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Basic Programming, Part 1: Training Splits

Right now someone… somewhere… is opening up a bodybuilding mag in a foolhardy attempt to gain information. The search for information is commendable: when you don’t know what to do, look to someone who does, right? The fault lies not with the reader, but in the source of the information. No, this isn’t a rant on bodybuilding-style training sessions or the magazines that sample them. Many of these workouts are taken directly from successful professional bodybuilders and are extremely effective for developing muscular hypertrophy and promoting aesthetic achievement. This isn’t bad information… it’s just delivered to the wrong audience.

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These bodybuilders have lifted weights for years and their advanced programs, which are designed to trigger muscle growth for people at or near their genetic ceilings, will not produce similar results in new lifters whose bodies aren’t even recruiting all available muscle fibers each rep. This article kicks off part 1 of a series that will introduce new or intermediate lifters to basic strength training programming. Those that are going it on their own will have a better understanding of how to build a “plug-and-play” program toward their goals. Today’s topic?

Training splits.

A training split is how you program your weekly workouts by the body parts or movement patterns trained, either directly or indirectly, during that session. It’s a more focused blueprint. Below I’ll cover the most prominent splits and their benefits/ drawbacks. The first thing you need to do is decide realistically how many days per week you can dedicate to training and what your primary goal is. Our sample lifters are John, who can dedicate 4 days/ week to hitting the gym, and Rick, who is more comfortable with 3. It should be noted that all workouts are assumed to be comprised of complementary exercises that provide stimuli toward muscle balance and for simplicity’s sake, won’t focus much on advanced set schemes and loading techniques and this will be viewed through the lens of strength and power development, not general fitness or endurance. The splits are ordered according to typical volume per muscle rather (lowest to highest), not necessarily by importance or effectiveness.


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TOTAL-BODY WORKOUTS

A total-body split works just like it sounds. All major muscle groups are targeted in these sessions. No matter what your eventual goal is, this is usually the best place to start. By hitting every muscle group with less volume and more frequently, new lifters find greater neuromuscular gains through more efficient motor unit recruitment.

The Benefits:

  • Great for all lifters, particularly beginners and strength athletes.
  • An ideal choice for anyone that can only dedicate 3 days/ week to the gym.
  • Builds all-around functional strength when programmed correctly.
  • Lower single-session work volume per muscle group allows quicker CNS recovery between workouts so you can attack the same muscle groups sooner.
  • Enables integration of varying muscle groups and movement patterns to produce compound movements in multiple planes.

The Drawbacks:

  • Likely doesn’t accumulate enough daily or weekly volume to build substantial muscle mass quickly enough for veteran lifters (only a drawback if hypertrophy is the main goal).
  • Doesn’t normally allow enough time to focus on smaller muscle groups through corrective/ auxiliary exercises.

John’s Total Body Split

Monday                                                                 Tuesday
A1) Squat 5×5                                                       A1) Goblet Squat 4×12
B1) Bench Press 4×5                                            B1) Incline DB Press 3×10
C1) Pull-Ups 4×10                                                 C1) Bent-Over Rows 3×12
D1) Hamstring Curls 3×15                                  D1) SLDL 3×8 L/R
E1) RDL 3×10                                                         E1) Shoulder Press 3×8
E2) Plank 3x60sec                                                 E2) Cable Rotations 3×12 L/R

Thursday                                                                Friday
A1) Deadlift 5×5                                                    A1) Rack Pulls 5×10
B2) Incline Bench Press 5×5                               B1) DB Shoulder Press 4×8
C1) Wide Grip Pull-Ups 3×12                              C1) Seated Cable Rows 3×12
D1) Standing Press 3×8                                        D1) Lateral Raises 3×15
D2) Alt. Reverse Lunges 3x8L/R                         D2) Goblet Pause Squat 3×10
E1) Farmers Walks 4x20yds                                E1) Push-ups 3xFailure
E2) Stir-the-Pots 4×8 L/R                                      E2) Band Pull-Aparts 3×20


Rick’s Total Body Split

Monday                                                                 Wednesday
A1) Squat 5×5                                                       A1) Goblet Squat 4×12
B1) Bench Press 4×5                                            B1) Incline DB Press 3×10
C1) Pull-Ups 4×10                                                 C1) Bent-Over Rows 3×12
D1) Hamstring Curls 3×15                                  D1) SLDL 3×8 L/R
E1) RDL 3×10                                                         E1) Shoulder Press 3×8
E2) Plank 3x60sec                                                 E2) Cable Rotations 3×12 L/R

