Starting a workout routine can be daunting due to all of the uncertainty about planning and executing the “best” training plan. Allow me to clear up all of the unnecessary confusion so that you waste less time worrying and have more time to actually train to lose fat, build muscle, and increase your athleticism for the things you love to do.
What’s a training split, and which is best?
A “training split” is simply how you divide your workouts throughout the week so that each session has a focus.
There’s really no BEST training split. That answer is going to depend on your specific, individualized goals.
However, the aim of this article is to lay out the best options available to you, along with their pros and cons, so that you can make the most informed decision before stepping into the gym.
The Body Part Training Split
Probably the most popular or most well-known, the body part training split is an old-school bodybuilding training style. You know – chest day, back day, leg day, shoulders, arms, and abs.
This is usually a 4-6 day split. You work a different body part or muscle group in each session. A typical session might look like this for “chest” day:
- Warm up – 2-3 sets of push ups
- Bench press 4×6
- Incline DB press 3×10
- Cable chest fly 3×12-15
Basically, you’re out to hammer your chest during that workout. Your next session might focus on your back or on your legs (please, don’t skip leg day, people).
PROS: Since you’re focusing on a different muscle group each day, you can accumulate a lot of training volume, which is great for hypertrophy (muscle building). That’s why this is a popular training split for bodybuilders.
CONS: High volume usually equals high soreness. For people just getting back into the gym, this can be a motivation killer. And since you’re focusing on just one muscle group per day, you have to rest a lot between sets, so these workouts tend to take longer than other splits.
Is the body part split right for you?
- YES – if you have some training experience, aren’t deterred by soreness, can dedicate 4-6 days to training for about an hour, and want to gain muscle.
- NO – if you’re a true beginner, if your goal is weight/fat loss, or if you’re too busy to spend 4-6 hours in the gym each week.
The Upper/Lower Training Split
As the name suggests, this split involves training your upper body one day, then your lower body the next. You could train 2x per week or 4x per week in this manner. (If you care more about working your upper body, you could do 2x upper and 1x lower, or vice versa for legs.)
PROS: This is a great way to smoke your upper/lower body with a high training volume. You can use compound movements like bench/row for upper body and squats/deadlifts for legs, followed by isolation exercises like bicep curls or calf raises. You’ll leave the gym feeling like jello, so if you like to feel worked over, this can be a good split.
CONS: Since you’re doing a lot of volume, you’ll need a lot of recovery to balance it out. If you like to workout frequently, the upper/lower split might be too much work for you to recover from. It’s best suited to a two-on-one-off schedule to allow for recovery. For instance: upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday, off on Wednesday, upper again on Thursday, lower again on Friday, then cardio or rest on the weekend.
Is the upper/lower split for you?
- YES – if you like to feel sore after a workout and can accommodate the 2:1 schedule so you recover fully between sessions
- NO – if you’re a beginner and/or don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to long sessions in the gym
The Push/Pull Training Split
Again, as the name implies, this split will divide your workouts into pushing movements (bench, overhead press, squats) and pulling movements (rows, chin-ups, deadlifts).
This split is pretty similar to the upper/lower split except that you can work your full body in each training session because you’re focused on movements rather than muscles.
PROS: you get a full body workout, and the volume is spread over more muscle groups compared to a body part or upper/lower split
CONS: focusing on compound movements can still create a lot of soreness that you’ll need to recover from; training sessions can be long in duration because you have a lot of work to do
Similarly to the upper/lower split, you can train push/pull 2x per week or 4x per week, and you’ll usually want a day in between to recover. A good schedule might look like this:
- Monday – push – bench press, squats, lunges
- Tuesday – pull – deadlift, bent over row, seated cable row
- Wednesday – cardio or rest day
- Thursday – push – dumbbell shoulder press, lat raises, dips, leg press, calf raise
- Friday – pull – chin ups, lat pull downs, Romanian deadlifts
- Saturday – cardio or rest
Is the push/pull split right for you?
- YES – if you have about an hour to dedicate to training 2 or 4 times per week and want a full-body workout
- NO – if you don’t have a lot of time to hit the gym or if you want to focus on building particular muscle groups
The Full Body Training Split
Each session, you’ll choose a squat, a hinge, a push, a pull, and (optionally) isolation or core exercises. This way, you work all the major movement patterns and get a full-body workout. This type of training split is best for people who can only train 2-3 times per week. If you set up your workouts in a circuit-fashion, this can be a great way to increase your calorie burn for fat loss.
PROS: the full body workout is great if you have limited time to dedicate to training
CONS: you shouldn’t train daily because your body will need time to recover after each session
Is the full body split right for you?
This split might be for you if you can only workout 2-3 times per week. Every other day is best so that your body can recover between sessions. Many people who follow a full-body split and want to train more frequently will alternate strength workout days with cardio days (ie, lift on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, then run on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday).
The Intensive/Extensive Training Split
This is a lesser-known training method, but it can be a fun option to shake up your usual routine.
“Intensive” means high-intensity work, such as cleans, snatches, or compound barbell movements in the 3-5 rep range. This is great for building athleticism and improving sports performance. But intensive workouts place a high demand on your central nervous system, so it takes longer to recover from this type of training.
“Extensive” means high-volume work. Think light-to-moderate weight in the 10+ rep range. This type of training is great for building lean muscle. The metabolic stress is also high, which makes extensive workouts great for fat-burning.
Alternating between the two types of sessions allows you to train intensively without compromising your recovery because the extensive sessions aren’t as taxing. (Note: that doesn’t mean they’re easy!)
This training style is great for people with some lifting experience who want the “best of both worlds” — increased athletic performance and a lean, muscular body.
To set up an intensive/extensive split, check out this sample training schedule:
- Monday – Explosive/power movement (barbell cleans) + heavy compound pushing (bench)
- Tuesday – Moderate weight pulling movements (bent over rows, DB rows) 4×10-12
- Wednesday – cardio or rest
- Thursday – Explosive/power (push press) + heavy compound pulling (weighted pull ups)
- Friday – Moderate weight pressing movements in 10-12 rep range
- Saturday/Sunday – cardio or rest
So, Which Training Split Is Best For You?
Be honest with yourself about your goals and the amount of time you can dedicate to training and recovery. The best choice is the one that aligns with your goals and your lifestyle so that you can actually stick with it long enough to reap the benefits of your training.
For 98% of people who just want to look, feel, and perform better, I generally recommend 3-4 full body workouts per week, focusing on the major movement patterns and a little bit of cardio. These workouts often take only 30-40 minutes including a quick dynamic warm up, making this training split perfect for busy people who don’t want to live in the gym in order to see results from their training.
If you’re already pretty lean and want to build more muscle, the body part split, upper/lower split, or push/pull split will allow you to increase your training volume and stimulate muscle growth.
If you’re an ex-athlete with lifting experience, and you want to maintain your athleticism for skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, running, and rec sports, you may want to give the extensive/intensive split a try. This training style will allow you to build strength and explosive power to show off on the mountain and the playing field.
Pick A Split, Then Stick With It
Use the information in this article to pick a training split that works best for you. Please, do me a favor, though? Stick with your training program for four to six weeks (minimum) before you evaluate its effectiveness. You won’t do yourself any favors by bouncing from program to program.
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