Find the Best Workout Split For You: A Complete Analysis

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How many articles have you read preaching the “best” or “perfect” weight training split? I’m guessing more than you can count.

The purpose of this article is not to provide you with the coveted “perfect routine” for maximum gains, but rather to compare and contrast the four most popular training splits. The four most popular splits, in no particular order, are:

  • Full Body
  • Upper/Lower
  • Push/Pull/Legs
  • Body Part

In this article I will cover approaches for, pros of, cons of each training split as well as provide you with a sample routine. Once armed with this information I hope you select the training split that best aligns with your training goals. The perfect routine is extremely individual. It can be influenced by training history, training goals, lifestyle, schedule, nutrition, rest, and supplements.

Article Terminology

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Before we delve in to the four training splits, I want to define “AMRAP”, an abbreviation used in the sample routines. AMRAP stands for “as many reps as possible”; but this does not mean you should go to complete muscular failure. Rather, perform as many reps as you can with good form; if you feel as though you may fail on the next rep or be unable to complete it with good form, then terminate the set, rest for the requisite amount of time, and then perform another set.

Furthermore, you may notice each sample routine has three columns: exercise, set, and rep goal. The first two columns are self-explanatory, but Rep Goal deserves a definition.

The Rep Goal System is a straightforward, no-nonsense, set-maximizing training and progression approach popularized by Steve Shaw’s e-book “Massive Iron: The Rep Goal System.” For example, if the routine prescribes 3 sets with a rep goal of 25, then you should aim to perform 25 TOTAL reps across all 3 sets.

Let me repeat, you should NOT try to perform 3 sets of 25. Instead, pick a weight and perform as many quality reps as you can without reaching technical failure. For example, if you perform overhead press with 80lbs for 8, 8, and 7 reps, then you completed 23 total reps. 23 reps is 2 reps shy of the 25 rep goal so next time you overhead press you use the same weight and try for 24 reps.

When you perform equal or greater than 25 reps then you increase the weight to 85lbs for the next workout.

Fit Male Body

The full body approach is fairly straightforward. Every time you perform a workout you’re going to perform exercises that hit all major and minor muscle groups.

The Full Body Workout

The full body split training approach is fairly straightforward. Every time you perform a weight training workout you’re going to perform exercises that hit all major and minor muscle groups. You will accomplish this goal by performing both compound and isolation exercises.

When training full body you should perform at least 3 compound movements – one push, one pull, and one leg exercise. After these compound movements you can perform additional compound and isolation accessory movements to increase the size and strength of lagging body parts.

Full body routines are typically performing every other day, which means you’ll be in the gym 3 to 4 times per week. Typically the workout days will be laid out in one of the following two ways:

  • A/Rest/B/Rest/A/Rest/B/Rest
  • A/Rest/B/Rest/C/Rest/A

Full body routines also commonly employ a Heavy/Light/Medium wave approach which you can accomplish by adjusting workout exercise choice, volume, and intensity (% of 1RM).

Pros of the Full Body Split

Full body splits allow you to train a muscle and practice a movement pattern as frequently as possible. Whereas a body part split may only have you hitting chest or training bench once per week, a full body split allows you to hit chest and practice bench pressing 3 to 4 times per week.

Full body splits involve predominantly compound movements which burn more calories over isolation movements; although this may not be a concern during a mass-gain phase, those looking to cut fat and preserve muscle mass may find full body training ideal as it allows adequate stimulus without leading to burn-out and significant fatigue. Full body splits are time-efficient because they allow you to hit every muscle group in one workout. This is great if you happen to miss a scheduled workout or two; you can simply start where you left off without having to shift your entire workout week.

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Full body splits allow you to perform three exercises with maximum intensity; because the push, pull and legs exercises all tax different muscle groups you can theoretically move the maximum amount of weight with each without affect the other lifts. With other splits you may only be able to perform one or two exercises with maximum intensity before muscular fatigue sets in.

Full body splits are great for beginner weightlifters looking to reinforce movement patterns, athletes looking to balance their time on the field and in the weight room, those wanting to maximize calorie burn and preserve lean mass without burning out, and those with poor recovery abilities.