Friday
A1) Deadlift 5×5
B2) Standing Press 5×5
C1) Wide Grip Pull-Ups 3×12
D1) Lat Pull-Downs 3×8
D2) Alt. Reverse Lunges 3x8L/R
E1) Farmers Walks 4x20yds
E2) Stir-the-Pots 4×8 L/R


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UPPER/ LOWER SPLITS

Again, this one should seem relatively self-explanatory: one workout consists of primarily lower-body exercises, while the other is comprised of upper-body exercises. When performing compound movements properly–there is no way to completely isolate the lower body from the upper–the focus is one large portion of the body. By targeting half of the body at a time, more volume per muscle group is accumulated in a single session, opening up a few more possibilities with regards to strength, hypertrophy, and work capacity.

The Benefits:

  • One of the better all-around splits with good transfer to athletes, lifting enthusiasts, powerlifters, and others.
  • Increased volume promotes greater hypertrophic benefits relative to total-body workouts.
  • Allocates more time throughout the week to focus on corrective and auxiliary exercises.
  • Relatively low weekly work volume per muscle group won’t likely overburden your CNS and allows you to hit the same muscles again at least once during the week.
  • Easy to balance anterior/posterior work… particularly if you’re someone whose workouts get cut short occasionally.

The Drawbacks:

  • Single-session volume per muscle group may not be sufficient enough for most bodybuilders to grow massive muscle.
  • The focus on both the anterior and posterior musculature limits the amount of targeted training volume dedicated to each in single sessions.

John’s Upper/Lower Split

Monday – Lower                                                  Tuesday – Upper
A1) Power Snatch 5×5                                        A1) Bench Press 5×5
B1) Squat 5×5                                                       A2) Pull-Ups 5×10
C1) Hip Raises 3×12                                             B1) Shoulder Press 3×8
C2) Split Squats 3×8 L/R                                      B2) 1-Arm DB Row 3×10 L/R
D1) RDL 3×10                                                        C1) Face Pulls 3×8
D2) Plank 3x60sec                                                C2) Cable Rotations 3×12 L/R

Thursday – Lower                                                 Friday – Upper
A1) Power Clean 5×5                                            A1) Incline DB Press 5×10
B2) Deadlift 5×5                                                     A2) Bent-Over Barbell Row 5×12
C1) Reverse Lunges 3×8 L/R                                B1) Seated Cable Rows 3×12
C2) SL RDL 3×10 L/R                                             B2) Front/Lat Raises 3×10 L/R/E
D1) Hip Abduction/ Adduction 3x10L/R/E        C1) Hammer Curls 3×10
E1) Farmers Walks 4x20yds                                C2) Diamond Push-Ups 3xFailure
E2) Stir-the-Pots 4×8 L/R                                       D2) Band Pull-Aparts 3×20


Rick’s Upper/Lower Split

Monday – Lower                                                  Wednesday – Upper
A1) Power Snatch 5×5                                        A1) Bench Press 5×5
B1) Squat 5×5                                                       A2) Pull-Ups 5×10
C1) Hip Raises 3×12                                             B1) Shoulder Press 3×8
C2) Split Squats 3×8 L/R                                      B2) 1-Arm DB Row 3×10 L/R
D1) RDL 3×10                                                        C1) Face Pulls 3×8
D2) Plank 3x60sec                                                C2) Cable Rotations 3×12 L/R

Friday – Total-Body*
A1) Clean 5×5
B2) Deadlift 5×5
C1) Wide Grip Pull-Ups 3×12
C2) Incline DB Press 3×8
D1) Alt. Reverse Lunges 3x8L/R
D2) Curl-to-Press 3×8
E1) SL Hip Raises 4×15
E2) Stir-the-Pots 4×8 L/R

*Upper/Lower splits with an odd number of days must allocate one session to a total body workout to maintain muscle balance.

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PUSH/ PULL SPLITS

These can be looked at like a combination of the previous splits. You’re training your upper and lower body on the same day but attacking different halves: anterior vs. posterior in opposite sessions. Like the Upper/Lower, this enables you to train on consecutive days. For example, bench press and squats would be considered a push while rows and deadlifts would be considered pulls.

