What Are Workout Splits and Which is the Best One?

Go into a gym with a plan for the best results. Here’s how to draw one up.

Expert Verified By: Brad Baldwin, BS, MS, CSCS

When you walk into a gym, do you have an idea of what you’re going to do, or do you find the first empty station and start pumping out reps? For your sake, we hope it’s the former.

Whether your goal is to build muscle and burn fatget stronger, or become more athletic — you need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And an essential step in formulating a thoughtful training plan is choosing the right workout split. 

A workout split is how you divide up your workouts throughout the week either by body region, movement, specific body part, or by lift. This divide-and-conquer approach to exercise allows bodybuilders and general gym-goers to focus their efforts in a way that optimizes results.

Instead of hoping for bigger muscles or more strength, you guarantee it by sticking to a plan proven to work. Workout splits allow you to work smarter and harder. 

In this piece, we’ll give you all the information you need to devise your own workout split and some advice on how to stick to it.

Why Are Workout Splits Important?

Workout splits provide you with a pathway toward a specific goal. There’s not an NFL quarterback out there who doesn’t watch film of the opposing team or converse with his O-line before stepping onto the gridiron — it’s the same concept for bodybuilders and powerlifters.

Woman lifting weights
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But the importance of splits goes beyond having mental clarity — it’s also proven to get results. A survey of 127 competitive bodybuilders found that every single one followed a workout split. (1)

That’s because the importance of having a regimen has been stressed since the early days of bodybuilding. Steve Reeves and Eugen Sandow developed their own routines to craft physiques that are, to this day, considered by many to be the pinnacle of bodybuilding.

They studied how their bodies reacted to different workouts and recovery times, found what worked best for them, and stuck with it. 

Without a plan, your countless hours in the gym will go nowhere. Developing a split allows you to pick a handful of muscles and exhaust them. Then, you give them ample time to recover and prepare for their next session.

This calculated approach allows you to train with maximum effort. You won’t burn out trying to slog through a three-hour-long iron-pumping marathon.

How Do You Pick the Best One?

The number one thing to keep in mind when picking a workout split is what you’re looking to accomplish, but there are other things to keep top of mind.

Your time commitment will be a chief one. If you’re someone who has a busy work schedule, a six-day split probably won’t be your best bet.

Your training experience is another big factor. Let’s say you’re a true beginner — you’ll probably want to keep your workouts lighter to avoid overstressing your muscles. On the other hand, an experienced lifter will probably need more stimuli to achieve their desired results, so they’ll most likely look for something that has them in the gym more days per week.

Lastly, your weaknesses will be something to look out for. What do we mean by that? If your weakness is an underdeveloped midsection, you’ll want to go for something more focused on aesthetics than strength. Some splits work better than others for that.

How Workout Splits Are Organized

At the end of the day, your workout split will be dictated by whatever your end goal is. Someone who’s working out to improve their athleticism, for example, will have a different split than someone solely focused on aesthetics. The same goes for powerlifters. There are three main workout splits, each of which having its own advantages and disadvantages.

They are:

  • Body part workout splits
  • An upper/lower workout split
  • A push, pull, legs workout split

Bodypart Workout Splits

A body part workout split has you train one to three body parts per training session twice per week. It’s a popular option among bodybuilders since body part splits let you train muscles more often for more growth.  

A meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine found that this training style resulted in the most hypertrophy compared to other training styles. This was backed up by a 2018 study that found that hitting a muscle two times per week resulted in increased muscle thickness and overall body composition compared to other workout splits. (2) (3)

Man performing barbell curl
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A bodybuilder’s main goal is to have a completely symmetrical physique with full muscle development. For that reason, most bodybuilders pair a larger muscle like the chest with a related smaller muscle like the triceps. Since both muscles work together in compound exercises like the bench press and push-ups, it makes sense to pair them together. Other standard body part split pairings include back and biceps, and legs and shoulders. So, a body part workout split may look like this.