Cons of the Full Body Split

No training split comes without potential drawbacks. If you’re a dedicated gym rat and/or an athlete who recovers well, a full body split may leave you feeling unsatisfied when it comes to training a muscle group. The relatively low per-day volume of an exercise may leave you without the desired pump or muscular stimulus you seek.

If you decide to increase the per-day volume of all the exercises then the workout can become prohibitively long (90+ minutes) which could negatively affect your recovery and time-efficiency; two of the primary reasons people choose full body routines. Since full body routines require the fewest days per week in the gym, you’re inclined to pick compound exercises which are powerful strength and mass builders, but may lead to muscle size, strength, and symmetry imbalances.

One of the fastest ways to fix imbalances is to employ isolation exercises which aren’t heavily emphasized and sometimes not at all used in a full body split.

Sample Full Body Routine

Full Body Workout
Workout A
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Back Squat 3 30
Barbell Bench Press 3 25
Dumbbell Row 3 30
Tricep Dips 3 AMRAP
Barbell Curls 3 35
Standing Calf Raises 3 35
Rope Crunches 3 50
Full Body Workout
Workout B
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Deadlift 3 15
Leg Press 3 30
Overhead Press 3 25
Chin-up or Pull-up 3 AMRAP
Lying Tricep Extensions 3 35
Dumbbell Shrugs 3 35
Hanging Leg Raises 3 AMRAP
Full Body Workout
Workout C
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Front Squat 3 25
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 3 25
Barbell Row 3 30
Close Grip Bench Press 3 30
Dumbbell Hammer Curls 3 25
Seated Calf Raises 3 35
Ab Wheel Rollout 3 AMRAP

Woman Squatting

Upper/Lower splits offer a great blend of frequency and volume for gym rats and athletes with high recovery abilities or in their off-season.

The Upper/Lower (UL) Split

The upper/lower split training approach involves treating the body as two distinct halves – upper and lower. On upper body days you will be training chest, back, shoulders, traps, biceps and forearms. On lower body days you will be training quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lower back and calves.

You can include abdominals on upper days, lower days or cardio days. I prefer to include direct abdominal training on lower body days since it complements lower back training nicely.

On upper body days I aim to perform at least one of each of the following: one vertical push, one vertical pull, one horizontal push, one horizontal pull. On lower body days I aim to perform at least one squat and one deadlift variation.

Upper/Lower routines are typically performed in a 2-on/1-off which means you’ll be in the gym 4 to 5 times per week. Typically the workout days will be laid out in one of the following two ways:

  • Upper A/Lower A/Rest/Upper A/Lower A/Rest
  • Upper A/Lower A/Rest/Upper B/Lower B/Rest

Pros of the Upper/Lower Split

Upper/Lower splits offer a great blend of frequency and volume for gym rats
(re: weightlifting is your primary physical activity) and athletes with high recovery abilities or in their off-season. Upper/lower splits allow you to train using multiple planes of motion (e.g. horizontal and vertical) in one session.

Upper/lower splits also allow you to easily superset antagonist muscle groups without affecting the performance of either exercise. For example, you can save time and increase workout density (volume lifted in X minutes) without decreasing intensity by supersetting two upper body exercises like bench press and barbell row.

Upper/lower splits allow you to attack muscle groups with a nice balance of compound and isolation exercises without completely pummeling a muscle group or leaving you feeling unsatisfied with the workload for a particular muscle group.

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Cons of the Upper/Lower Split

If you’re die-hard gym rat who enjoys lifting in the gym nearly every day, then a upper/lower split may not be for you. I’ve tried a 6-day per week upper/lower split with moderate volume and it led to overreaching very quickly.

Even with the increased opportunity for incorporating isolation lifts, you may find yourself developing muscle size, strength and symmetry imbalances. However, you could remedy this by performing a 5th workout during the week that focuses on weak points.

