• Introduction
  • The basics of workout splits
  • The whole body split
  • Upper body/lower body split
  • Push/pull/legs split
  • Four-day training split
  • Five-day training split
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Hypertrophy: increase in muscle cell size.
  • Macrocycle: a long-term “seasonal plan” that consists of several mesocycles.
  • Mesocycle: consists of several microcycles and determines the training target for this specific period (e.g. strength, power, endurance, etc.).
  • Microcycle: the shortest training cycle, typically lasting a week.
  • Motor unit: a motor neuron and all the muscle fibers innervated by it.

Introduction

Workout splits refer to different ways of dividing your training throughout the week. This is most commonly planned according to body region, movement, specific body part, or by lift. For example, you can perform upper body exercises on Monday and focus on the lower body on Wednesdays. However, workout splits can also become more specific depending on how advanced you are and what your goals are. 

The main benefit of splitting your workouts is that it ensures your training is structured in a safe and effective way. This means that each muscle group is trained a few times a week with at least 48h between training sessions of the same muscle group. This allows you to progressively overload the muscles, while reducing the risk of injuries or overtraining.

This post explains the basics of workout splits, and provides several different variations for structuring your own weekly routine.

The basics of workout splits

There are several ways to divide your training throughout the week. The most widely used workout splits are the whole body split, upper body/lower body split, push/pull/legs split, four-day training split, and the five-day training split.

Which one of these suit you the best depends on a few factors; your training background, possible injuries, personal goals and motivational status, available time, and rest/recovery need. As a general rule, you should perform one or two exercises per muscle group, two to three times per week. However, this is also heavily dependent on which type of split you choose. 

In traditional linear periodization, training programs are divided into three phases; microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle. A microcycle is the shortest training cycle, typically lasting a week. A mesocycle consists of several microcycles and determines the training target for this specific period (e.g. strength, power, endurance, etc.). A macrocycle refers to a long-term “seasonal plan” that consists of several mesocycles. A macrocyle starts with higher volume training (more repetitions and sets) and gradually grows in intensity (more resistance and less repetitions) as the program progresses.

Progressive overload is achieved by gradually increasing the load or training volume. One training block usually last for ~4 weeks (or 6-12 weeks for beginners) before transitioning into a new routine. However, there are also more modern methods that follow nonlinear (undulating) periodization, where exercises are varied more frequently. 

Hypertrophy
(preparation phase)

Strength & Power
(1st transition phase)

Peak
(competition phase)

Recovery
(2nd transition phase)


8-10 reps

4-6 reps

1-3 reps

12-15 reps


4-5 sets

3-4 sets

3-5 sets

3-5 sets


Low intensity

Moderate intensity

Very high intensity

Low intensity


High volume

Moderate volume

Low volume

Low volume


4 weeks

4 weeks

4 weeks

4 weeks


So what does this mean for your workout splits?

It means you must progressively increase the intensity of your training as well as vary it to provide a multifaceted stimulus for the muscles. This prevents stagnation and ensures training adaptations. One way to achieve this is by frequently changing exercises or changing split methods after each mesocycle. Of course, this should always be done according to your personal goals and needs.

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Workout Splits


Divides your weekly training by body region, movement, specific body part, lift, etc.Ensures that muscle groups have sufficient recoveryHelps maintain progressive overloadReduces injuries & overtraining

The whole body split

The whole body split is the most common way to divide your training throughout the week. A whole body split usually consists of the same full-body workout three times per week. This also means you always have 48h of recovery between each training, which ensures you maintain an anabolic (muscle building) state. Having a single workout also makes it easier to memorize and maintain.

Day

Example


Monday

Full body (all main muscle groups)


Tuesday

Rest


Wednesday

Full body (all main muscle groups)


Thursday

Rest


Friday

Full body (all main muscle groups)


Saturday

Rest


Sunday

Rest


The whole-body split is especially useful for beginners because of its relatively low volume. Thus, the initial strength adaptations come via the nervous system as your body learns to activate more motor units (a motor neuron and all the muscle fibers innervated by it). This also produces strength gains relatively quickly. As you continue your training, your muscle fibers will also increase in size, further increasing strength. 

Upper body/lower body split

The upper body/lower body split is another common way to divide your weekly exercises. In essence, it separates exercises for different body regions on different days of the week. For example, you can have two upper body days (chest, back, shoulders, arms) and two lower body days per week (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves). 

Because training the entire body is separated over two days, the upper body/lower body split also allows for a higher training stimulus on each training session (more exercises per muscle group per session). For example, you can train the same muscle group with two exercises that utilize a different angle or resistance.

A common way to structure an upper body/lower body split is performing three to four sets of two exercises for a specific muscle group. You can also add more variety by focusing on muscular strength (higher resistance, lower volume) on the first two days of the week and hypertrophy (less resistance, higher volume) on the following training sessions.