Bodypart Workout Split Example

  • Monday: Chest and triceps
  • Tuesday: Back and biceps
  • Wednesday: Legs and shoulders
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Chest and triceps
  • Saturday: Back and biceps
  • Sunday: Legs and shoulders

Typically, muscles need about 48 hours of rest to recover. Study the split above, and you’ll see that each muscle group gets three days (or 72 hours) of rest. In some cases, a bodybuilder who wants to bring up a weak point may train that muscle three times per week, tacking it on to a less strenuous day. 

For example, say you’re following the workout split above but need to enhance your hamstrings. Keep the split as is, but add six sets of hamstring exercises onto the end of the first chest and triceps workout. Six sets are not a lot of volume so that you won’t be fatigued, but multiply six by 52 (the number of weeks in a year), and that comes out to be 312 extra sets of hamstring work. 

Pros Of a Bodypart Workout Split

  • Your focus is set on two muscles for the entire session.
  • Allows for full recovery.
  • Less equipment is needed during your session.
  • You’re less tired since you’re not working out multiple muscles.

Cons Of a Bodypart Workout Split

  • If you miss a workout, it takes longer to catch up.
  • You may become impatient waiting for a specific session.
  • Some body parts may recover faster than others.

Upper/Lower Workout Split

An upper/lower split divides workouts into upper-body focused days and lower-body days. This split is excellent for beginners, people on tight schedules, and those focused on getting stronger. It forces the lifter to prioritize the basics and cut the fat from their program. 

When training more muscles per workout, you need to be selective about exercises. An upper-body workout targets not just the chest and triceps but the biceps, shoulders, and back. Instead of doing four to five exercises for your chest, you will need to do just one or two moves per body part or risk fatigue and injury.

Man back squatting weight
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That’s why we recommend focusing on compound movements — that is, exercises that engage more than one muscle. Isolation (or single-joint) movements such as curls, chest flyes, and lateral raises should be on the chopping block first.

That’s not to say those exercises are useless, but they provide less bang for your buck. An upper-body day may include the bench press, barbell rowmilitary press, and pull-up. If you’re training hard enough, you won’t have much energy left to devote to the smaller muscles. 

One benefit of an upper/lower split is that you’ll be in the gym less. You’re essentially condensing your workload into four shorter, albeit more focused, sessions per week. Don’t worry about your strength levels, either. You can still get strong, if not stronger, with less training frequency (that is, how often your train).

In fact, a 2019 study found an upper/lower workout split resulted in more muscle size and strength gains when compared to a total body workout done three times per week. Like the body part split, you’re still hitting each muscle at that magical twice-per-week mark that’s been found to be optimal for bodybuilders. (4)

However, bodybuilders may be wary of this split because there’s less volume involved — that is, you’ll be doing fewer reps each week. There’s more room for accessory lifts on the body part split — not so much on this one. 

Let’s take the hamstring example we mentioned in the last section. It’s impossible to do that on this split because you’ll be working them the next day anyway, so you don’t want to pre-exhaust them. The same idea applies with adding upper-body workouts on a lower-body day — you just exhausted every muscle in that group, so your body isn’t going to feel like hitting another few sets of presses or rows the day after.

Upper/Lower Workout Split Example

  • Monday: Upper body
  • Tuesday: Lower body
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Upper body
  • Friday: Lower body
  • Saturday & Sunday: Rest

Pros of Upper/Lower Workout Split

  • You’re in the gym less.
  • You’re still hitting each muscle twice per week.
  • You can work on increasing the main lifts.

Cons of Upper/Lower Workout Split

  • There’s less volume per workout.

Push, Pull, Legs Workout Split

This workout split is similar to the upper/lower split. The main difference is that a PPL split divides upper-body training into two categories, pulling and pushing. This split is prevalent in the powerlifting community because they can build their program around the “big three” lifts — the bench press (push), deadlift (pull), and squat (legs). 

