Muscle-Building Basics: Split the Difference

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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.

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Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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.

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Workouts 1 and 3 (Monday and Thursday)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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Workouts 2 and 4 (Tuesday and Friday)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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.

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Workout 1 (Push)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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Workout 2 (Pull)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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Workout 3 (Legs)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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.

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Workout 1 (Monday)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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Workout 2 (Tuesday)

Muscle Group

Exersice

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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Workout 3 (Thursday)

Muscle Group

Exersice

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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Workout 4 (Friday)

Muscle Group

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

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

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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.