When you first start working out, one of the most confusing questions you’ll face is what workout split to follow.
A workout split refers to how you’ll organize your training throughout the week.
The reason it’s called a split is because most workout plans split up your training in a way that has you train different muscle groups or exercises on different days of the week.
Sounds simple enough: some days you train some muscle groups or exercises, other days you train other muscle groups or exercises.
Of course, it’s not that simple.
There are countless ways to organize a week of workouts, but everyone has an opinion on what works best, and they’ll tell you you’re wrong if you’re not following exactly what they recommend.
Should you do traditional bodybuilder workouts where you train each muscle group once per week, obliterating it with as many sets as possible?
Or should you follow one of the minimalist full-body strength-training programs that have become popular over the past few years?
Or should you do something in the middle, like a push pull legs split?
Well, the short answer is that none of these approaches is perfect.
There isn’t one “best” workout split, and the best one for you depends on your goals, training experience, and preferences.
If you’re having trouble deciding how many days per week to work out, which muscle groups to work on which days, or which workout split would work best for your goals, this article is for you.
Let’s start by looking at what a workout split is.
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The best way to ensure you never gain any strength or muscle is to not go to the gym.
The second best way to ensure you never make any progress is to go to the gym with no idea of what you’re going to do.
You don’t need to do any kind of long-term planning or periodization, but at the very least, you should be following a repeatable weekly workout split.
Think of it as an exercise schedule that has you performing the same exercises, in the same order, on the same days, each week.
The exercises are chosen based on the goal of each workout, and they’re placed in a specific order throughout the week and within each workout.
For example, an upper/lower split involves dividing your workouts into upper body workouts and lower body workouts, and alternating between these workouts throughout the week. This way, one half of your body can be resting while the other half is being trained.
Using a workout split is an important step in ensuring your workouts are focused and purposeful, that you can track your progress easily, and that you train all your major muscle groups with sufficient volume so you don’t develop muscle imbalances.
Summary: A workout split refers to what exercises and muscle groups you train on different days of the week.
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There are countless possible ways to set up your training week, but don’t let this confuse you.
The only thing you need to focus on is finding a workout split that suits your goals, training experience, and preferences.
After all, a workout split that’s “suboptimal” on paper but easy to stick to is going to be much more effective than an “optimal” workout split that you can’t stick to.
So, in the next section, you’ll learn the most popular workout splits, the pros and cons of each, and how to decide which one you should follow.
Let’s get started.
The body part split—affectionately known as the “bro split” by some because it’s associated with bodybuilding magazines, fitness gurus, and the bros who follow both—is perhaps the most well-known workout split.
As the name suggests, a body part split has you working each major muscle group—or body part—on a separate day each week.
Each muscle group is trained once per week, so training normally looks something like this:
Thursday: Arms and Abs
Saturday and Sunday: Rest
Generally, body part splits are also fairly high volume. You do a lot of sets and reps in each workout, thoroughly training each body part until it’s swollen, sore, and pumped.
The pros of this workout split are that it’s simple, it works, and it gives special emphasis to the upper body muscles, which is what many guys care about most.
The cons of this workout split, though, are that it doesn’t provide the optimal training frequency or volume for all of your muscle groups.
Research suggests that rates of muscle protein synthesis—the process by which the body uses protein to build new muscle—peak at about 24 hours after a workout and return to normal by about 36 hours.
This means that after two to three days, your muscles have gained all of the muscle they can in response to that workout, and they’re ready to be trained again.
A typical body part split has you training each muscle group just once per week, which means you’re waiting a full seven days before training a muscle again. That’s a lot of time spent not building muscle each week.
Another problem with body part splits is that the quality of your training can suffer by trying to cram all of your sets for one muscle group into one workout each week.
For example, the last few sets—or perhaps even exercises—on a chest day are going to be tougher than the first few. Not only will your pecs be fried from all the work you’ve already done, but so too will your delts and triceps.
If, however, you did the same amount of volume spread out over two or three separate workouts, not only would you likely be able to handle heavier weights, but you’d probably be able to complete more reps with better form without feeling so fatigued.
Does this mean that body part splits are useless then?
Well, not quite.
If you’re following a half-decent workout plan that includes a lot of compound lifting, it’s unlikely that you’ll actually train each muscle group only once per week.
The bench press trains lots more muscles than just your pecs, the barbell row trains a lot more than just your lats, and the squat and deadlift train pretty much everything. In reality, all compound exercises train multiple muscle groups, so you’re going to be training muscles more often than you think.
Assuming you follow a good workout plan that includes plenty of compound exercises, body part splits are simple to follow, allow for plenty of recovery, and include enough volume and frequency for people new to weightlifting.
If you’re new to weightlifting or coming back to it after several years away from the gym, a body part split can work fine.
If you’re, well, just about anyone else, then you’ll likely make better progress on a different workout split.
