If you have spent more than five minutes searching the internet for a workout program, or talking to the trainer at your local gym, then you understand that there are seemingly a million different ways to attack your workout. Most workout plans, regardless of where they are found, contain the same exercises. After all, the proverbial wheel can only be reinvented so many times. Sure, every now and then, someone comes up with a “ground breaking” piece of equipment that is destined to change the fitness industry completely. However, not many trainers incorporate these “new and improved” systems into their programs. What you will find in most weight lifting programs is a combination of exercises that have been around for decades. The biggest difference between programs is the “split.”
Don’t worry, this is not an article about groin flexibility. From a workout perspective, a split is the amount of times an exercise is performed and the amount of times a certain body part is trained. Below I will list some of the most popular training splits, and offer pros and cons of each one.
- The “old school” split. This is the type of training that has been around bodybuilding since the beginning of time. With this method, a body part is trained once per day. An example of this split is:
- Monday: Chest
- Tuesday: Back
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Arms
- Friday: Shoulders
This method has proven to be beneficial, as a vast majority of professional bodybuilders have used (and continue to use) this type of split. Because of that fact, a vast majority of your average gym goers, stick to a system similar to this. Why? Well…it’s easy. As stated above, there are so many ways you can reinvent the wheel. Likewise, there are only so many exercises that will directly target a certain muscle group. So, when Monday rolls around, people all over the world gather at their local gym to pound out 8 – 10 exercises for one group.
- It’s easy! This plan isn’t a plan that will technically require you to seek out the advice of a personal trainer
- It’s stimulating. This plan will directly target a muscle group better than any other plan. Why? Well…because the hour that you spend in the gym is spent working directly on a certain muscle. Because of that, the “pump” you get from this type of training split is great! If you do not know what the “pump” is, I recommend you watching “Pumping Iron,” and listening to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s description.
- It’s common. For a lot of people this wouldn’t be considered a pro, however if you are someone that is new to training, it can feel comforting to use a plan similar to everyone else. In the social media day and age, where everyone is ready to hit record and upload your embarrassing exercise, some people will feel more comfortable using a plan that makes them feel like part of the pack.
- It’s one body part per week. Yes, the idea of spending an hour attacking your chest on a Monday seems great, however, it doesn’t feel great to realize that you will not directly hit your chest again for an entire week. Sure, after a brutal day, your body will need a couple of days to recover. However, seven days is a stretch. This begs the question: Will a week make me weak?
- It’s common. Yes, I realize that I just violated Aristotle’s first indemonstrable principle of reason. You cannot be and not be at the same time. So, how can something be a pro and a con? Next time you walk into your gym, take a look at everyone. Spend a couple of minutes people watching (but not to the point that management feels the need to stop you. Don’t be creepy). Now, wait about six months and analyze everyone again. Tell me, what difference do you see? You don’t even have to set a specific time to scan everyone in your gym. Think about it: For as long as you have been going to your gym, how many people have made ground breaking changes? I’m willing to bet your answer is either “none” or “very few.” Obviously, your nutrition and recovery will play an even bigger role in your physique than your training protocol will, however, everyone is average, and I frankly don’t’ want to be like everyone. So, I don’t train like you, because I don’t want to look like you.
- Full Body Splits. This is the type of training you typically see in high school weight rooms. Under this split, a person will typically spend an entire workout hitting their whole body, and will do this workout 2-3 times per week. This method is great for beginners, as it forces them to keep the number of exercises significantly lower than that of the “old school” method. Because of this, people will often opt to do more compound movements (movements that hit multiple groups), rather than strictly sticking to isolation exercise.
- It requires minimal scheduling. Unlike most other splits, which requires you to schedule out your entire week, a plan like this only forces you to be in the gym 2-3 times per week. People opting for the former will typically workout Monday and Wednesday, while those opting for the latter will typically add in another workout on Friday.
- It’s Flexible. As stated above, this plan only requires a couple of workout days per week. Because of this, the individual has the opportunity to be flexible in their choosing.
- Build’s strength. I am not stating that isolation work does not build strength! However, compound movements and competition type lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) will build more full body strength than an exercise such as cable flys. Most athletes are more concerned with strength over size, so a split like this is perfect for an athletic weight room.
- Increases frequency. If you are wanting to build size and strength, you need to increase the frequency through which you target muscles. This does not mean that working the same muscle everyday will trigger more growth! Your body must recover. This system presents more frequency than that of the “old school” method, while still allowing your body to recover.
- The frequency may be too low. If you are someone who is more experienced, a split such as this may not provide you with the frequency that your body needs. If you are typically working out 5-6 days per week, switching to 2-3 day weeks, may not trigger more growth/strength, regardless of how heavy you are lifting during those sessions.
- Does not directly work muscles. The point of this split is to work the entire body, while simultaneously not focusing on muscle groups. If you are a bodybuilder, a split such as this would not be beneficial. You will build strength, but you will not build muscle (there is a difference!).
- Bi-Weekly Splits. This is the type of training where you work the entire body, twice per week. Unlike the “full body” split, this split directly targets muscle groups. This split combines the isolation of the “old school” method and the frequency of the “full body” method. There are two typical examples of this type of split
- Monday: Chest/Triceps/Shoulders
- Tuesday: Back/Biceps
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Chest/Triceps/Shoulders
- Friday: Back/Biceps
- Saturday: Legs
- Monday: Upper
- Tuesday: Lower
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Upper
- Friday: Lower
- Saturday: Off
This type of training allows for direct work, while also allowing for an increase of frequency. Some people will target two muscle groups (choosing groups that work together), while others will simply work their entire upper body one day and their lower body the next day.