The Benefits:

  • Another split that tends to benefit athletes, bodybuilders, and general fitness enthusiasts alike.
  • You can train on consecutive days.
  • Daily single-session volume of anterior or posterior work is relatively high, triggering some hypertrophy for muscles involved in these movements.
  • Places the training focus directly on the movement, rather than the muscle.
  • Enables integration of varying muscle groups to produce compound movements.
  • Work capacity can be increased using supersets of synergistic muscle groups.

The Drawbacks:

  • The focus on movement limits focus on muscle, limiting specific muscle hypertrophy.
  • Focusing on either push or pull during integrated movements usually leaves you working in a single plane.
  • Usually doesn’t allow enough time to focus on corrective/ auxiliary exercises.
  • It’s hard to build raw strength during supersets of synergistic muscle groups.
  • Muscle imbalances can develop quickly if training days are missed or insufficient load is used.

John’s Push/Pull Split

Monday – Push                                                    Tuesday – Pull
A1) Power Jerk 5×5                                             A1) Power Snatch 5×5
B1) Squat 5×5                                                       B1) Deadlifts 5×5
C1) Bench Press 4×5                                            C1) Pull-Ups 3×10
D1) Shoulder Press 3×8                                      D1) 1-Arm DB Row 3×10 L/R
D2) Triceps Rope Pressdowns 3×8                   D2) Scarecrows 3×8
E1) Lunges 3×8 L/R                                               C2) Cable Rotations 3×12 L/R

Thursday – Push                                                    Friday – Pull
A1) Standing Press 5×5                                        A1) Power Clean 5×5
B2) Squat-to-BN Press 5×10                                A2) Sumo Deadlift 5×8
C1) Incline DB Press 3×8                                     B1) Seated Cable Rows 3×12
C2) Reverse Lunges 3×8 L/R                               B2) SL RDL 3×10 L/R
D1) Hip Abduction/ Adduction 3x10L/R/E       C1) Hammer Curls 3×10
E1) Push-Ups 3xFailure                                       C2) Leg Curls 3×12
E2) Stir-the-Pots 4×8 L/R                                      D2) Band Pull-Aparts 3×20


Rick’s Push/Pull Split

Monday – Push                                                    Wednesday – Pull
A1) Power Jerk 5×5                                             A1) Power Snatch 5×5
B1) Squat 5×5                                                       B1) Deadlifts 5×5
C1) Bench Press 4×5                                            C1) Pull-Ups 3×10
D1) Shoulder Press 3×8                                      D1) 1-Arm DB Row 3×10 L/R
D2) Triceps Rope Pressdowns 3×8                   D2) Scarecrows 3×8
E1) Lunges 3×8 L/R                                               C2) Cable Rotations 3×12 L/R

Friday – Push/Pull*
A1) Clean 5×5
B2) Thrusters 5×10
C1) Wide Grip Pull-Ups 3×12
C2) SL RDL 3×12 L/R
D1) Alt. Reverse Lunges 3x8L/R
D2) Incline DB Press 3×8
E1) SL Hip Raises 4×15
E2) Stir-the-Pots 4×8 L/R

*Push/Pull splits with an odd number of days must allocate one to a total body workout to maintain muscle balance.

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MUSCLE GROUP SPLIT

Recognized as the classic bodybuilding split, this split places a narrower daily focus on muscles that work in concert with each other when the prime movers contract and attacks these synergistic relationships with volume. For example, pectorals, anterior deltoids, and pectorals usually collaborate to produce a variety of anterior movements in the sagittal and transverse plane. Because of the smaller focus on a single group of muscles daily, more volume can be allotted to the grouping to produce some serious skin-tearing pumps.

The Benefits:

  • Great for bodybuilders and physique competitors.
  • Places a greater training volume on both muscle groups and similar movements/ planes of motion, spurring greater hypertrophy for the affected muscles.
  • Targets each major muscle group about once per week, allowing ample recovery time for growth.
  • Tweaking the programming for aesthetics is simpler. Volume for lagging muscle groups can simply be increased as you see fit.