The first alternative to the body part split that we’re going to look at is the upper/lower split.
As you can probably glean from the name, it splits training into two different types of workouts: upper-body workouts and lower-body workouts. Normally, the upper/lower split has you working out in the gym four days per week—two upper-body days and two lower-body days.
Few training splits are as versatile as the upper/lower split, which means there are many ways to program your exercises into each day.
Essentially, though, you want to train all the muscles of the upper body on upper days and all the muscles of the lower body on lower days.
How this ends up looking is entirely up to you.
For example, you might choose to prioritize all your horizontal pushing and pulling movements, like the bench press and barbell row, on the first upper-body day of the week, leaving the vertical pushing and pulling until the end of the workout when you’re slightly more tired.
On the second upper day of the week, you would simply reverse the order of this so your vertical movements, like pull-ups and the military press, take precedence.
You don’t need to get this detailed, though.
In essence, the basic idea is you do your upper body exercises on your upper body days, and your lower body exercises on your lower body days, and what emphasis you put on which exercises just depends on what you want to improve the most.
It’s a similar story for the lower body, too. On the first lower-body day of the week, you might prioritize your glutes and hamstrings, using movements like the deadlift and the hip thrust, whereas the second lower-body day of the week would focus more on the quads.
So, an example week might look something like this:
Saturday and Sunday: Rest
The pros of the upper/lower split are that it offers a great mix of volume and frequency—training each major muscle group at least twice a week, while allowing plenty of time for recovery between workouts.
The standard upper/lower split also only involves four workouts per week, which is very doable for most people.
The cons of this workout split, though, are sessions can be on the longer side—especially upper body days.
You may also need to warm up twice—one warm up for your push exercises, and another for your pull exercises—which extends your workouts further.
Another potential downside to the upper/lower split is some people like to be in the gym more than four days per week. Because of the way upper/lower splits are set up, it’s normally not advisable that you deviate from the four-day per week schedule by adding extra days.
If you can’t afford to be in the gym five days per week, feel like you need more recovery time, or like the simplicity of the upper/lower split, then it’s for you.
Because of the increased volume and frequency, upper/lower splits are the choice of many intermediate lifters. Even if you’re an advanced weightlifter, the upper/lower split can work quite well, especially if you’re cutting or focused on maintaining rather than lean bulking (when higher volumes can be helpful).
If you’re lean bulking, have plenty of time to train, or simply like being in the gym more days per week, then you may prefer a different workout split.
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The push pull legs (PPL) split has been around for decades and is one of the most proven workout splits of all time.
While it’s often the chosen split for new gymgoers, it works perfectly well for more advanced lifters looking to gain muscle and strength, too.
The idea of PPL is simple:
- On push days you train all the pushing muscles in the upper body, like the pecs, delts, and triceps.
- On pull days you train all the pulling muscles of the upper body, like your back muscles and biceps.
- On leg days you train all the muscles of the legs, including glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves.
The reason organizing your training into a PPL workout split is so useful is that muscles generally work in pairs.
When you press a barbell off your chest like in the bench press, you predominantly use your pecs, delts, and triceps, while your back and biceps are less active. In contrast, when you perform a chin-up, your back and biceps are the prime movers, while your pushing muscles get a break.
Thus, it makes sense to train muscles that work together in the same workouts.
What’s more, because the muscles used in pushing movements don’t interfere with the muscles used in pulling movements, you don’t have to worry about muscle soreness getting in the way of your workouts. Theoretically, you should be going into each workout more or less recovered.
In most cases, a standard PPL split looks like this:
Saturday and Sunday: Rest
The pros of this workout split are that it’s simple, time-tested, and since you’re only in the gym three days per week, time efficient. Some people also like the fact that each workout has a very simple goal.
For example, on pull day you can spend an entire session focussing solely on training the muscles of the back, and working through any cues you use to better feel your lats, traps, rhomboids, or rear delts.
The main con of PPL, though, is that each muscle group is trained only once per week, which as you learned a moment ago, is far from optimal for hypertrophy.
Another downside to the traditional PPL workout split is you’re usually limited to three workouts per week, which means your workouts will mostly be made up of compound exercises (since you won’t have time for isolation exercises).
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, this can be grueling once you start throwing around heavy weights. This is one of the reasons intermediate and advanced weightlifters often transition to higher frequency workout splits after using PPL for a while.
If you’re a beginner, if you need a long time to recover between workouts, or if you’re pressed for time, a three-day PPL split might be the perfect solution for you.
However, if you are beyond the newbie stage of lifting, have plenty of time to train, and are dead-set on gaining as much strength and muscle as possible, you’ll probably make better progress with a different workout split
Full-body workouts have been around forever.
They’re the basis of many great strength training programs, including Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, and the Texas Method.
What makes them a great option is they’re simple, involve just a handful of exercises, don’t take too much time, and hit every major muscle group in the body in every workout.
