Almost everyone uses some sort of lifting split when they go to the gym. Although you don’t need to use any split at all, especially if you are a beginner (see Hypertrophy Specific Training), it is usually a good idea to do so if you are an intermediate or advanced lifter. However, all splits are not created equal. There are some splits that work quite well and others that end up hurting your results.
In this article I’m going to go through some different common bodybuilding splits and note the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The first split isn’t really a split at all. Especially if you are a beginner, it is probably a good idea to lift full-body every workout. This is because the main way that beginners will gain muscle is through protein synthesis. Since protein synthesis only lasts up to 48 hours after you lift (with the maximum being the first 24 hours), it makes sense to train each muscle group every 48 hours, or every other day. If you choose this type of “split”, I would highly suggest taking a look at Hypertrophy Specific Training and following it as it is the best full body system that I know of. Every principle is backed by tons of data and it is a full system that is easy to follow. On the other hand, it doesn’t take into account such things like inflammation and satellite cells, which might be necessary for advanced lifters to continue to grow. If you are a beginner or an intermediate lifter, HST is a good place to start.
This is probably one of the most popular splits, for good reason: it works. A simple upper-lower split will get the job done in most cases. Since the optimal frequency to train each muscle group is between 2X per week and once every 5 days (to optimize both protein synthesis and recovery), having a simple upper-lower split easily allows you to train each muscle group 2X per week. To set up an Upper-Lower split, you could lift Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or any other combination that you like, as long as you lift upper and lower 2X per week.
This is a very good intermediate split, which accounts for almost everyone that isn’t a beginner. Even if you have been lifting for a long time, you have not gotten to the “advanced” category unless you are getting close to your genetic potential. And just because you haven’t been increase poundage recently does not mean you have reached your genetic potential either. You probably just need to fix your diet or lifting.
(Also, it might seem confusing that in the full body split I said protein synthesis lasts 48 hours, but in the upper-lower split I said train each muscle group 2X per week. This is because a beginner and sometimes intermediates do not need any more recovery time than 48 hours. In that case, I would suggest HST. However, if you have progressed past the point of intermediate and need more than 48 hours to recover so that you can keep increase the weight you use, then I would move to something like upper-lower.)
This is another classic split that get pretty good results. Push stands for all the “pushing” exercises that you perform, such a bench press, dips, incline press, shoulder press, triceps extensions, etc. Pushing exercises work the chest, triceps, and shoulders. Pull stands for “pulling” exercises, such as various types of rows, pull downs, dead lifts, chin-ups, bicep curl, etc. Pulling exercises work the different back muscles (upper and lower), lats, traps, and biceps. Legs exercises work the quads, hams, and glutes. You can add abs to the Legs or the Legs and Pull if you like.
A good way to set up a Push-Pull-Legs Split is rotating through 2 on, 1 off. So for example, you could lift:
A Push-Pull-Legs split is at the lower end of the optimal frequency, about once every 5 days. This is a good range for intermediates and advanced lifters, as it gives plenty of time for resting each muscle group. Furthermore, this split allows you to focus on a smaller amount of muscle groups each workout, which will keep the lifts strong. Some people might want to choose this split over the Upper-Lower split if the exercises towards the end of the workout are losing intensity due to neural fatigue in the Upper-Lower split. However, this must be tested on an individual basis.
Chest+Tris / Legs / Back+bis / Shoulders+Traps / Calves+Abs+Forearms
This is somewhat of a Max-OT split, which is a split where each muscle group gets worked once per week. This does not optimize protein synthesis at all, but could be very useful for advanced lifters due to the inflammation and satellite cell theory of muscle growth. This type of split will allow you to use very heavy weights and really blast your muscles to bit each workout, which will cause the growth-contributing inflammation. However, since it is not anywhere near optimal for protein synthesis, I would not advise that beginners or intermediate lifters use this split as protein synthesis will be their main way to build more muscle. Moreover, having a separate day for shoulder might overwork the shoulder because it already comes into play a lot in chest+tri exercises, like incline bench.
This split can be used to break plateaus, though. If you can’t seem to increase the poundage on the bar consistently with your current split (assuming it’s not because of your diet, which is probable), you can try to use this Max-OT split to help your strength go up a bit.
Chest+Back / Legs+abs / Bis+Tris / Shoulder
This split is sometimes put together because of the myth that you have to work opposing muscle groups during each workout. This is completely false. Both the chest and back are huge muscle groups, while the biceps and triceps are very small. This means that if you do chest first, the back exercises might not be met with the same intensity. Also, since you need to incorporate the bis and tris in most chest, back, and shoulder movements, having the bis and tris still sore while trying to bench or do military press will drastically cut down the amount of weight that you can handle, thereby making it a less effective workout and lowering the growth response. In conclusion, I would not recommend anyone follow this split or any variation similar to it.
There are many other types of splits besides the ones that I have mentioned above, but most of them are not very effective. There are not secret super-effective splits that will allow you to shortcut your way to massive muscles. The ones mentioned above have been time tested and proven to work throughout the years (except the last one). Pick one of the above splits and put in the hard work!
If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below!