This podcast is going to be about workout splits. I’m often asked “what’s the best workout split to follow?”
Is there really a “best” workout split for maximizing muscle growth?
Many people swear by the body part split, while others say it’s a waste of time. Still others say you should organize your split around movement patterns instead. Unfortunately, many of these opinions miss the forest for the trees.
There’s no scientifically optimal workout split for everyone in all circumstances. Which split is best for you will depend on your goals, your circumstances, and your preferences.
While I’ve written about the best workout split a fair amount, I like to address it regularly as my thinking and recommendations change. For example, the first edition of Bigger Leaner Stronger features a routine that looks a bit different than the one in the fourth edition I’m writing now.
In the case of Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, the current programming in the second edition likewise looks a bit different than that of the first edition.
I hear every day from people following my programs, and I’m always taking notes on the suggestions they make and the obstacles they run into so that I can continue to improve my body of work.
So, as I continue to learn and hear from readers, these are my current thoughts on the best split for gaining muscle.
Lastly, if you want to support the show, please drop a quick review of it over on iTunes. It really helps!
7:52 – What is a workout split?
10:22 – Is there a “best” workout split for everyone?
12:29 – How do your goals affect the split you should follow?
18:02 – How many muscle groups should you focus on at once?
22:17 – What are the requirements of a good workout split?
22:57 – What are the cons of a body part split?
Mentioned on the Show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Muscle for Life. I’m your host, Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today. And if you’re liking the podcast, if you have listened to at least one episode and liked it, please do subscribe to the show in whatever app you are listening to, because then you won’t miss any future episodes.
They’ll be queued up for you. And it’ll help boost the rankings of the show in the various charts, which helps me because it helps other people find the show. Okay, so this episode is going to be on workout splits and what is the quote unquote best workout split to follow. This is something I have written and spoken about many times over the years, but it’s something that I am always.
Asked about, and it is something I like to publicly address every so often as my thinking changes and as my recommendations change. For example, back when I published the first edition of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger in 2012, the programming was a push pull legs with an arms day and a shoulder. Basically, so it was a hybrid between a push pull legs and a body part split.
And you, if you fast forward to today, it’s similar, but now it’s more like push pull legs with an upper lower component. So if you mashed up push, pull legs and an upper lower split, That is more in line with bigger, leaner, stronger today, and I am in the middle of wrapping up what will be a fourth edition of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger.
And then I’m gonna do the same thing for Thinner, Leaner, Stronger, and the workout programming is going to stay essentially the same. I am going to change a couple of exercises that I think will just fit. The template better, and I’m going to be tweaking The rep ranges on some of the exercises. A lot of the work is still going to be four to six, but there is going to be a little bit more six to eight in the case of bigger, leaner, stronger, and in thinner, leaner, stronger.
There is going to be six to eight and eight to 10. And anyway, just a heads up that is coming and if you have bought Bigger, Leaner, Stronger or thinner, Leaner, Stronger as an ebook, or if you have bought one or both of the audio books, you are going to get the new fourth additions for free. You just will update your content in whatever.
Platform you’re reading on or listening on and that’s it. You don’t have to pay. And in the case of Beyond Bigger, Leaner, Stronger years ago, I published the first edition and it was very similar to Bigger, Leaner, Stronger. It just had a bit more volume and it had. A different type of puritization.
There was some heavier weight lifting, so you were doing twos, you were doing some ones now. And then as well as some higher reps. You were doing some eight to 10 in beyond. Bigger, leaner, stronger, which of course was different than bigger, Leaner, stronger. Now, about a year or so ago, I published the second edition of Beyond Bigger Leaders Stronger, and the workout split changed a little bit.
So instead of the push pull legs plus body, Mash up that it was previously. It is now more like bigger, leaner, stronger. It is push pull legs plus upper lower, and the periodization changed quite a bit. Now the primary exercises are literally periodized, so you’re starting a training block doing tens on your big exercises, for example, and you are ending a training block doing fours and twos, and even am wraps as many reps as possible.
Heavy weight. And so my point with saying all that is as I continue to learn and as I continue to hear from readers, I hear every day from people who are following my programs, sharing results, sharing obstacles, asking questions, making suggestions. I am always taking notes about how I can improve. My body of work, so to speak.
And then when my lists get long enough, I go into my books and I rejigger them. And in some cases I start over from scratch. I basically reorganize and rewrite everything, which is what I did in the third edition, and then again in the fourth edition. Without changing the fundamentals. Of course, the fundamentals have been solid from the beginning, but how those fundamentals are communicated, how they’re organized, and all of the supporting material that allows you to get the most from those fundamentals has continued to change over the years, and I have continued to refine the whole package, I guess you could say.