If you do miss a workout day it can be a bit trickier to make it up since it throws off your workout layout for the rest of the week. The accumulated fatigue from your first exercise could negatively affect the performance of subsequent exercises.

For example, if you perform bench press as your first exercise and overhead press as your second or third exercise, then your overhead press performance may falter due to fatigued shoulders and triceps.

Sample Upper/Lower Routine

Upper/Lower Workout
Upper A
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Dumbbell Bench Press 4 40
Chest-Supported Row 4 40
Barbell Behind the Neck Press 3 30
Wide Grip Pull-up 3 AMRAP
Barbell Shrug 3 30
Cable Fly 3 35
Dumbbell Lateral Raises 3 35
Upper/Lower Workout
Lower A
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Back Squat 3 25
Romanian Deadlift 3 30
Leg Press 3 50
Lunges 3 30
Back Extensions 3 30
Standing Calf Raises 3 35
Hanging Leg Raises 3 AMRAP
Upper/Lower Workout
Upper B
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Bench Press 4 40
Cable Low Row 4 40
Dumbbell Overhead Press 3 30
Lat Pulldown 3 35
Close Grip Bench Press 3 30
Barbell Curls 3 30
Cable Facepulls 3 40
Upper/Lower Workout
Lower B
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Deadlift 3 15
Front Squat 3 20
Glute Bridges 3 30
Leg Extension 4 40
Lying Leg Curl 3 30
Seated Calf Raises 3 30
Cable Crunches 3 30

Man Deadlifting

A Push/Pull/Legs split appeals to gym-rats looking to lift as many days as possible. You can successfully train as little 3 times or as many as 6 times per week.

The Push/Pull/Legs (PPL) Split

The push/pull/legs split training approach requires that you structure workouts based on movement pattern.

On push days you will perform vertical and horizontal pressing movements to train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. On pull days you will perform vertical and horizontal pulling movements to train the back, biceps, traps, and forearms. On legs days you will perform at least one squat and one deadlift variation to train the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and calves.

You can include direct abdominal work on any day but I prefer to include mine on leg days since it complements lower back training nicely. Push/Pull/Legs routines can be performed in a variety of ways, allowing you to train 3 to 6 times per week. Push/Pull/Legs routines are most commonly performed using one of the two following layouts:

  • Push A/Rest/Pull A/Rest/Legs A/Rest
  • Push A/Pull A/Legs A/Rest/Push B/Pull B/Legs B/Rest

Pros of the Push/Pull/Legs Split

Hack SquatsA Push/Pull/Legs split appeals to gym-rats looking to lift as many days as possible as well as in-season and off-season athletes because you can successfully train as little 3 times or as many as 6 times per week. The Push/Pull/Legs trains fewer muscle groups than the full body or upper/lower split, but allows you to increase the per-workout volume for specific muscle groups.

The Push/Pull/Legs split also allows you to train in multiple planes of motion. Push/Pull/Legs splits allow you to train using multiple planes of motion (e.g. horizontal and vertical).

If you can tolerate it, 6 days per week of a Push/Pull/Legs split provides you with a moderate muscle stimulus frequency (2 times per week) as well a significant amount of per-muscle group volume.

Cons of the Push/Pull/Legs Split

Unless your nutrition, rest, and workout programming are on-point, a lifting 6 days per week using the Push/Pull/Legs split can lead to overreaching VERY quickly (take it from someone who’s been there). Supersetting exercises on a Push/Pull/Legs routine can be tricky.

Since all exercises on a given workout day involve the same or similar muscle groups, supersetting can quickly lead to muscular fatigue which negatively impacts workout performance. For example, if its pull day and you attempt to superset barbell row and pull-ups, the weight used and/or reps performed on the second exercise is going to suffer. This is because the primary movers of both exercises are backs, biceps, traps, and forearms.

If your goal is maximize the weight lifted for a given exercise then supersetting using a Push/Pull/Legs split is not a wise idea. Additionally, if you miss a workout while following a Push/Pull/Legs split your workout layout for the rest of week is going to be more dramatically impacted than if you were to miss a day on a full body or upper/lower routine.

