Opinion

Most Effective Strength Training Splits For Bodyweight-Only Programs

No weights, no problem. Implement these training splits to meet your goals.

Whether getting back to basics for a training cycle, or sprucing up your at-home workout routine with some actual routine, it’s worthwhile to figure out the best training splits for bodyweight-only programs. Do you train full body each day? Is that too much? Should you adopt an upper/lower split? Or can you just adapt whatever you might normally do in the gym and apply it to bodyweight-only training?

We’re going to break down which training splits are best based on your training frequency and goals. Additionally, we’ll walk through how training to failure can benefit you depending on your training split.

Select The Best Bodyweight Split For Your Own Needs

There’s almost no way to bodyweight train the wrong way as long as you have good form — please, for the love of your future medical bills and mental health, always maintain good form. But of all the bodyweight training split options, it might take some thinking and planning to figure out which suits your own programming needs.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

[Related: 3 Workout Splits To Get You Bigger and Stronger]

Being honest with yourself is the first step to figuring out which type of bodyweight training split is best for you. Why are you working only with bodyweight? Are you trying something new? Supplementing your lifting routine? Don’t have access to other equipment during the pandemic? Recovering from an injury or overtraining? All of these are totally valid reasons, and they’ll impact how you plan out your work.

For example, if you’re bodyweight training because your own body is all you’ve got to work with during the pandemic, ask yourself what your workout routine has been like during quarantine so far. Are you finding yourself getting after it every day just to keep moving? Or is it harder to drum up motivation at home, so you find yourself only able to have three or four solid training sessions a week?

If you’re leaning toward the less frequent side, you might want to go for a full-body split to maximize those moments when you actually feel inspired to move. If you’re really chasing a pump on the daily, though, getting more micro in your splits is probably a good idea to maximize muscle recovery so you can go as hard as you want to each day without causing negative muscle damage or chronic central nervous system fatigue.

Let your preferences and your lifestyle help you figure out what split works best for you — there’s no magic formula, but there are patterns that your body tends to follow. Listen to them, and you’ll come up with a great plan for yourself.

Most Effective Bodyweight-Only Strength Training Splits

The first step to figuring out what kind of bodyweight split works best for you is reflecting on what your training goals are and how many times a week you’d like to work out. If you’re the type that wants to go hard every single day, a full body split might not be for you, even if you’re “only” working with bodyweight.

Remember, bodyweight training is super hardcore if you’re actually doing it right. If you’re taking your bodyweight sets to failure — which you should be doing to go for the kinds of strength and muscle maintenance and gains you probably want — you don’t want to fail on the same movements with the same muscle groups day after day after day. So, figuring out what’s best for you really depends on your goals.

Goal — Muscle Maintenance Rx: Upper-Lower Split To Failure

If your goal is dialing it in and making sure your muscles are staying strong and good-sized, you might want to try an upper-lower split at least four days a week, with one or two active recovery sessions (think: strength-focused but gentle yoga) in between. 

With an upper-lower split, you’re going to be performing big moves — think pike and archer push-ups with reverse snow angels and wall walk-ups on upper days, Bulgarian split squats and lunges on lower body days. And, because you’ll be isolating your muscle groups so strongly (your delts will be straight chillin during your lunges, for example), you can and should go to failure on each of your sets. Once you destroy your triceps with a series of diamond push-ups to failure, you can definitely still work out the next day — but because you’re doing an upper-lower split, your body will have enough time to recover properly in between. So if you’re going to making a bodyweight upper-lower split effective, take it to failure consistently. And, as always, don’t forget to integrate your core work.

Goal — Strength Increase Rx: Push-Pull Split To Near Failure

Your push-pull split is going to give you more movement versatility — think involving multiple big muscle groups at once. For example, a centerpiece of your push day might be Spiderman push-ups, which will force you to stabilize your core and activate your entire lower body while, well… pushing up.

That sounds super fun until you consider that your pull day included single-leg (weightless) deadlifts with a (weightless) reverse fly, and multiple rounds of wall walk-ups and inchworms — your traps, core, hams, and glutes are likely to be a bit spent before push day’s Spidey-inspired push-ups. 

It still sounds fun, yes, but you’ll be forcing your body to stay more coordinated through a broader range of muscle groups, since it’s not just isolating lower and upper body moves. You’ll force your body to adapt to a more strength-based approach — meaning you’ll want to keep a couple reps in the proverbial tank when bodyweight training with a push-pull split, to make sure you can operate at peak efficiency without dipping into overtraining territory.

Goal — Training Consistency Rx: Adapt Your Lifting Program Split

You might also opt to just adapt your regularly-scheduled lifting program split to a bodyweight version. If you’re a powerlifter, this might mean going ham on push-ups (aka benching) two or three times a week. That means going all out on Swiss-ball leg curls (adapted to your poof or couch or whatever you have available in the house), single-leg tempo Romanian deadlifts, inverted rows (use a bedsheet knotted and secured over a closed door), and hip raises (aka deadlifting) once or twice a week. This can also include going to town on tempo Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and overhead air squats two or three times a week.

Supplement your moves with accessory work as needed, just like you would with your powerlifting programming — keep everything as close to your regular routine as possible, going just short of failure on your moves.

Goal — Training Hard But Infrequently Rx: Full-Body Split

If you know you’re not going to get to go hard more than three-ish times a week, that’s when you whip out the full-body split. You don’t have to repeat the same moves every time, but when looking for lower-body efficiency for each of the three full body workouts, vary it up with Bulgarian split squats on day one, lunges on day two, and split jumps on day three.

[Related: I Know You Can Jump, But Can You Land?]

These will be accompanied, of course, by a full host of upper-body moves on each day. For example, wide push-ups on day one, diamond push-ups on day two, and archer push-ups on day three. Since you’ll be training less frequently and therefore have more recovery time in between, definitely go to failure on pretty much each move.

Give Your Splits Something Extra

Depending on your goals (and the equipment and space you’ve got available), you’ll probably want to throw some add-ons into your split — some consistent moves or genres of moves that you’re doing every day.

If one of your goals, for example, is to change up your body composition, you might want to sprinkle in burpees, mountain climbers, and/or double-unders, or regular jumping rope sessions each day, regardless of the split you’re on (adjust the intensity as needed depending on your recovery requirements).

Maybe you’ve realized that you never actually focus on your core or integrate core movements into your split planning. Use this bodyweight training period to do so — flutter kicks, plank variations (including plank push-ups), hollow holds, and hanging leg or knee raises (if you’ve got a pull-up bar) might be moves to integrate every or every other training day. 

If you’ve got a pull-up bar and really want to prioritize grip and upper body pulling strength, spreading pull-ups throughout your program — even on lower body days and/or as pre-push moves on push days — can help up the intensity while giving your splits that something extra you might crave when you’re working without all your usual equipment.

Listen To Your Body

Ultimately, your body will start to tell you what’s most effective and what’s not. If you’ve been training with a consistent upper/lower bodyweight split for a full six-week cycle and your work is definitely hitting a plateau, it might be time to switch it up. If you’re continuing to make progress, that’s what’s working best for your body right now and that’s great, too. Finding what works best for you might take a lot of patience, but it’ll be well worth it in the long run.

Image via Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff.