In this article we will breakdown three (3) of the most effective strength training splits for lifters and athletes looking to gain muscle mass and strength. In the below sections we will dissect each strength training split, discussing whom it may be best for, benefits, and potential limitations.
What is a Strength Training Split?
A strength training split is a workout outline (typically formatted on a weekly basis) that offers coaches and athletes a guideline to program for strength and muscle mass. Numerous factors can influence a coaches/athletes decision as to which is the “best” workout split to choose, such as:
- Training Availability (how often work, life, and other factors allow you to train)
- Level of the Athlete (can you handle increased volume, do you need more rest days to account for higher intensities and loadings, etc)
- Program Goals (increased leg strength vs upper body mass, demands on the body, etc)
- Needs of the Athlete (poor recovery, lack of work capacity, etc).
All of these factors influence coaches/athletes decision making process. The key for most strength training splits is to provide enough frequency, volume, and training stimulus to promote physiological adaptations.
3 Most Effective Strength Training Splits
Below are three of the most effective strength training splits that can be used to build muscle hypertrophy, strength, and set a strong foundation for sports performance. All of the below splits can be used with powerlifting and general strength training workout programs (however there are some limitations when applied to Olympic weightlifting programming).
Note that these three strength training splits are not the only options coaches and athletes have, however they are three very effective strategies to at least consider when setting up a new training program.
3-Day Total Body Split
This is a 3-day workout routine that is best done alternating between training days and rest days. You can recycle training weeks every six days, or simply take two days off in in a row. For example, training Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and resting Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. You can also add some movement of conditioning on one of the non-lifting days if your goal is body composition and strength, or just to increase recovery and fitness.
Training the entire body every session allows for the program to deliver high amounts of frequency and volume to most muscles in the body across the week. Below is a sample day for this type of workout. It’s best to try to limit the exercises this day to 2-3 main strength lift and 4-5 accessory exercise, delivery a total set volume of 10-20 sets for main strength work and 5-10 for accessory lifts.
The below sample program has a strong emphasis on squat, back, and pressing strength. Day two could use a similar format, with the first focus being on a strong pressing motion (bench press) and some accessory lower lifts like lunges or step ups. Day 3 could then focus on pulling strength (deadlifts) and use more accessory lifts with higher volume (higher reps) to induce muscle hypertrophy and recovery for the following week.
Day 1 (Total Body, Squat Emphasis)
- Power Clean: 4 sets of 3 reps at 70-75%
- Back Squat: 6 sets of 4-6 reps at 70-80%
- Pendlay Row: 4 sets of 4-6 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Chest Press 4 sets of 5-8 reps
- RDLs 3: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Hammer Curl and Triceps Pushdown Superset: 3 sets of 12-20 reps
[Many athletes find soft tissue work can be really helpful for recovery — check out our list of the best foam rollers for your needs!]
Who Should Do This?
This is a good option for individuals who may not have a large amount of training availability due to work, family, or life restrictions. Due to the decreased frequency of training (less days per week), training sessions will often be a bit longer than those who train 5+ days per week. This doesn’t mean however, that it will be any less effective if training volume, intensity, and recovery are all programmed correctly.
- Train most muscle groups 3 times per week
- Offers flexibility
- Allows for recovery from training (typically)
- Workouts may be slightly longer than normal (60-90 minute sessions), not including warm-ups and stretching
- Diet is factor in warding off body fat increases (due to loss of training frequency)
- Limited amount of training days may limit ability to address a lot of exercises/goals per cycle
- More on lifter to get all other recovery strategies (active recovery, stretching, mobility, corrective exercises) done on “non-training” days.
4-Day Push/Pull Split
This is a typical 4-day split that allows coaches and athletes to train muscle groups twice per week, but with more volume per session. Workouts are generally split into push (squat, pressing, and accessory) and pull (deadlift, pulling, and accessory) and can be done in a 2 on, 1 off, 2 on, 2 off fashion OR spread out throughout the week. It is recommended that a lifter does not train 3 days in a row on this program to allow for recovery from hard training sessions.
Below are two sample workout days of this 4-day push/pull split. Note, that this program includes many of the fundamental exercises for building power, strength, and athleticism.
Day 1 (Push)
- Power Clean + Push Press: 3 sets of 3 reps at 60-70%
- Front Squat: 4 sets of 4-6 reps at 70%
- Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Dumbbell Step Up: 4 sets of 8 reps/leg
- Shoulder Accessory (side raises, scap work, pull aparts, etc): 3-4 sets
Day 2 (Pull)
- Hang Snatch: 3 sets of 3 reps at 60-70%
- Heavy Farmers Carry: 4 sets of 20m
- Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
- Weighted Pull Up: 4 sets of 4-6 reps
- Bicep/Forearm Curl: 3-4 sets
Who Should Do This?
This is a good split for most fitness and strength enthusiasts looking to increase training frequency and volume. Due to the added training day, coaches and athletes have more options to include variety into a training program, add unilateral and corrective work, and work to develop more skill-based movements (weightlifting, strongman, sport-specific, etc).
- Train most muscle groups directly 2 times per week
- Offers variety in exercise selection
- Allows for inclusion of more skill-based movements necessary for weightlifting, strongman, powerlifting,and sports-performance training
- Ability to spread out volume over course of week better than 3-day split, which can help lifters attack high intensities and with more aggression throughout the entire session (not as much fatigue per session if programmed correctly).
- Can be difficult to not be redundant with exercises, as movements like the squat can still leave soreness and fatigue on pulling days.
- Need for recovery is highlighted more than 3-day programs
- Can be difficult for more advanced lifters to recovery from hard pulling or pressing sessions twice per week. This makes it very important to have fatigue management strategies in place and program volume and intensities accordingly.
5-Day Upper Body Push/Pull and Lower Split
The 5-day upper body push/push and lower split can be used by most lifters who are looking to increase training volume evenly across a training week to allow for highly focused sessions on specific needs and goals of the athlete. Lifters who have a strong foundation of training can often handle this style of split, as it demands great recovery and mental abilities. Additionally, this program can be done for 6-days on, to allow for each muscle group to be trained twice per week.
Below are three sample workout days (upper body push/pull and legs). It is recommended that a lifter does not lift more than three days consecutively on this program to allow for proper recovery. As you can see, the below days also have an emphasis (see notes). The other three workouts (not included) would focus primarily on the other muscles groups (Day 4 focuses on chest and triceps, Day 5 focuses on weighted pull-ups and single arm rows, and Day 6 focuses on hip strength via deadlifts and more hamstring based movements).
Day 1 (Upper Body Push, Shoulders and Triceps Emphasis)
- Push Press: 5 sets of 3-5 reps
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
- Dips: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Upright Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
- Shoulder Accessory: 3 sets
- Triceps Accessory: 3 sets
Day 2 (Upper Body Pull, Back, Biceps, Grip Emphasis)
- Pendlay Row: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
- Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
- Dumbbell Farmers Carry: 4 sets of 20m
- Barbell Curl: 4 of 8-10 reps
- Forearms/Biceps/Grip Accessory: 3 sets
Day 3 (Lower Body, Quadriceps, Lower Back, and Abs Emphasis)
- Back Squat: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
- Leg Press: 3-4 sets of 20 steps
- Barbell Hip Raise: 4 sets of 12 reps
- Hyperextension/Back Raise: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Abs Accessory: 3-5 sets
Who Should Do This?
This is a more advanced training split for lifters and athletes who have been accustomed to training at higher volumes and are able to meet the training demands. This program is much less forgiving than a 3 or 4-day routine, making sleep, nutrition, and daily life stress management critical to success.
- Great deal of programming freedom available to a coach/athlete to input exercise to address most training needs/goals
- Can deliver high amounts of training volume to maximize muscle growth
- Allows for lifters to spend less time at the gym training
- Very easy to overtrain if recovery needs not met
- Little flexibility
- Makes sleep, nutrition, and work/life/family stress management key to recovery
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This is a comprehensive breakdown of some of the most effective strength training splits out there, complete with sample workout days to help you gain a deeper understanding of each. As coaches and athletes, we must have the ability to adapt to training goals, life stresses, and recovery needs, with the understanding that training splits are an outline, but not set in stone. In the even you find you can handle more volume OR the opposite occurs simply consult your coach and adjust things as needed. Happy Training (and programming)!
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