It’s also highly scalable in terms of frequency. Busy lifters can train intensely (meaning with more exercises for more sets and reps) three times per week. Folks with a desire to hit the gym more often can lower their volume per session and do each workout twice a week. You can also train four times per week and add an extra push, pull, or legs session (depending on what you need to work on).

woman deadlifting
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If you opt for the six-day-per-week option, be intelligent about your training intensity and exercise selection. During the first three sessions, you can prioritize the “big three” and lift heavier weights (these are your strength workouts). The last three sessions can be high-volume days to strengthen the smaller muscles, like the biceps, shoulders, and triceps (these are your hypertrophy workouts).

Six days of training is a lot, so don’t overdo it. Suppose you’re a powerlifter or strength athlete. In that case, you can use sessions three through six to focus on alternatives to the “big three,” such as the box squatdeficit deadlift, and floor press

Push, Pull, Legs Workout Split Example

  • Monday: Push (heavy bench press)
  • Tuesday: Pull (heavy deadlift)
  • Wednesday: Legs (heavy back squat)
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Push (high volume or bench press alternative)
  • Saturday: Pull (high volume or deadlift alternative)
  • Sunday: Legs (high volume or back squat alternative)

The previously mentioned studies all found that push/pull/legs are a viable option for muscle growth and strength gains. You’re still hitting each muscle twice-per-week and leaving ample time in between sessions for those muscles to recuperate and prepare for the next session.

Pros of Push, Pull, Legs

  • Emphasis on training specific muscles.
  • Ample recovery time.

Cons of push, push, legs

  • Less room for modification to address weak points.
  • More time in the gym.
  • More equipment is needed.

One More Thing — Have a Back-Up Plan

Having a plan before you walk into the gym is great, but what happens when things don’t go the way you want them to? Let’s say you walk in on leg day, and people are hogging the squat racks.

Odds are you don’t have enough time to wait for them — and this is when you need a back-up plan for what you had scheduled for that day. If you can’t squat, try doing heavy lunges or step-ups. Can’t find an open bench press? Substitute with dumbbell presses. You get the idea. 

Crowded gyms aren’t the only obstacles to plan for. Let’s say a blizzard — or a global pandemic (imagine?) — shuts gyms down in your area. What do you do? Don’t work out that day? No, you find a way to make it work with what you have at your disposal.

If you have some resistance bands lying around, then put those to use. Don’t have any equipment? There are countless bodyweight exercises you can do to work certain muscles.

Let’s also say you’re someone who travels for work. Not every hotel gym is stacked with Hammer Strength machines, and some may only have a few light dumbbells and treadmills (many may only have the latter). Again, make it work by adapting your workouts, either by changing the moves you had planned for that day or shifting the set and rep schemes.

Better yet, make sure to pack portable workout equipment with you if you know you might be somewhere with limited equipment. Beyond resistance bands, TRX suspension training systems are another lightweight option that can easily fit in a suitcase and go with you wherever you go.

One more idea: try to find a nearby family-owned gym and see if they’ll give you a one-day pass for a small fee. As long as the gym’s not overly crowded, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t let you in for a quick workout.

Missing one day here and there won’t kill your progress, but workout splits are only effective if you actually stick to them, so having a contingency plan is a must if you want to see results.

What to Remember

  • Figure out your end goal before picking a split.
  • Be realistic with your time commitment.
  • Draw up a plan and stick to it.
  • Have a back-up plan.

References

  1. Hackett DA, Johnson NA, Chow CM. Training practices and ergogenic aids used by male bodybuilders. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jun;27(6):1609-17. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318271272a. PMID: 22990567.
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8. PMID: 27102172.
  3. Yue FL, Karsten B, Larumbe-Zabala E, Seijo M, Naclerio F. Comparison of 2 weekly-equalized volume resistance-training routines using different frequencies on body composition and performance in trained males. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2018 May;43(5):475-481. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2017-0575. Epub 2017 Dec 7. PMID: 29216446.
  4. Lasevicius T, Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Laurentino G, Tavares LD, Tricoli V. Similar Muscular Adaptations in Resistance Training Performed Two Versus Three Days Per Week. J Hum Kinet. 2019;68:135-143. Published 2019 Aug 21. doi:10.2478/hukin-2019-0062

Featured image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock