How do you organize workouts? It’s a question everyone must answer.
Pick the wrong split and it’ll be harder to get optimal results, regardless of the training methods and loading schemes. The wrong split can lead to inadequate recovery time, less growth, and crappy performance. It can insufficiently stimulate some muscles and be overkill for others.
Let’s discuss how to design the perfect training split and the four best options.
Choose a split that checks “yes” on all of these:
New research has been done on how often you should train a muscle to maximize growth. Hitting a muscle twice per week is better than hitting it once, even if the total volume is the same. For some, three times a week might even be marginally more effective. So, does the split allow you to significantly stimulate muscles 2-3 times per week?
If you train arms hard on Monday and then hit chest and back on Tuesday, your performance will be negatively affected in that second workout.
Sometimes a very high training frequency can work. For example, The Best Workout Plan for Natural Lifters uses six workouts per week. This is doable only if you use a training model revolving around a very low volume of work (or training stress) during every session.
Most lifters should train four days a week. And three weekly workouts is better than five. Six and seven is off-limits unless you’re using the low-volume model.
Off days are important not only to maximize muscle recovery and growth, but to prevent the risk of training burnout and training immunity.
More than one muscle is stimulated during many exercises. A bench press is categorized as a chest exercise, but the triceps and front delts work just as much. A chin-up will build your lats, but the biceps are also heavily involved. And while the squat is aimed at building your quads, it will also stimulate the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
You don’t have to use direct, isolated work for every muscle twice per week if you’re using big compound movements. You can still hit every muscle group enough to get significant growth.
These four options are not ranked in order of efficacy. They all work equally well, even though some might be better for strength (split one) and others for size (split three). But honestly, you can pick any of these and get great results for any goal.
The best split for you will be a matter of individual preference. Choose the one that motivates you. Motivation is the most important thing to get maximum, long-term results.
This is the approach I use the most with athletes and strength-focused clients.
Whole-body training is the oldest type of training split. It was the dominant way to train up until the 1960s when body part splits became more popular. Some will even bring up the correlation with the beginning of the “steroid era” with the popularization of body part splits.
Back in the earlier days of resistance training, the typical approach was to train the whole body three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This approach is optimal for people who simply want to get bigger, stronger, more powerful, and better conditioned.
While there are several ways of doing whole-body training, I use a minimalist approach of relying almost exclusively on big, compound movements. Some will take a very detailed approach and include one (or more) exercises for each muscle group. This means 8-10 movements per session, which is too much for most.
I normally use 4-5 exercises per workout:
I’ll sometimes add a unilateral lower-body exercise or a loaded carry. Using these exercises will hit everything to some extent. Sure, you don’t have any biceps, triceps, or delt exercises, but these muscles are involved in the big basic movements.
The benefits of whole-body training are:
For example, I like to use an eccentric-focus (slow eccentrics/negatives or eccentric overloads) on Monday, and stato-dynamic (including isometric holds during a set or the reps) on Wednesday, then do normal lifting on Friday.
But you can also use something like a heavy/light/moderate or a heavy/high-density/volume to reap gains from various angles. I find it more effective to include one form of training per session rather than trying to include several packed into one workout.
Myostatin is a protein released by the muscles that limits growth. The less you produce, the more growth you get.
If you’re a bodybuilder who wants to exaggerate the development of several body parts, this might not be the split for you. To overcome this limitation, I added a fourth weekly workout – the gap workout. The gap workout will fill your need for more isolated pump work.
It’s a less stressful workout where you do exclusively “easier” exercises: isolation, machine, or pulley work. The exercises you do in your gap workout are selected to fill out the development gaps left by the whole-body sessions.
Typically, you’d do exercises that hit the biceps, triceps, hamstrings, and rear delts. But you can use this workout to work on any muscle that needs a boost. This allows you to reap the benefits of whole-body training while still getting more typical bodybuilding results.
Here’s what the weekly split would look like:
The drawbacks of whole-body training? It can be draining with all those compound movements. The workouts may also take longer due to longer warm-ups and rest periods.
But I’ve had two experienced athletes gain 20 pounds in a year with this approach, and they dramatically increased their strength.
This split allows you to hit everything hard twice per week. There’s minimal negative carryover from each workout. It allows you to include more volume and target work for individual muscles than the whole-body split. There are fewer big compound lifts compared to a whole-body workout, which makes it more manageable for many.
The only drawback is that an upper/lower split can be psychologically demotivating for some. Lots of guys don’t like to train legs. Having half the workouts solely devoted to legs can kill motivation for those who hate lower-body sessions. Something can be physiologically optimal, but if it kills your will to train hard, it won’t work.
But if you like training the lower body, this is one of the best spits (if not the best) you can use. It’s the most versatile. It can be used for every training goal: strength, size, athletic performance, fat loss, or health. And there are several ways to do it.
You can use the typical approach where you hit the whole upper body twice per week and the whole lower body twice. This is the best option for muscle growth.
You can use a lift-specific division. For example, using the Wendler 5/3/1 split you’d have a squat day, a bench day, a deadlift day, and a military press day. You train the big lift and then add 3-5 assistance exercises for the muscles involved in that day’s lift. This is a good way to train for strength since you can easily fix the weak links in your big lifts.
There’s also the option of using a movement plane or pattern split. You could do an upper-body workout with vertical pulling and pressing, and a second workout with horizontal pulling and pressing. For the lower body, you’d go anterior chain one day and posterior chain the other day. This is great for balanced development and to minimize injuries.
Here’s what the weekly split could look like:
I first learned of this split when I was 18 and did Fred Hatfield’s 80-day powerlifting cycle. In that program – specifically designed to peak for a powerlifting competition – you’d train squat, bench, and assistance on one workout, and deadlift and assistance on the other. So, four total workouts per week.
It’s a split I do often and use with clients. It’s highly motivating and a good way for those who don’t love training legs to find it more palatable. While you have two lower-body exercises per workout, you also have four upper-body movements.
It’s also the split I use in the Best Workout Plan for Natural Lifters but with a higher frequency and lower volume.
Here’s how it looks:
The weekly schedule looks like this:
In this first option we skip the full-range hinge pattern on Saturday because we did squats the day before. We want to minimize muscle damage to the quads because squats are coming back on Monday.
Here you roll the workouts every other day. On some weeks you’ll have three workouts; in others you’ll have four. This is the best option, but it can be unsettling for those who prefer to follow a rigid schedule.
It would look like this:
You can keep the full-range hinge in all the B workouts.
I find this split just as good as lower/upper when it comes to being able to use it for any training goal.
The original push/pull/legs split is extremely popular. It’s effective, but it doesn’t quite check all the boxes.
While you have minimal negative carryover from workout to workout, it’s hard to hit every muscle twice every 7-8 days unless you do up to 5-6 workouts per week, which will be too much for most.
The way to make push/pull/legs into an optimal split is to add a fourth workout: a whole-body day.
The split would become:
You can use the whole-body workout to work on strength and the other days to focus more on maximizing growth or addressing weak links in the big lifts.
For example, on Monday you’d do a squat pattern, a press pattern, a pull/row, and a deadlift. Nothing else. Then on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday you’d train muscles to maximize growth, with an emphasis on the lagging muscles in the big lifts:
This is a motivating split. Each workout has a very specific purpose and you have two different “feels” during the week.
You can also use the whole-body day for something different than strength, like conditioning work or athletic training.