What is a Training Split?
If you’ve followed any fitness fanatic on Instagram or read a single fitness magazine, you’ve probably heard people throw around phrases like “leg day” or “pull day.” I mean, even Kanye raps about hitting all chest no legs. In all of those scenarios, people are embracing some form of training split. A training split is exactly what it sounds like: splitting up your weight training according to certain muscle groups.
Full Body Workouts vs Training Splits
As you may have noticed by now, I’m a big fan of full-body workouts for weight lifting newbies. I really wish I had focused on strength and form for major lifts earlier in my fitness journey. Don’t get me wrong, full-body workouts are great for more advanced lifters too! You just won’t be able to make the same linear progression as beginners (aka continually increasing the weights on your lifts without having to de-load)… but that’ll be true regardless of what type of workout you follow.
That being said, as you progress you might find you don’t have enough recovery time when you’re hitting the same muscle groups 3x per week… especially if you’re trying to incorporate any other types of training (running, cycling, soccer, etc). Another good reason you may want to stray from full-body workouts is if you’ve created a baseline of strength and now want to incorporate more accessory lifts and isolation exercises. Or maybe you’re a masochist like me and want to spend more days in the gym. Whatever your reason, there are a lot of great, free programs out there for splitting up your workouts to target different body parts.
Below are a just a few of the most common training splits, along with programs that either I’ve run & enjoyed or programs that have rave reviews.
Push / Pull Workouts
Push / Pull routines split up your workouts between exercises that mimic pushing movements (ex: bench press) and pulling movements (ex: bent over rows). I really like this approach because it splits your body according to natural movements, making it easy to center your workouts around major compound lifts.
Some programs split leg exercises between push (ex: squats) and pull (ex: deadlifts) days, while other programs set aside a separate day for solely lower body training. To me, it boils down to how often you want to go to the gym and how long you want to be there. Usually, you’ll repeat most push/pull workouts twice during a week. A push/pull (PP) program without a separate leg day will probably mean longer workouts (since you’ll be doing upper & lower body lifts during each day), but you can get away with only lifting four times during the week.
A push/pull/legs (PPL) program will make it much easier to limit you workouts to just 45 min – 1 hour. On the other hand, it will likely result in lifting 6x per week, which can be taxing. Keep in mind you though that you can get creative with your rest days! For example, you could do push-pull-legs-rest-push-pull-legs-rest sequence so you’re getting an extra rest day. It means you won’t finish a sequence in one week (since a sequence will be 8 days), but your muscle don’t understand a calendar anyways.
Recommended free programs:
Note: I haven’t come across a good, free push/pull routine (no separate leg day)… but I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere.
Another way to split up your workouts is pretty obvious: upper and lower body. Since most compound movements are distinctly lower or upper body, most upper/lower programs rely heavily on them. The only lift that gets sticky is deadlifts, since it works your entire posterior chain (and more). A lot of programs consider it an upper body movement because of the recruitment of the low back. Other programs stick it into a lower body workout because of the recruitment of the hamstrings and glutes. Some upper/lower programs just skip over deadlifts completely to avoid the issue, which I don’t like (because I love deadlifts).
Recommended free program:
Body Part Splits
Also known as “bro splits,” body part splits were the standard approach bodybuilders and gym “bros” used for a long time (many still do). The whole idea of a body part split is that you target a specific muscle group each day of the week to allow an intense workout but also maximal recovery. It used to be believe that it could take your muscles up to a week to recovery from weight lifting. However, more and more studies suggest that even with an intense workout, your body can recover within 48 hours. So, targeting the same muscles multiple times during the week doesn’t seem to interfere with recovery and can actually produce more muscle growth. As a result, a lot of lifters are now moving away from old school, single body part splits.
Another downside is that it’s difficult to incorporate main compound lifts (i.e. squats, bench, rows, & deadlifts). For example, if you do bench on chest day, you’re also fatiguing your triceps, so it wouldn’t be wise to do triceps the next day. It can become a giant puzzle trying to figure out to arrange your workouts & incorporate major lifts. As a result, some programs will just forgo compound movements and focus on isolation exercises. While that works for aesthetics, it isn’t very efficient for building functional or meaningful strength.
I don’t have workouts to recommend here, because I don’t feel like single body part splits are a great choice. And this is my blog, so I get to do what I want. IMHO, there’s only a couple scenarios I could see it being more effective than other splits. For instance, if you are a very advanced bodybuilder who needs a lot of recovery. In a scenario like that though, you’re probably working with a trainer and/or on a custom plan anyways.
Other weight training splits
There are a ton of other programs out there too. Some programs, like PHAT, will mix upper / lower with a PPL approach. If you’re pretty advanced and serious about increasing your max on core lifts, you may want to checkout a program like 5/3/1. Obviously, this post is nowhere close to being exhaustive, so let me know what free programs you think are great!