Day

Example


Monday

Upper body strength (chest, back, shoulders, arms)


Tuesday

Lower body strength (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abs)


Wednesday

Rest


Thursday

Upper body hypertrophy (chest, back, shoulders, arms)


Friday

Lower body hypertrophy (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abs)


Saturday

Rest


Sunday

Rest


Due to this higher intensity, your body also needs more rest before training the same muscle groups again. Most studies state that you need at least 48h before training the same muscle groups again. However, waiting for over 72h and you will start to lose some of your strength gains.

Push/pull/legs split

The push/pull/legs split is another way to divide your weekly training over three days. However, instead of focusing on specific body regions, the focus is on a specific movement. As the name suggests, this split consist of a push day (chest, shoulders, triceps), a pull day (back, biceps), and a leg day (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves). You can also incorporate abdominal exercises on any of these days.

Focusing on multi-joint movements also allows you to simultaneously train multiple muscles (e.g. pectoral muscles, deltoids, and triceps during bench press). If you want to increase training volume, you can increase the number of sets, or perform three exercises per movement. You can also vary the number of repetitions throughout the workout to have a different training result. For example, performing high-resistance compound exercises first for strength improvements.

Day

Example 1

Example 2


Monday

Push (chest, triceps, shoulders)

Push (chest, triceps, shoulders)


Tuesday

Rest

Pull (back, biceps)


Wednesday

Pull (back, biceps)

Legs (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves)


Thursday

Rest

Push (chest, triceps, shoulders)


Friday

Legs (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves)

Pull (back, biceps)


Saturday

Rest

Legs (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves)


Sunday

Rest

Rest


A push/pull/legs split can be performed once (example 1) or twice (example 2) a week. If done twice, you can also schedule a full rest day before the second push day of the week. This also means that the split takes eight days instead of seven. However, this is highly related to your individual recovery need.

Four-day training split

A four-day split divides your weekly exercises over four days, giving you three days for recovery. This also leaves plenty of room for variation. For example, you can follow a two days on/one day off ratio, or four days on/two days off ratio.

By focusing on fewer muscle groups during a single training session, you can significantly increase both the volume and intensity. One effective way is pairing a large muscle group with a smaller one (e.g. back and tricep, both pulling muscles). Here, you must pay special attention to training the larger muscle groups first. This is because smaller muscles often assist larger muscles in several movements.

Day

Example


Monday

Back


Tuesday

Chest


Wednesday

Rest


Thursday

Legs


Friday

Shoulders


Saturday

Rest


Sunday

Rest


Alternatively, you can also pair muscle groups with the opposing functions – essentially having one push exercise and one pull exercise per day. For example, training the chest (push) and biceps (pull) on the same day. However, it is important to not train the same muscle groups on consecutive days. You can either take a full rest day or target the legs before training the same muscles again.

Five-day training split

The five-day split is an advanced training split, where each of your body part has a dedicated training day. This ensures that the training volume and intensity remains very high throughout the entire week. Thus, providing a strong stimulus for muscle growth and strength gains.

In a five-day workout split, it is especially important that each muscle group is fully rested before it is trained. As a general rule, a single muscle group should not be trained on consecutive days. This is because the muscle is not ready to receive a new stimulus for 48h after heavy exercise. Therefore, you must put special attention to how to program your weekly routine and allow each muscle to have sufficient recovery.

Day

Example


Monday

Chest


Tuesday

Back


Wednesday

Shoulders


Thursday

Legs


Friday

Biceps


Saturday

Rest


Sunday

Rest


Although a five-day split has proven to be very effective, it takes substantial time, effort, and dedication to maintain. If you are willing to put in the work, it will surely result in significant improvements in your physique.

Training splits can be varied by changing exercises, number of repetitions & sets, duration, intensity, and workout schedule.

Final thoughts

When creating an optimal workout split for yourself, you must first ask yourself a few questions; what are my goals? What is my current level of fitness? How much time I have to train during the week? Once you have taken these into account, you will have a better idea of what weekly routine might suit you best. 

Another thing to consider is that these routines rarely include endurance exercises. If you want to incorporate them into your new active lifestyle, make sure your gym schedule allows you to do so. In fact, it is highly recommended that you maintain your cardio due to its immense health benefits.

Finally, training is not the only factor in improving your fitness. You must remember to balance it with sufficient sleep and good nutrition. Only then you can expect results from your training.

Did you learn anything new about workout splits? Let us know in the comments.

Sources

  • Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 May;18(2):377-82. doi: 10.1519/R-12842.1. PMID: 15142003.
  • Ralston GW, Kilgore L, Wyatt FB, Baker JS. The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2017 Dec;47(12):2585-2601. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0762-7. PMID: 28755103; PMCID: PMC5684266.
  • Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, Grgic J, Delcastillo K, Belliard R, Alto A. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):94-103. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764. PMID: 30153194; PMCID: PMC6303131.
  • 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.
  • Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med. 2007;37(3):225-64. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737030-00004. PMID: 17326698.

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