The Drawbacks:

  • Not ideal for beginners, athletes, or powerlifters.
  • This training split isn’t quite as “functional” due to the focus on muscles over movement.
  • It’s extremely difficult to cram some of this volume into a single hour session.
  • 3-day splits aren’t super useful for this style of training. With less time allocated to training, it’s inevitable that some of the volume will be clipped.
  • Single session training volume places a huge load on each muscle group, necessitating 4-6 days of recovery before targeting the same grouping again.
  • Muscle imbalances can develop quickly if training days are missed or insufficient load is used, particularly in the posterior chain.

John’s Muscle Group Split

Monday – Chest/Triceps                                     Tuesday – Back, Biceps, Forearms
A1) Bench Press 4×8                                            A1) Pull-Ups 4×12
B1) Incline DB Press 3×10                                   B1) Bent-Over Rows 3×10
C1) Close Grip Bench 3×10                                  C1) Seated Cable Rows 3×12
C2) DB Flyes 3×15                                                 C2) Hammer Curls 3×10
D1) Triceps Rope Pressdowns 3×8                    D1) Shrugs 3×12
D2) Push-Ups 3xFailure                                       D2) Supinated Curls 3×10
E1) Incline Flyes 3×15                                          E1) Back Extension 3×12
E2) DB Pull-Overs 3×10                                        E2) Farmers Walks 3x20yds

Thursday – Legs                                                     Friday – Shoulders, Abs
A1) Squats 4×12                                                     A1) Military Press 4×8
B2) SLDL 4×15                                                       A2) Serratus Crunches 4×15
C1) Lunges 3×12 L/R                                             B1) Arnold Press 3×12
C2) Stab Ball Leg Curls 3×15                               B2) Cable Crunches
D1) Leg Extension 3×12                                       C1) Front Raises 3×12
D2) Leg Curls 3×15                                                C2) Oblique Crunches 3×20 L/R
D3) Calf Raises 3×20                                             D1) Lateral Raises 3×15
D2) Face Pulls 3×20


Rick’s Muscle Group Split

Monday – Chest/Triceps/Delts                            Wednesday – Back, Biceps, Forearms
A1) Bench Press 4×8                                            A1) Pull-Ups 4×12
B1) Incline DB Press 3×10                                   B1) Bent-Over Rows 3×10
C1) Close Grip Bench 3×10                                  C1) Seated Cable Rows 3×12
C2) DB Flyes 3×15                                                 C2) Hammer Curls 3×10
D1) Triceps Rope Pressdowns 3×8                    D1) Shrugs 3×12
D2) Arnold Press 3×12                                         D2) Supinated Curls 3×10
E1) Front Raises 3×15                                          E1) Back Extension 3×12
E2) Lateral Raises 3×10                                       E2) Farmers Walks 3x20yds

Friday – Legs, Abs
A1) Squats 4×12
A2) Serratus Crunches 4×12
B2) SLDL 4×15
B2) Leg Raises 4×8
C1) Lunges 3×12 L/R
C2) Stab Ball Leg Curls 3×15
C3) Oblique Crunches 3×12 L/R
D1) Leg Extension 3×12
D2) Leg Curls 3×15
D3) Calf Raises 3×20


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ISOLATION SPLIT

Last, but not least, we come to the isolation split. This one is usually only undertaken by serious bodybuilders due to it’s complete lack of functionally integrated movement patterns, incredibly high training volume per muscle, and the weekly sessions necessary to maintain muscle balance. It’s so difficult to hit every small muscle group and this split all but requires you to train almost every day. Furthermore, this style of training is relatively impractical due to the relative inability to perfectly isolate targeted muscles during movements. These days, it’s even rare for bodybuilders to use this split.

The Benefits:

  • Sessions are structured to target single muscles or portions of muscle bellies–rather than muscle groups–with high single-session volume.
  • Catching up on muscle imbalances is simple when you can just increase the training volume on a specific day of the week.

The Drawbacks:

  • Single session training volume places a huge load on each muscle group, necessitating 4-6 days of recovery before hitting the same grouping again.
  • Highest risk of muscle imbalances due to missed sessions or lack of training volume in the right body parts.
  • Not incredibly functional due to the overwhelming focus on muscles over movements.
  • Incidentally, it’s not proven to increase mass more than muscle group splits due to the difficulty/impossibility of isolating single muscles.
  • Impossible to incorporate into a 3-day schedule, due to the increased volume per muscle necessary for this split.

Since neither a 3- or 4-day schedule is ideal for this type of training, a 5-day example is given below.

