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Muscle-Building Basics: Split the Difference

A solid training program is more than the sum of its weights, reps and sets. It puts the pieces together into a training split that’s suited to you and your goals.

Photos By Robert Reiff

Of all the splits in the world — the banana and gymnastics varieties come instantly to mind — none is more neglected than the training split. Admit it. When it comes to workouts, there are certain variables that are bandied about constantly: what exercises to do, how much weight to use, how many sets and reps, and how much rest to take between sets and training days. But one of the most fundamental variables in training — how muscle groups are paired during workouts and how often those groups are trained — gets fairly little attention. Most people just slap a few muscle groups together and stick with that for infinity. But this little factor may be even more critical than the exercises, weights, rep ranges and number of sets you do.

In simple terms, a training split is a weekly lifting schedule. It refers to which muscle groups you train on which days of the week. And there are an infinite number of ways to organize your training split. So how do you know which way is right for you? That’s precisely the purpose of this article. M&P will cover four of the most common training splits, outlining their benefits, so that you can pick the best split based on your experience and your goals. And if you find you’re not able to decide on the best split for you, don’t worry. Just follow our “Split the Difference” training program, which gives you a trial run of each of these splits. Once you’ve tried them all out, you’ll be better able to judge which one works best for your body and your schedule.

Whole-Body Training Split

As the name implies, a whole-body training split trains the whole body each workout. This lets you train each muscle group more frequently each week — about three times per week, allowing for at least one day of rest between sessions.

This is the best split for beginners because it limits the number of sets performed per muscle group and because training each muscle group so frequently best trains the nervous system, priming it for future strength and size gains.

But it’s not just for beginners. Whole-body splits help stimulate muscle growth by keeping the muscle-growth genes in muscles constantly turned on. Furthermore, the more muscle groups you train in a workout, the higher the boost in the anabolic hormones testosterone and growth hormone. Plus, training more frequently is a good shock to your muscles if you are currently training them once per week. And an additional benefit to this split is that training so many muscle groups in one workout enhances fat burning.

Sample Whole-Body Training Split Workout

Try this sample workout on Monday, Wednesday and Friday or any three days of the week, allowing one complete day of rest between workouts.

Squat

Muscle Group ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Chest Bench Press
4 8-10 1-2 minutes
Back Lat  Pulldown 4 8-10 1-2 minutes
Shoulders Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4 8-10 1-2 minutes
Legs Squat 4 8-10 1-2 minutes
Biceps Barbell Curl 4 10-12 1-2 minutes
Triceps Lying Triceps Extension 4 10-12 10-12 minutes
Abs Crunch 4 15-20 10-20 minutes
Calves Standing Calf Raise 4 15-20 1 minute


Two-Day Training Split

The two-day training split simply divides all the muscles of the body into two separate workouts. A common two-day split is the Upper-Body/Lower-Body Split, in which you train all your upper-body muscle groups in one workout and then all your lower-body muscles in the second workout. This is typically repeated twice a week for a total of four workouts. The benefits here are that you can do more exercises per muscle group and train each muscle with more intensity, which can promote greater muscle gains. Plus, because you are training half the body’s muscle mass in each workout, each workout still hits a large amount of the body’s muscle mass, which leads to a big increase in anabolic hormone levels while also stimulating greater fat burning.

Sample Two-Day Training Split Workout

Try these workouts on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, or any four days of the week.

DumbbellRow

Workouts 1 and 3 (Monday and Thursday)

Muscle Group
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Chest

Incline Bench Press

Dumbbell Flye

3

3

6-8

8-10

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

Back

Pull-Up

Dumbbell Row

3

3

to failure

8-10

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

Shoulders

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

3

3

6-8

10-12

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

Traps Smith Machine Shrug 3 6-8 1-2 minutes
Biceps

Barbell Curl

Preacher Curl

3

2

8-10

10-12

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

Triceps

Close-Grip Bench Press

Triceps Pressdown

3

2

8-10

10-12

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

 

Crunch

Workouts 2 and 4 (Tuesday and Friday)

Muscle Group ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Quads

Leg Press

Leg Extension

3

3

6-8

10-12

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

Hamstring
Seated Leg Curl 3 10-12 1-2 minutes
Calves

Leg Press Calf Raise

Seated Calf Raise

3

3

15-20

15-20

1 minute

1 minute

Abdominals

Hanging Leg Raise

Crunch

3

3

to failure

to failure

1 minute

1 minute

 

Three-Day Training Split

A three-day split entails training the entire body over the course of three workouts. Compared to the whole-body and two-day splits, the three-day split has you training even fewer major muscle groups in most workouts. This allows you to train each muscle group with more volume and intensity to help encourage greater muscle growth.

Because you’re training with more volume and intensity, you will require a longer recovery period between workouts for muscle groups, so you’re only training each group once per week. It also allows you to include exercises for smaller muscle groups, such as traps and forearms, to build a better, well-balanced physique. One common way to divide up your training is to use the Push/Pull/Legs Split, in which one day you’ll do all your major upper-body pushing muscle groups (chest, shoulders, triceps), another day you’ll do the upper-body pulling muscle groups (back and biceps), and on the third day, you’ll train legs. The main benefit to training this way is that while you’re doing your pushing movements, your pulling muscles are recovering and vice versa.

Sample Three-Day (Push/Pull/Legs) Split

Try this split on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or any three days of the week. Abs can be trained on any or all the days.

InclineDumbbellPress

Workout 1 (Push)

Muscle Group
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Chest

Bench Press

Incline Dumbbell Press

Cable Crossover

4

3

3

6-8

8-10

10-12

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Shoulders

Barbell Shoulder Press

Dumbbell Upright Row

Bent-Over Lateral Raise

4

3

3

6-8

8-10

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Triceps

Dumbbell Overhead

Triceps Extension

Triceps Pressdown

Bench Dips

 

3

3

2

 

8-10

10-12

to failure

 

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Abs

Hanging Leg Raise

Weightend Decline Crunch

3

3

to failuer

10-12

1 minute

1 minute

BarbellShrug

Workout 2 (Pull)

Muscle Group
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Back

Pull Up

Barbell Bent-Over Row

Seated Cable Row

Straight-Arm Pulldown

3

3

3

3

to failure

6-8

8-10

12-15

2-3 minutes

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Traps

Barbell Shrug

4

8-10

1-2 minutes

Biceps

Barbell Curl

Incline Cumbbell Curl

Dumbbell Concentration Curl

3

3

3

8-10

10-12

12-15

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Forearms Barbell Wrist Curl 3 12-15 1 minute

BarbellWristCurl

Workout 3 (Legs)

Muscle Group
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Quadriceps

Squat

Leg Press

Leg Extension

4

3

3

6-8

8-10

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Hamstrings Lying Leg Curl
3 12-15 1 minute
Calves

Standing Calf Raise

Seated Calf Raise

3

3

12-15

20-25

1 minute

1 minute


Four-Day Training Split

In case you haven’t noticed the trend here, the four-day split breaks all the muscle groups of the body down into four separate workouts. With this split, you’ll train even fewer muscle groups in most workouts, and that increased volume and intensity can encourage even greater muscle growth. A common way to divide the muscles is to train chest, triceps and abs on Monday; back, biceps and forearms on Tuesday; rest on Wednesday; train shoulders, traps and abs on Thursday; and legs and calves on Friday, then rest over the weekend.

Although some bodybuilders have been known to go with a five-day or even six-day split in which  they may train only one muscle group each workout, we suggest that you do not split up your muscle groups more than a four-day split. You need to train an adequate amount of muscle groups to stimulate the release of our favorite anabolic hormones, growth hormone and testosterone. Training too few muscle groups in a workout may limit the anabolic-hormone response you get, thereby limiting the response you get from your muscles. So consider the four-day split your upper limit.

Sample Four-Day Split

Try this split on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, or any four days of the week.

DumbbellWoodchopper

Workout 1 (Monday)

Muscle Group ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Chest

Incline Bench Press

Dumbbell Bench Press

Inline Dumbbell Flye

Cable Crossover

4

4

4

4

6-8

8-10

10-12

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Triceps

Triceps Dip

Lying Triceps Extension

Cable Overhead

Triceps Extension

Triceps Pressdown

3

3

 

3

3

6-8

8-10

 

10-12

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

 

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Abdominals

Hanging Leg Raise

Crunch

Dumbbell Woodchopper

3

3

3

to failure

to failure

15-20

1 minute

1 minute

1 minute

LyingTricepsExtension

Workout 2 (Tuesday)

Muscle Group
ExersiceSetsRepsRest
Back

Reverse-Grip Pulldown

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

T-Bar Row

Wide-Grip Pulldown

4

4

4

4

6-8

8-10

10-12

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Biceps

EZ-Bar Curl

Incline Dumbbell Curl

One-Arm Cable Curl

Alternating Dumbbell

Hammer Curl

3

3

3

 

3

6-8

8-10

10-12

 

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

 

1 minute

Forearms

Dumbbell Wrist Curl

Barbell Reverse Wrist Curl

3

3

10-12

12-15

1 minute

1 minute

DumbbellLateralRaise

Workout 3 (Thursday)

Muscle Group
ExersiceSetsRepsRest
Shoulders

Barbbell Shoulder Press

Cumbbell Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Front Press

Cable Rear Delt Raise

4

4

4

4

6-8

8-10

10-12

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Traps

Behind-the-Back

Barbell Shrug

Dumbbell Shrug

 

3

3

 

8-10

10-12

 

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

Abdominals

Hip Thrust

Cable Crunch

Plank

3

3

3

to failure

12-15

60 sec.

1 minute

1 minute

1 minute

BarbellWalkingRow

Workout 4 (Friday)

Muscle Group Exercise SetsRepsRest
Quadriceps

Front Squat

Leg Press

Barbbell Walking Lunge

Leg Estension

4

4

4

4

6-8

8-10

10-12

12-15

2-3 minutes

1-2 minutes

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Hamstrings

Romanian Deadlift

Seated Leg Curl

4

4

8-10

15-20

1-2 minutes

1 minute

Calves

Seated Calf Raise

Leg Press Calf Raise

4

4

12-15

15-20

1 minute

1 minute

Close-GripBenchPress

Split the Difference

Can’t decide on the best split for you? Try this training program, which allows you to take all four splits for a test run. Then you can decide which one to use as your primary training split.

Weeks Training Split

1-3

4-6

7-9

10-12

Whole-Body Training Split

Two-Day (Uper Body/Lower Body) Training Split

Three-Day (Push/Pull/Legs) Training Split

Four-Day Training Split

 

Once you’ve completed the 12 weeks, answer the following questions to determine the best split for you.

1) Which split allowed you to train with more overall intensity and/or provided you the best overall results? If you have a well-balanced physique without any weak areas you wish to bring up, that one will probably be the best split for you.

2) Which split allowed you to train lagging bodyparts the hardest and/or best helped to bring up lagging bodyparts? If you have a weak bodypart or two that you are trying to bring up with the rest of your muscle groups, this split is likely your best option.

3) Which split allowed you the best recovery between workouts? If you tend to be sore for days after workouts and recover slowly, this is likely the split for you.

4) Which split was most convenient for your schedule? If you’re a busybody with a tight schedule and tend to miss workouts because of your schedule, then this will probably be the best split for you.

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