They normally include three workouts per week and are broken up by plenty of rest. Here’s an example of how this looks:
Monday: Full Body
Wednesday: Full Body
Friday: Full Body
Saturday and Sunday: Rest
The biggest pro of full-body workout splits is the frequency—they hit all major muscle groups multiple times per week.
Because of the high frequency, daily volume needn’t be high, which also means you’re unlikely to be extremely sore on any given day, you’ll likely perform higher quality reps each workout, and in turn improve your overall strength quickly.
High frequency isn’t just good from a volume perspective either—it also enables new lifters to improve their form through regular practice of the major exercises, and it gives more advanced trainees more frequent opportunities to refine their technique.
Full-body splits also fit into busy schedules very well.
Not able to get to the gym next Monday?
With a body part split this might throw the rest of the week into scheduling turmoil, and leave you shoehorning a shoulder workout into your leg day.
When you follow a full-body split, this isn’t an issue—if you can’t shuffle the generous number of rest days around to accommodate your scheduling conflict, you can simply continue on as normal when you eventually get back to the gym, since every day hits more or less all of the same muscle groups.
The major con of full-body splits, however, is the demanding nature of each workout.
As you get tired during a hard gym session, the quality of the reps you perform will decrease.
Think about having to perform heavy squats and heavy bench press, and then finishing up with some heavy deadlifts.
Doing three exercises per workout may sound like a breeze, but when you consider the high intensity and high frequency you have to do to make up for the low volume, and the draining nature of performing the biggest three movements there are back-to-back, you might start to appreciate how much of a killer these types of workouts can be.
To avoid any issues associated with intense training, there’s also no flexibility when it comes to exercise selection or volume—exercises, reps, sets, and frequencies are prescribed, and there is usually no wriggle room for customization.
If you’re new to weightlifting, looking to get strong, pressed for time, or simply enjoy training every muscle group every time you lift weights, you should consider trying a full-body workout split.
If you have plenty of time to train, have been training for more than a year, or are training to gain as much muscle as possible, you’ll make better progress following a different workout split.
Across the course of your lifting career, work schedules are likely to vary, family responsibilities are prone to change, and interest in training may wax and wane.
Therefore, knowing you can get in a solid workout three days a week when you’re busy or unenthused, or five or six days a week when you have boundless energy and free time, is useful.
However, aside from knowing you have options if you need them, are there any other benefits to varying your training in this way?
Well, you may want to consider changing your workout split as you become more advanced.
As your newbie gains fade into distant memory, some aspects of training have to change if you want to continue to make progress.
One of the best ways to do this is by increasing volume.
If you want to advance quicker, should you add sets every week, then?
For volume increases to be effective, you should only consider implementing them when you’re recovering from your workouts well, when you’re making use of deloads, and when your sleep and nutrition are on point, but your progress has otherwise plateaued.
If you’re checking all those boxes, but adding more volume into your daily workouts would make them too long, it might be time to transition from a three-day to a four-day split, or a four-day to a five-day split, assuming your schedule allows.
The only other time changing your workout split might be a good idea is when you get tired of doing the same old routine.
There’s nothing wrong with changing your training to keep it interesting, so long as you don’t do this too often.
Changing exercises or workout splits every 12 to 16 weeks is a great way to keep boredom at bay, so don’t be afraid to switch from a full-body routine to a push pull legs routine, or any other workout split.
Summary: Changing your workout split regularly is not necessary, and it might even be detrimental to progress. If you’re on top of every aspect of training, nutrition, and recovery, yet you still hit a plateau, consider adding more weekly volume through additional sets to your current exercises or by increasing frequency using a different training split.
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There is no such thing as a perfect workout split—it all comes down to which is best for your goals, training experience, and preferences.
The main options you have to choose from are:
- The Body Part Workout Split
- The Upper/Lower Workout Split
- The Push Pull Legs Workout Split
- The Full-Body Workout Split
Which one you choose largely boils down to how much time you have available to train, whether you’re new to weightlifting or an old hand, or which one you prefer.
The one exception to that rule is the body part workout split, which just isn’t as effective as the other approaches.
Aside from the body part workout split, you can’t really go wrong with any of these approaches, but here’s a helpful rule of thumb for picking which one you should try first:
- If you’re new to weightlifting, start off with a full-body or push pull legs workout split.
- If you have a few years of weightlifting under your belt, try an upper/lower workout split.
And if you’re looking for a good way to get started with any of these approaches, check out these articles:
+ Scientific References
- Helms ER, Fitschen PJ, Aragon AA, Cronin J, Schoenfeld BJ. Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Resistance and cardiovascular training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2015;55(3):164-178. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24998610. Accessed December 31, 2019.
- MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDonald JR, Interisano SA, Yarasheski KE. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Can J Appl Physiol. 1995;20(4):480-486. doi:10.1139/h95-038