And so in this episode, I want to share some of my current thought. On the best split for gaining muscle because many people say that the body part split is terrible and they will beat the drum for something like a full body split or an upper lower split. And then others will disagree with that. And they say you should organize your training around a movement pattern, for example, that seems to be trendy these days or some other.
Factor of training, and it can be hard to separate the sheep from the goats because you can find sciencey explanations for many different positions. The problem however, is that many of these opinions focus on the brush strokes instead of the big picture. There is no best or perfect or scientifically.
Workout split for everyone. For all people and all circumstances. There are many workable and worthwhile options to choose from, and which split is best for you will depend on you. It will depend on. Your circumstances, your preferences, and your goals. Also, if you like what I am doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my sports nutrition company Legion, which thanks to the support
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Okay, so let’s start this discussion with a quick definition of terms. What is a workout split? This just refers to how you organize your workouts in terms of which exercises you do and which muscle groups you train in each workout in each training session. For example, in the intro I mentioned push pull legs.
Now that is a workout split that divides your training into workouts that train. Push muscles. So that could be a vertical, like an overhead push, which would be primarily your shoulders, or it could be a horizontal push, primarily your pecks, your chest muscles, or a pole workout. Of course, that’s your back, that’s your biceps.
And you may also be deadlifting, which trains basically all of the muscles on the backside of your body as well as your legs, right? The push pull legs, so your lower body muscles. You also have the full body workout split that is popular these days. A lot of people are hyping this up as the best way to train for everybody.
And in this split you train many different muscle groups at once. Although you don’t usually train all of the major muscle groups in your body. Sometimes, but usually it is skewed. Each full body workout is skewed toward the upper or lower body. So you may do primarily upper body work with a little bit of lower body or vice versa in full body workouts.
And if you look at many power lifting workouts strength training. Workouts, like proper strength training. They are organized around exercises. So you’re working your squat, you’re working your bench press, you’re working your deadlift, you are doing variations. You are doing accessory exercises to support those exercises.
And of course that makes sense because the primary goal of power lifting is to get as strong as you can on those few exercises. That equal your total and that you are judged on. And of course there are many different ways to combine all of these workout splits and others that are out there, like the upper lower split, which is another one that I mentioned in the intro.
And some people say that is okay. Purists say it is unnecessary. You’re just making things more complicated than they need to be, and you should just stick with one clear cut workout split. Now my problem with that position, with the position that it’s very important to clearly delineate the workout split that you are following.
And my problem with the position that there is a best workout split for everyone. One true workout split is our muscles don’t care. What workout split we are following. Our biceps don’t care if they get trained in an arms day, a pole day, an upper body day, a full body day. With an upper body focus, our muscles will grow when we do the right amount.
Of the right exercises with the right amount of weight and with enough post workout, rest and recovery. Our workout split is just a tool that helps us accomplish those ends, and those are the key goals. The right exercises, the ones that stimulate the muscles correctly, that train the muscles correctly through a full range of motion, the right amount of volume.
So doing the right. Work with those exercises, the right amount of weight. So that’s intensity. How hard do our muscles have to work in each rep and each set, and particularly in each set. So how close to muscular failure are we going and how much weight are we using in relation to how strong we are? And also giving our muscles enough rest, making sure that we are not pushing not.
Point of overtraining, cuz that’s very hard to do. But overreaching again, where our performance is stagnating or declining because we are not recovering enough, the workout split is subservient to all of that, not the other way around. You can’t unlock gains by just following the right. Split. You have to pay attention to the details, especially if you are an intermediate or an advanced weightlifter.
If you’re new, you actually don’t have to worry too much about the details. You just have to have a halfway well designed workout split, and you are going to make great progress, but eventually it gets a lot harder to keep progressing, and you do have to drill down into these details. So let’s talk about goals, right?
So let’s say your goal is to maximize the development of your upper body muscles. Let’s say you’re a guy and you are happy with your lower body, but you are not happy with your upper body, and particularly you are not happy with your. Chest and your biceps and your shoulders, and you want to focus on those muscle groups.
Those are the ones that you want to develop the most without, of course falling behind in your lower body. Maybe you want to continue developing your lower body, and you also do want to continue developing the rest of the major muscle groups in your body, but you are willing to sacrifice progress in those areas to maximize progress in your.
Chest, biceps and shoulders. If that’s the case, then the best workout split for you is gonna look very different than if you are, let’s say, a woman who wants to maximize the development of her lower body. You are looking for more muscle and more definition in your legs and your glutes, and you are pretty happy with your upper body, or you are at least willing to put your upper body muscles on the back burner so you can dedicate.
More of your time and your effort to your lower body. Now, if you’re wondering why you can’t have it all, why can’t you just maximize the development of all the muscle groups in your body, maybe with a full body workout split, for example. There are some constraints. Take time. Do you have two to three hours per day, five days per week, maybe even six days per week to be in the.
Can you do two a days? Because if you are an intermediate or an advanced weightlifter, that’s what it would take to maximize training stimulus for all major muscle groups because you’re gonna have to do probably 15 to 20 hard sets per major muscle group per week. And if that doesn’t sound like that much to you pause the podcast, open up Excel, and start to build that workout program out.
And I. Even let you count indirect volume. So one set of bench press is one set of direct volume for your chest and one set of indirect volume for your triceps. And let’s say your front Deloid, for example. And if you do that and you start building out that program to get to 15 to 20 hard sets, Per major muscle group per week, then you will see just how much training that is.
And let’s say you have the time and you have the inclination to spend your time like that. There is the effort. Are you willing to put in that much. Effort because that is hard, and I’ve done it before in the past when I was younger and invincible, the old three hours of training per day. Some people don’t want to work that hard, but let’s say you do.
You’re like, Yep, I will work that hard. Okay, now we have recovery. Can you recover from that much training? Most people can’t. For example, one of the guys who works with me a couple of years ago, he was in his early twentie. So physiologically invincible, basically on natural steroids essentially. And he also already had several years of effective training under his belt.
He had already squatted 4 0 5 for one or two for example, and he weighed, I don’t know, 1 50, 1 60, something like that. And his upper body strength wasn’t as impressive, but he had made pretty good progress on his upper body. As well. He was not a novice, Not at all. He was a solid intermediate, maybe even at the beginning of an advanced phase in his training, and so he wanted to see if he could recover from 15 to 20.
I think in a couple of cases in the lower body, he may have gotten up to 25 hard sets. Per week. And so this required two a day. He was training two and a half, three hours per day, five days per week. I don’t think there may have been a six day, actually not two workouts on the sixth day, but there may have been one workout on the sixth day.
I don’t remember A lot of training though. 15 to 25 hard sets per major muscle. Per week, and he was eating 5,000 calories per day. He was eating 1000 grams of carbs per day and keeping his fat under 80 grams per day, which is a feet unto itself. He was eating a loaf of bread per day, for example, and he would eat, a big bowl of pasta at dinner with low.
Gross sauce just right out of the can. Ragu heat it up and just pour it on. So he was committed to it. And of course he was eating a lot of protein as well, and he lasted about six weeks. He wanted to go eight weeks, but by the sixth week, everything hurt too much. All of his joints. He just did not feel good.
Now, he made good progress. It’s hard to say exactly how much muscle he gained because of course he gained a lot of weight, not that much fat, but he gained a lot of weight. That many carbs to go from 300 ish grams of carbs per day to 1000 grams of carbs per day, you’re now holding a lot more water in glycogen.
But we did the math after his post crazy experiment, weight settled into its normal range. It appeared he gained a solid three to five pounds of lean mass in those six weeks. And my point was sharing that anecdote though is young dude in his hormonal prime experienced weightlifter, he could only do about six weeks of that very high volume maximize.
Growth in all muscle groups type of training. And so what those of us who are not on a lot of drugs generally have to do is we have to focus on one or two, maybe three muscle groups in a training block, and three would be smaller muscle groups. Okay, our shoulders. Our biceps in our chest. That’s a good example.
You can probably get away with that, but you could not get away with. All right. I wanna focus on my chest and my back and my legs. You’re probably gonna have to focus on just your legs, for example, and get in the 15 to 20 hard sets per week on your legs or your lower body. We could throw in the glutes as well.
We could throw in calves if you wanna train those directly, and then you are going to have to probably. Use a more of a maintenance level volume on the rest of your muscle groups, something around 10 to 12 hard sets per week, which is generally not enough to progress if you are an intermediate or an advanced weightlifter, but it’s certainly enough to maintain everything you have.
So then maybe in your next training block, you want to focus maybe on your pressing muscles. And so this is the. Set that you have to adopt as you become an intermediate and an advanced weightlifter. When you were a newbie, you could maximize the development of everything because it didn’t require as much volume.
All you need to do was 10 to 12 hard sets per major muscle group per week, and everything. Grew basically as fast as it possibly could. And if you play around with your workout builder with those parameters, oh, I can do that with 5 45 to 60 minute workouts per week. I can hit 10 to 12 hard sets per major muscle group per week.
And if I only have four days, I can still do it. I just have to extend those workouts. Maybe now it’s in the range of 60 to 75 minutes, and if you only have three days per week to train, if you can. Be in the gym for maybe 90 ish minutes. You can also accomplish the same thing. And if you look at my Beyond bigger, leaner, stronger program, for example, which is for intermediate and advanced weightlifters, obviously the book is written to men, but the principles apply just as much to women as men.