- Isolation + Frequency! This type of split is great for building muscle, as you are targeting areas more than once per week. Also, this split allows for compound movements, which when structured correctly, will generate an increase in strength.
- 2 – 3 off days. It’s no secret that I am a huge advocate of resting. You do not grow in the gym or the kitchen, you grow while you sleep. Gyms all over the world have guys that are shooting themselves in the foot, because they believe the more they work the better they will be. This is false. There is nothing wrong with having a couple of off days each week. In fact, you will most likely find that your results will be better! Your body will thank you!
- May not be suitable for everyone. If you are someone who has shoulder issues, choosing a split that has you working your chest, triceps, and shoulders on the same day may present an issue (depending on the exercise chosen). So, this may not be a con but rather a piece of advice: If you have issues such as this, limit the amount of pushing motions that you do on these days. You will hit the same group again in a few days, so do not treat each workout as if you have to hit the muscle at every angle.
- Push/Pull Split. This method is my personal favorite. This is the method plays a huge role in my “Full Proof Mass” system, which is a system designed for those people who consider themselves “hard gainers” and struggle with adding mass and strength. Under this type of split, a person will perform all pushing motions on one day, and all pulling motions on the next. There are really two ways to attack a program such as this, and it all depends on where you place your leg exercises. If you think about it, 99% of exercise that hit your quads, are done by pushing (whether it be pushing your body up from a squat, or pushing weight away from your body in the form of an extension). Likewise, most exercises that target your hamstrings are done by pulling. So, some people will add in a special day for legs completely, while others will add leg exercise in with their respective days. Here is an example of these two types:
- Monday: Push
- Tuesday: Pull
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Push
- Friday: Pull
- Saturday: Legs
- Monday: Push (add quads)
- Tuesday: Pull (add hams)
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Push (add quads)
- Friday: Pull (add hams)
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
The reason this is my favorite split is that it is a very versatile split. You can increase the intensity of this split by removing the off day on Wednesday, so it looks like (Monday: push, Tuesday: Pull, Wednesday: Push, Thursday: Pull, Friday: Push, Saturday: Pull, Sunday: Off). It combines the isolation of the “old school” method with an increase in frequency (allowing you to decide how frequent you want to work).
- Frequency, Frequency, Frequency. By now it is no surprise that I am an advocate for an increase in frequency. Under this split, you will be hitting each muscle group three times each week. This is similar to the full body approach, however, under this system you will be doing more isolation work. It perfectly combines the “old school” method with the “full body” method.
- Easier when injured. For years I worked out using the “Old school” method (using the exact split listed above). I noticed two things: (1) I never got much better, and (2) I saw more injuries than ever before. Although I was getting a ridiculous pump each day, and although I was spending an hour (sometimes an hour and half) targeting specific muscle groups, I never built much muscle. Perhaps this is because I began having shoulder issues due to the amount of pressing motions I was doing. There was a time where I had to take almost three months off from training to heal a shoulder issue. When I got back, I tried a push/pull split (adding quads on push and hams on pulls). I increased the frequency that I was hitting each muscle group, but I also lowered the amount of exercises that I was doing. I saw more results in a year than I had seen in the 7 years prior. How? Because I was hitting each body part three times per week, it allowed me to change the way I was targeting areas. For example, for shoulders I might do a shoulder press on one of the push days, but then spend the other two push days working different areas of my shoulder.
- Intensity! Numerous people will advocate against working to failure, and it is understandable when you are talking about a traditional approach to lifting. When someone is doing a full chest day, working to failure presents issues not only for their chest but for the sidekicks that help the chest out. However, when utilizing a push/pull split, the number of exercises will be lowered to the point that an individual can work to failure without causing the same issues. Because of this, the intensity can be increased unlike while using other splits.
I am biased, because this is my favorite split (and the split that I am currently using). So, to me there are no cons. However, I will attempt to come up with some (just so I don’t seem TOO biased).
- Not Direct Enough. While a split such as this does allow you to do more isolation work than other splits, it does not isolate the same way the “old school” method does. So, while this plan would work great for off season bodybuilders, as their season/shows approach, they would want to utilize more isolation. This could be done by either using the “old school” method, or by adding more isolation exercise to this split.
- You Still have to work. A split is only as good as the person using it. In the end this article is irrelevant if you are not going to provide the work ethic required for success. Just like no product/supplement will ever do the work for you, no split will do the work for you. Just because I say this is my favorite and provide you with examples of why it is successful, if you do not have the work ethic to use it, it’s useless. Not really a con, but I needed more than one con!
Regardless of if you are just starting out or if you are a seasoned lifter, choosing the right training split is important. However, even more important than your schedule is your consistency. The best plan quickly becomes the worst plan in the hands of a person who isn’t willing to work. So, what exactly is the best plan? ONE THAT YOU WILL STICK TO! (excuse that preposition). Find out how your body responds best. Find out what works best for your schedule. Find out what you enjoy. Consistency is key. So, when it comes to finding a workout plan that is best for you, the best one is the one that you won’t ditch after a few weeks.