Monday – Chest, Triceps, Abs                             Tuesday – Back, Biceps, Quads
A1) Wide-Grip Bench Press 4×10                       A1) Wide-Grip Barbell Rows 3×12
B1) Close-Grip Incline Press 3×15                      B1) 1-Arm DB Rows 3×15 L/R
B2) Cable Crunches 3×20                                     B2) Narrow-Stance Squats 3×12
C1) Decline Bench Press 3×12                             C1) 45° Close-Grip Cable Rows 3×15
C2) Serratus Crunches 3×12                                C2) Leg Extensions 3×15
D1) Cable Pull-Overs 3×20                                   D1) Reverse Pec Deck Flyes 3×20
D2) Oblique Crunches 3×20 L/R                          D2) Split Squats 3×15 L/R
E1) Pec Deck Flyes 3×20                                       E1) DB Shrugs 3×15
E1) Power Tower Leg Raises 3×15                      E2) Leg Press 3×15

Wednesday – Delts, Hamstrings                         Thursday – Biceps, Triceps
A1) Half-Range Shoulder Press 3×12                A1) Supinated Barbell Curls 3×10
A2) SLDL 3×15                                                       A2) Skullcrushers 3×12
B1) Lateral Raises 3×15                                        B1) DB Hammer Curls 3×10
B2) Seated Leg Curls 3×15                                   B2) French Press 3×15
C1) Front Raises 3×15                                           C1) Preacher Curls 3×12
C2) Prone Leg Curls 3×15                                     C2) Rope Pressdowns 3×15

Friday – Glutes, Calves
A1) Wide-Stance Squats 3×15
B1) Barbell Hip Raises 3×15
B2) Standing Calf Raises 3×20
C1) Glute-Hams 3×15
C2) Seated Calf Raises 3×20
D1) 1-Leg Hip Raises 3×12 L/R
D2) Negative Calf Raises 3×20
E1) Reverse Hypers 3×25


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As you can see, a ton of training volume needs to get packed into each isolation session to make it worth your while. Although bodybuilding-style workouts don’t require long rest times between sets, even small amounts of time add up, meaning you won’t likely be able to complete most workouts in a neat hour.

One thing you may have noticed is that there is some carryover between different training splits. As stated before, there isn’t really any way to completely isolate minor muscle groups from major ones. Every agonist has synergists and antagonists… every time… so you’re not likely to turn many, if any, muscles off when these exercises are performed correctly.

There is NO perfect training split, but some do tend to work better for certain training goals. For example, athletes tend to do better with Push/Pull, Upper/Lower, and even Total Body splits than with Muscle Groups and Isolation, largely due to the fact that these splits are more effective for training movements over muscles. Training the movement is more likely to improve motor unit recruitment and helps to transfer the skills learned in the weight room onto the field.

Beginners with any training goal do extremely well developing balanced foundational strength when using a Total Body split. When you’re just starting out, your ceiling is so high that just about anything you do will elicit gains. The Total Body split allows newbies to create a sense of balance within their program and doesn’t penalize their bodies in the long run for missed workouts quite as severely as with other splits.

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You can even stitch together a couple of different styles to create a hybrid split that works just for you. Today, many bodybuilders are moving away from strict Muscle Group training and Isolation splits, instead opting to add volume to Push/Pull or Upper/Lower splits or mix and match a little.

The workouts for almost all of my athletes at FSP in Roswell, GA use an Upper/Lower weekly split (inter-workout) and a Push/Pull session split (intra-workout). It’s not too unlike John’s 4-day split in the Upper/Lower example. I structure their programs this way to foster strength and power development in all planes, maintain efficient workouts, and promote neuromuscular recovery. On upper-body days in particular, anterior prime movers get a break during a superset involving posterior prime movers. Olympic weightlifting (which can place a heavy burden on the CNS) can now occur every other day, rather than on consecutive days, to promote better neural recovery.

The combinations could be endless, but whatever you go with, it’s best to stay consistent and put in a solid effort. Average training programs done consistently will produce better gains than the world’s best program done infrequently. At the end of the day, be honest with the eventual outcome you want to achieve and the split will decide itself for you. Just remember not to do something just because you saw it in a magazine. The guy doing it is bigger than you and he’s doing what he’s doing to get even bigger than he is now. Trying his workout on for size will likely leave you overtrained or injured.

Author: Aaron Runner

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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Aaron Runner View All

<p>Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.</p>

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