And I do plan on making a female version. Book because there are certain things that should be changed to specifically fit women’s needs and particularly in the workout programming. But if you are a woman and you are well past your newbie gains, I do recommend you read that. Book and you will learn everything you need to tweak the workout program to fit your needs.
And if you are struggling with that, you can just shoot me an email, [email protected] and I can help you out. But regardless if you look at the program in that book, it is emphasizing the upper body over the lower body, not neglecting lower body. There’s plenty of lower body volume there, you.
Progress, but it does reflect the needs of most of the men that I interact with. Most of the male, intermediate and advanced weightlifters tell me that their lower body development is pretty good. They’re pretty happy with their lower body. It continues to make progress, but they are most unhappy with their upper body development.
They still want more chest, they want more shoulders, they want more back, maybe specifically la or they want. Thickness in their back or their biceps. And so the Beyond Bigger leader, Stronger program reflects that we are sacrificing some of the potential lower body gains to maximize the potential upper body gains because we have to, we can’t have it all.
And in the women’s program, it’s going to be the other way around because that reflects the needs of most of the women who reach out to. So anyway, coming back to workout splits, just know that you don’t have to follow one particular split, but you do have to follow a few non-negotiable training tenants.
You have to implement progressive overload in your program. You have to use the right amount of volume and intensity. You have to include the right amount of rest and recovery in your program. You have to do a lot of the right types. Exercises, you’re gonna have to do a lot of compound exercises, and you’re gonna have to do ones that are safe and effective.
And isolation exercises are great as well, and some are better than others. And many workout splits can do the trick, but some do make all of that. Easier than others. For some people, so for example, body part splits often make it difficult to train a muscle group more than once per week, which is a good idea if you’re trying to maximize the growth of that muscle group.
Particularly if you are an intermediate or an advanced weightlifter who has to do 15 to 20 hard sets per week for that muscle group to maximize its development. It would be a mistake to. All of those sets in one session because research shows that beyond about 10 sets for an individual muscle group in an individual session, you are now in the realm of diminishing returns that the next five sets, so let’s say you go from 10 to 15, those additional five sets are going to be less effective as a training stimulus.
Ending that workout at 10 or doing something else, stopping at 10, and then doing those additional five on another day. I wouldn’t do ’em the following day. If I did 10 sets, I would give at least one day of rest before and maybe two days. If it’s lower body, I’m probably gonna rest two days before I do those additional five sets.
But splitting up the volume that way is going to be more effective. So when you need to do that, a body part split can make it difficult unless you are going to do. Two legs, days per week, or two arms days per week, or chest days per week or whatever, which you can do. You just have to know what you’re doing if you are going to use that split as your starting point.
Now, many full body workout splits suffer from the opposite issue. They tend to overdevelop some muscle groups and under develop. Others. Many full body splits that I’ve seen are very lower body centric, which is fine if that’s what you want to do, or are very squat bench and deadlift centric, which is again, fine if that’s your goal.
If your goal is to get as strong as possible on those exercises, that’s great, but that may mean that some of the smaller muscle groups are not going to develop the way that you may want them to. Your shoulders may not develop. The way that you want them to. Your triceps may not develop as quickly as you’d like.
Your back and your lats in particular may not develop as quickly as you’d. So while I understand the allure of choosing a workout split, because somebody who sounds smart and science based said it is the best, and so then you go, Hey, if it’s that simple, I’m just gonna do that. I. Get that, but that is like deciding what kind of work you want to do or what kind of job you want to pursue based simply on the amount of prestige that is associated with the title or maybe even the amount of money that is associated with that job.
For example, being a sales rep. A company may be a much better fit for you than being the CEO. If you were to think about exactly what you want and why. It may make a lot more sense for you to be a good sales rep than try to be a good ceo. So when you are contemplating your training programming and what split or splits you should or shouldn’t be following, don’t think in a rigid, mutually exclusive manner.
To use the terms of Jim Collins who wrote Good, Great, and Built to Last Other business books, don’t submit to the tyranny of the or. You can have this or that, but you can’t have both. You can have an upper lower. Or a push pull legs or a full body. Instead, embrace the genius of the, and as Collins says, so you could have the push pull legs maybe as a base and an upper body day in there, because that makes sense.
Or maybe it’s lower body because that makes sense for you. And if it fit your goals, you could throw in an arms day. So there is a little bro split action. And then maybe a full body workout too, just to deliver a little bit more volume, a little bit more training stimulus to several muscle groups that you want to make sure are developing as quickly as possible, or you want to make sure are not backslid.
I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you. Ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email, mike muscle for life.com, muscle f or life.com and let me know what I could do better or just what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.