because you normally train about 9 or 10 major muscle groups each workout, the number of exercises and sets you can do per muscle group is minimal. Typically, most Whole Body Training workouts use only one to two exercises per muscle group with total sets per muscle group rarely exceeding six. This allows you to train each muscle group more frequently because they receive a limited amount of stress each workout. The less stress a muscle receives the faster it can recover and be trained again.

Although it is typically considered a beginners type of training split, a whole-body training split can work well for advanced lifters. That’s because this type of training is great for building a lean muscular physique. This type of training enhances both fat burning and muscle development. Because you train such a large amount of muscle groups in each workout, it boosts growth hormone levels higher than workouts that train fewer muscle groups. Growth hormone helps to encourage muscle growth, as well as fat burning. Whole-body training also activates a greater amount of enzymes in muscles that turn on fat-burning processes. In addition,research from St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada) shows that female and male subjects who trained each muscle group three times per week had upper body strength gains that were 8% greater and muscle mass gains that were 300% greater than those who trained twice per week. This was despite the fact that each group completed the same number of sets per muscle group. In other words, the 3 times per week trainers did less sets per workout. So, if you currently train each muscle group once per week and do about 12 sets for each muscle group, training each muscle group three times per week with a whole body training split, but only doing 4 sets per workout will allow you to do the same amount of sets per week, but may enhance your results.

The simplest way to train using a whole-body training split is to train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You want to allow at least one full day of rest between workouts. One negative about using a whole-body training split is that if you do the same workout each of the three days you will lack variety in your exercises. To avoid this you should do a different exercise for each muscle group on each of the three workouts. Another negative is that if you train your muscle groups in the same order every workout, certain muscle groups that are trained later in the workout will lag because you won’t be able to train them with the same intensity as the muscle groups trained earlier in the workout. To avoid this, alternate the order of the muscle groups you train, being sure to allow weak muscle groups a chance to be trained earlier in the workout on some days. This sample whole-body training program avoids both these problems to optimize your results.

Split #2) Upper Body/Lower Body Training Split (4 days per week): This is a training split that simply breaks the body down into upper body (chest, back, shoulders, traps, biceps, triceps,) and lower body (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and often abdominals to limit the volume of work done in upper body workouts) muscles. This type of split allows you to train each muscle group twice per week (two upper body workouts and two lower body workouts). Because you split the entire body up into two workouts it allows you to do more sets for each muscle group than the whole-body training split. It also allows you to train with a little more intensity, as you have fewer muscle groups to train each workout. However, because this type of training split allows for more sets and higher intensity, it means our muscles will require more rest. Most females who follow an Upper Body/Lower Body Training split follow a Monday (lower body workout 1), Tuesday (upper body workout 1), Thursday (lower body workout 2), Friday (upper body workout 2) training schedule as shown below. This allows three days of rest for each muscle group between workouts.

While males tend to dislike this training split because they have to train all the upper body muscles in one workout, females tend to prefer it because it allows them to focus an entire workout on their lower body. If you find this to be the case you can modify the Upper Body/Lower Body Training Split by training some upper body muscle groups with your lower body. This type of a training split is commonly referred to as a Two-Day Training Split. Just like with the whole-body training split you should alter exercise performed on each of the two workouts for same muscle groups and alter the order you train muscle groups, just like the example below.

Split #3) Push/Pull/Legs Training Split (3 days per week): The Push/Pull/Legs Training Split is a modified version of the Push/Pull Training Split that many powerlifters use. Both are based on the concept that the body’s muscles are mainly divided into pushing muscles and pulling muscles. Pushing muscles include the muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps, as these muscles tend to perform exercises in which the muscles are pushing the weight away from the body, such as the bench press, the shoulder press, or the triceps extension. Pulling muscles include the muscles of the back and biceps, as these muscles mainly perform exercises in which the muscles are pulling the weight toward the body, such as barbell rows and barbell curls. Abs are commonly considered pulling muscles as they pull the torso towards the legs and/or the legs toward the torso. The problem arrives when you consider legs. The squat is a pushing exercise, as is the leg extension, but exercises like leg curls and Romanian deadlifts are pulling exercises. Powerlifters that follow the Push/Pull Training split often put legs on push day due to the squat. However, many bodybuilders started doing a Push/Pull/Leg Training Split, where just the upper body muscles are divided into Pushing and Pulling days and the Legs are trained separately.

Because there are three separate workouts to train the entire body most females who follow this split train on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, hitting each muscle group once per week. However, some have been known to do it six days per week to hit each muscle group twice per week. The benefit of doing this is that because the entire body is split into three different workouts you can do far more exercises and sets per muscle group than when you follow a Whole-Body Training Split or an Upper Body/Lower Body Training Split. This allows you to train with greater intensity, but because of this you should train each muscle group with less frequency, which is why we recommend training just three days per week with this split.

Split #4) Four-Day Training Split (4 days per week): This training split simply divides all the major muscle groups of the body into four separate training days. This allows you to train fewer muscle groups each workout, than the three prior splits. Of course, this allows you to increase the intensity of your workouts and the number of exercises and sets you perform per muscle group. Most Four Day Training Splits are done on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday schedule, where rest days are taken on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. However, you can train any four days of the week you prefer. There are an endless number of ways you can divide up muscle groups with a four-day training split. However, a great way to divide body parts on a four day training split is to pair muscles that perform opposite actions. For example, on Monday train chest and back, Tuesday shoulders and abdominals, Thursday quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, and Friday train biceps, triceps and abdominals as seen in the sample Four-Day Split workout. The Monday and Friday workouts best exemplify this training strategy. Training chest and back allows you to train to muscle groups that don’t fatigue one another. The same can be said for training biceps and triceps together. Each muscle group performs an opposite motion of its training pair, a push versus a pull. For example, the biceps flex the elbow while the triceps extend it.

Split Trial
Try following the program schedule in Split Trial below. You follow each training split for three weeks. This will give you just enough time to get a feel for each split and to determine how well your body responds to each one, as well as how well it works with your schedule. These are all important considerations to determining which split works. Read Split Grades for tips on how to decide which split works best for you. Regardless of which split you find works best for you, you will still want to consider alternating your split every once in a while. For example, if you find that the four-day split works best for you stick with that as your major split, but every 3 or 4 months switch to a different split for at least a month or two and then go back to the four-day split. This will help you avoid falling into a training rut where progress becomes stagnant.

Follow this 12-week program that allows you to put each split through a trial run. Use the workouts listed under each split.

Weeks Training Split
1-3 Whole-Body Training Split
4-6 Upper Body/Lower Body Training Split
7-9 Push/Pull/Legs Training Split
10-12 Four-Day Training Split

Split Grades
To determine the best split for you, consider the following points about your training while using each of the different splits:

– Which split allowed you to train with more overall intensity and/or provided you the best overall results? If you have a well-balanced physique without any weak areas you need to bring up this is probably the best split for you.

– Which split allowed you to train lagging body parts the hardest and/or helped best to bring up lagging body parts? If you have a weak body part of two that you are trying to bring up with the rest of your muscle groups, this split is likely your best option.

– Which split allowed you the best recovery between workouts? If you tend to be the type that is frequently sore for days after workouts and recover slowly, this is likely the split for you.

– Which split was most convenient for your schedule? If you’re a busy-body with a tight schedule and tend to miss workouts due to your schedule than this will probably be the best split for you.

Jim Stoppani, PhD

Lori Braun

Lori Braun

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