The Ultimate Workout Split to Build Strength and Muscle Mass

Yes, you can get bigger and stronger at the same time, it just takes smart programming.

Should you focus on strength or building muscle? It’s a predicament lifters — especially gym veterans who are lightyears past the newbie gains phase — find themselves in at the start of a fresh programming phase. And for a good reason: It is easier to get results by solely focusing on increasing strength and forging chiseled muscle, but you absolutely can achieve both goals — it just takes smart programming. 

There’s also the emotional connection to training, and that’s important. You’re always going to devote more effort and intensity to the program you’re excited about than the one that you’re following because it’s the “right way to do things.”  So, for all you powerbuilders, here are some training split options that you can incorporate and tips for setting up a split routine so that you can see how to balance pursuing two goals at once.

Man bench-pressing weight
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Why Follow a Split Routine?

Back in the primitive days of bodybuilding, it was common for bodybuilders to engage in full-body workouts to prepare for a show. 1940s bodybuilder Steeve Reeves was famous for following a full-body split. Until bodybuilding started to grow and others found out the effectiveness that split routines have on the physique. 

A split routine allows one to train the entire body, broken up by body parts, throughout the week compared to an all-in-one workout like a full-body workout would have you do. Focusing on muscle groups each day has its benefits. 

Focusing on a specific muscle or two per straining session means you can attack the area(s) with more overall volume instead of partitioning your energy across a full-body workout. And more overall volume for a specific muscle means more overall growth.

Following a split routine also allows individual muscles more time to recover before training sessions. Whereas if you were to do a full-body workout, only the muscle group you were working at the beginning would be fully fresh. This means you’ll be able to lift heavier weights and have more intense sets per muscle group, which will make your muscles grow and become much stronger than training them after they’re taxed. 

What Makes a Good Split Routine 

An important factor to consider when developing a split routine is overall volume. If the volume is too low, you’re leaving muscle and strength gains on the table. If the volume is too high, you risk overtraining and lackluster recovery. You’ll also need to be tactical about what muscles your work on which days during the week. You’ll want to split up your workout routine over the week so you can target all your muscle groups evenly and at least once but sometimes more, depending on the split. 

Here are some other items to consider when following a split routine. 

Sets

Ideally, you’ll want to do two to four sets per exercise. If you’re training a larger muscle group — back, chest, and legs — then you’ll want to do three to four sets. If you’re working a smaller muscle group — biceps, triceps, traps, and shoulders — then stick with two or three sets. 

As for total volume, aim to complete 10 to 12 sets each week for large muscles and six to eight weekly sets for smaller muscle groups.

Reps

For strength and muscle growth, perform between five and eight reps on compound (or multi-joint) exercises, eight to 10 reps for accessory exercises — exercises meant to add volume to a muscle — and 10 to 12 reps for isolation (or single-joint) exercises.

Five to eight reps on compound exercises like barbell bench press will increase your strength, eight to 10 reps for accessory exercises such as seated cable rows will bolster hypertrophy by adding volume to your muscle group, and 10 to 12 reps for exercises like dumbbell hammer curls will increase overall time under tension to your small muscle groups (which leads to more growth).

Rest

Regarding rest, there are two things to keep in mind. For one, your rest in between each set. When you’re training for strength and hypertrophy, your rest will be medium length — somewhere between 90 seconds and three minutes. For lower reps, higher weight compound exercises, take a longer rest. For higher reps, lower weight isolation exercises, rest on the lower side. That’s because when you’re using heavier weight and engaging large muscle groups, you’ll need more rest before your muscles are fully recovered between sets than when you’re working small muscle groups with lighter weights. 

Another component of rest to keep in mind is rest between splits. For example, if you’re doing a four-day workout split, it’s recommended that you have one rest day followed after two consecutive workouts so that your body is fully rested and recovered to finish your last two days of your split.

Exercise Selection 

You must choose the correct exercises for your split routine. In general, you’ll want to perform a mix of free weights, machine, cable, resistance bands, and bodyweight movements. The key is which exercise you choose to do on what day and the order you do them.

For example, if you are following a split routine that has you start your week off with push movements — chest, shoulders, and triceps — you’ll want to include exercises that target those muscle groups, including dips and barbell shoulder press, not a barbell bent-over row. 

Woman doing a back squat
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Also, you’ll want to start with your workout with the most taxing exercises. Dong biceps curls before a barbell row mean your arms will be fatigued come rowing time, affecting the amount of weight you can lift and your form. Typically, multi-joint exercises that require more skill and/or weight should be done first. Then you can move onto less complicated exercises — either machine movements or isolation exercises.  

How Should You Split Up Your Muscle Groups? 

There are a variety of ways to split up your muscle groups in a split routine. Although the best split routine separates your muscle groups into three categories: push, pull, and legs. Most workout splits are separated into three to five days, although very advanced athletes may participate in a 6-day workout split; however, that’s not recommended for the general population since rest days are important for recovery. 

Depending on if you’re doing a 3-day, 4-day, or 5-day workout split will determine how you should do this. 

On a 3-day workout split, it’s best to separate your muscle groups into push (chest, shoulders, triceps), pull (back and biceps), legs (quads and hamstrings). 

On a 4-day workout split, it’s best to split your workout routine into the days below. 

  • Day 1: Legs and abs
  • Day 2: Chest and Triceps
  • Day 3: Rest
  • Day 4: Back and Biceps
  • Day 5: Shoulders and Traps
  • Day 6: Rest
  • Day 7: Rest 

The reason this split is effective is that you’re separating your muscle groups into different days followed by a rest day in between two workouts to allow your muscles and central nervous system (CNS) to recover after two hard days of lifting before tackling a third. You’ll have two rest days tagged at the end of your workout week to allow your body to recover before the next week fully. 

Here’s an example of how to split a workout into five days below. 

  • Day 1: Legs and abs
  • Day 2: Chest
  • Day 3: Back
  • Day 4: Shoulders
  • Day 5: Arms

In this workout split example, you’ll be able to do high volume per muscle group and have plenty of time off between working for the same muscle group again. 

Example Workouts

We’ve curated a three, four, and five-day workout split that you can give a go below. We recommend starting with the 3-day split; intermediate lifters should start with the 4-day split, and advanced athletes/lifters can try out the 5-day split. 

Three-Day Workout Split

Day 1: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps 

Day 2: Back and Biceps 

  • Barbell Bent-Over Row: 3 x 5
  • Dumbbell Single-Arm Row: 3 x 10
  • Pull-Up: 3 x max reps
  • Barbell Curl: 2 x 12

Day 3: Legs and Abs

*Note: Have a rest day in between each workout. 

Four-Day Workout Split 

Day 1: Legs and Abs

Day 2: Chest and Triceps 

  • Weighted Dip: 3 x 5
  • Dumbbell Incline Bench Press: 3 x 8
  • Decline Push-Up: 2 x max reps
  • Cable Triceps Extension: 2 x 12
  • Dumbbell Triceps Kickback: 2 x 12

Day 3: Rest

Day 4: Back and Biceps

Day 5: Shoulders and Traps

  • Barbell Seated military Press: 3 x 5
  • Dumbell Single-Arm Shoulder Press: 3 x 8
  • Dumbell Front Raise: 2 x 12
  • Cable Reverse Flye: 2 x 12
  • Barbell Shrug: 2 x 10 

Five-Day Workout Split 

Day 1: Legs and Abs

Day 2: Chest 

  • Barbell Bench Press: 3 x 5
  • Barbell Decline Bench Press: 3 x 8 
  • Cable Flyes: 2 x 10
  • Plyometric Push-Up: 2 x max reps

Day 3: Back 

  • Barbell Pendlay Row: 3 x 5
  • Weighted Chin-Up: 3 x 8 
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Row: 2 x 10 
  • Dumbbell Incline Row: 2 x 10 

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Shoulders

  • Barbell Standing shoulder Press: 3 x 5
  • Dumbbell Arnold Press: 3 x 8 
  • Cable Front Raise: 2 x 12 
  • Resistance Band Pull-Apart: 2 x 12

Day 6: Arms

  • Dumbbell Curl: 3 x 8 
  • Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension: 3 x 10
  • EZ-Bar Preacher Curl: 2 x 8 
  • Dumbbell Kickback: 2 x 10 

Day 7: Rest

Intermediate Powerbuilding Split

Day 1 (Upper, Push Emphasis)

  • Bench Press
  • DB Flye
  • DB Shoulder Press
  • Upright Row
  • Elbows-Out Extension
  • Chin or Lat Pulldown
  • Barbell Curl

Day 2 (Lower, Push Emphasis)

  • Squat
  • Leg Press
  • Split Squat
  • Hamstring Curl
  • Calf Raise
  • Abs

Day 3 (Upper, Pull Emphasis)

  • Close-Grip Bench Press
  • DB Bench Press
  • Lateral Raise
  • T-Bar Row
  • DB Pullover
  • Chin or Lat Pulldown
  • Hammer Curl
  • Machine Curl

Day 4 (Upper, Pull Emphasis)

  • Deadlift
  • Front Squat
  • Leg Press with feet high and wide
  • Dumbbell Leg Curl
  • Calf Raise
  • Abs

You’ll notice this is somewhat of a traditional powerlifting split. It uses two upper days, focusing on the bench and the (lighter) close-grip bench, and two lower, focusing on the squat and deadlift. Then we add in enough volume through accessory work to provide an adequate growth stimulus without overreaching.  

Final Word

Split routines are effective if your goal is to build muscle mass and reach your bodybuilding potential. They allow you to do more volume and tax the muscle group you’re working out more than doing multiple muscle groups in a single workout. Of course, you can choose to split your muscle groups into various ways, but you need to split them up effectively to build the most muscle and prevent injury.

Depending on your goal and lifting level, we recommend starting with one of the three, four, or five days split workout routines laid out in this article and following the guidelines and principles we covered. You’ll no doubt have a superior split routine to maximize your gains.   

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