When it comes to achieving your fitness goals, having a well-structured workout split can make all the difference. Whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or a beginner, finding the right balance in your training routine is essential for maximising your results.
What is a workout split?
A workout split refers to how you organise your training sessions throughout the week either by different muscle groups, lifts, or movement patterns. Common workout splits include full body, upper/lower body, push/pull/legs, and body part splits.
Benefits of Workout Splits
- Muscle recovery – when you train a specific muscle group, it undergoes microscopic damage, leading to muscle protein breakdown. To rebuild and grow stronger, your muscles require sufficient time to recover. Workout splits provide sufficient recovery time for each muscle group by allowing them to rest while you focus on other areas.
- Volume and intensity distribution – workout splits allow you to distribute training volume (the total amount of work) and intensity (the effort exerted) effectively. By spreading your training across different days, you can prioritise certain muscle groups while adjusting volume and intensity to suit your goals and individual capabilities.
- Variety and motivation – performing the same routine repeatedly can lead to plateaus and boredom. Workout splits introduce variety into your training by focussing on different muscle groups or movements on different days. This variety not only keeps you engaged but also challenges your muscles in new ways, promoting continuous growth and preventing stagnation.
Why Body Part Splits (“Bro Splits”) Are Suboptimal
A body part split routine focuses on one muscle group per workout (e.g. chest, back, arms, etc.). However, this routine is suboptimal because it involves a high volume of sets per muscle group, which leads to diminishing muscle growth and increasing fatigue with each additional set. Current evidence suggests that performing around 3-5 sets per muscle group per workout is optimal. Using more than 8 sets per muscle per workout does not stimulate further muscle growth and can cause excessive muscle damage (Ogasawara et al., 2017).
Additionally, training muscles 2-3 times per week may result in greater muscle growth compared to training them once per week (Ochi et al., 2018). Therefore, splitting weekly sets for each muscle group across multiple workouts appears to be the optimal approach.
Which Workout Splits Are Best?
Push/pull/leg splits are better than body part splits, but they still suffer from similar issues regarding excessive volume for specific muscle groups within workouts.
Full body splits and upper/lower splits seem to be optimal since they allow for high training frequency and distribution of total training volume across the entire week, rather than having all of the volume for a muscle group condensed to one workout (Evangelista et al., 2021). You could also use a hybrid split which combines a full body and upper/lower split so that you perform one upper workout, one lower workout, and 2 or 3 full body sessions for example.
Other Factors to Consider
- Consider your goals and schedule – determine your specific goals and consider your availability to train. If you have limited time and can’t train often, full body splits may be optimal. If you train very frequently (4-6 days per week), upper/lower or hybrid splits may be best.
- Balance frequency and volume – the frequency at which you train each muscle group is crucial. Research suggests that training a muscle group 2-3 times per week may optimise muscle growth. Aim for a balance between frequency and volume, ensuring enough stimulus for growth without excessive strain on recovery.
- Plan for recovery – adequate rest and recovery are essential for muscle growth. Ensure that you allow enough time for each muscle group to recover between sessions. Listen to your body and adjust your training frequency or intensity if you experience excessive fatigue or signs of overtraining.
- Consider individual preferences – everyone responds differently to training stimuli, so it’s important to consider your personal preferences. Experiment with different workout splits to find the approach that works best for you. If you enjoy a particular split, you’ll likely stick with it consistently, leading to better long-term results.
While body part splits have held a prominent position in traditional fitness approaches, scientific research suggests that they may not be the most optimal strategy for maximising muscle growth. Instead, adopting a workout split that emphasises higher training frequency per muscle group, such as the upper/lower split or full body split, can yield superior results. Remember, the key is to find a workout split that aligns with your goals, challenges your body, and promotes sufficient recovery. By incorporating an evidence-based workout split into your fitness routine, you can optimise your training and propel yourself closer to your desired outcomes.
Evangelista, A.L., Braz, T.V., La Scala Teixeira, C.V., Rica, R.L., Alonso, A.C., Barbosa, W.A., Reis, V.M., Baker, J.S., Schoenfeld, B.J., Bocalini, D.S. and Greve, J.M.D.A., 2021. Split or full-body workout routine: which is best to increase muscle strength and hypertrophy?. einstein (São Paulo), 19.
Ochi, E., Maruo, M., Tsuchiya, Y., Ishii, N., Miura, K. and Sasaki, K., 2018. Higher training frequency is important for gaining muscular strength under volume-matched training. Frontiers in physiology, p.744.
Ogasawara, R., Arihara, Y., Takegaki, J., Nakazato, K. and Ishii, N., 2017. Relationship between exercise volume and muscle protein synthesis in a rat model of resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 123(4), pp.710-716.