Sample Push/Pull/Legs Routine

Push/Pull/Legs Workout
Push A
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Seated Barbell Overhead Press 3 30
Dumbbell Incline Press 3 35
(Weighted) Dips 4 40
Lying Triceps Extensions 4 40
Cable Crossovers 4 40
Cable Lateral Raises 4 45
Push/Pull/Legs Workout
Pull A
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Deadlift 3 15
Barbell Row 3 35
Wide Grip Pull-up 4 40
Dumbbell Shrugs 4 40
Barbell Curls 4 40
Cable Facepull 4 45
Push/Pull/Legs Workout
Legs A
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Back Squat 3 30
Good Mornings 3 35
Leg Press 4 40
Lying Leg Curls 4 40
Donkey Calf Raises 4 45
Ab Wheel Rollouts 4 AMRAP
Push/Pull/Legs Workout
Push B
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Bench Press 3 30
Dumbbell Arnold Press 3 35
Close Grip Bench Press 4 40
Rope Pushdowns 4 40
Incline Dumbbell Fly 4 40
Dumbbell Lateral Raises 4 45
Push/Pull/Legs Workout
Pull B
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Power Clean 3 15
Dumbbell Row 3 35
Lat Pulldown 4 40
Upright Rows 4 40
Dumbbell Hammer Curls 4 40
Dumbbell Reverse Fly 4 45
Push/Pull/Legs Workout
Legs B
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Barbell Front Squat 3 25
Romanian Deadlifts 3 35
Lunges 4 40
Leg Extensions 4 40
Standing Calf Raises 4 40
Hanging Leg Raises 4 AMRAP

Dumbbell Curls

Body part splits allow you to maximize the number of compound and isolation lifts you can perform to stimulate a given muscle group.

The Body Part Split (Bro Split)

The body part split training approach involves structuring workouts based on the desired muscle group(s) you want to train. For example, on a day in which you want to train chest you will select compound and isolation lifts that involve chest muscles as the primary movers.

Body part splits can be performed in a variety of ways, allowing you to train every day. Rest days can be included between any two workouts and “/” denotes a different workout day.

Below are a few examples of the most common body part split layouts:

  • Legs/Chest/Back/Shoulders/Arms/Abdominals & Traps & Forearms
  • Chest & Triceps/Back & Biceps/Legs & Shoulders
  • Chest & Biceps/ Back & Triceps/Legs & Shoulders
  • Chest & Back/Shoulders & Triceps & Biceps/Legs

Pros of the Body Part Split

The body part split, also known as the “Bro Split”, appeals to the quintessential gym rat looking to lift as many days as possible. If you’re looking to pummel a muscle group once per week with high volume, then this workout split is for you.

However, the body part split also allows you the flexibility to training multiple muscle groups during one workout. I encourage you to think outside the box when designing a body part split; the once-per-week mentality isn’t the only way to go. In addition to the high per-workout volume for a given muscle group, body part splits also allow you to maximize the number of compound and isolation lifts you can perform to stimulate a given muscle group. This can be especially handy when you’re looking to repair muscle size, strength, and symmetry imbalances.

Additionally, body part splits can time-efficient; although you may be in the gym up to 7 days per week, many followers of the body part split find themselves able to successfully stimulate a muscle group in 30 minutes or less. This is a stark contrast to the potential workout duration of 90+ minutes some lifters endure whilst following a full body routine.

Cons of the Body Part Split

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If structured in the traditional one muscle group per day layout, the body part split provides stresses each muscle group with the lowest frequency. This may not be ideal for those looking to reinforce a movement pattern and beginner lifters who could quickly add weight and reps by performing an exercise more than once per week. Hitting a muscle group with such low frequency can delay increases in muscle size and strength.

The body part split is most impacted by a missed or postponed workout. Missing just one day can cause the workout layout of not just the current workout week to shift, but also every subsequent week. However, you can easily overcome this drawback if you combine multiple body parts in one workout.

Similar to the Push/Pull/Legs split, supersetting exercises whilst following a body part split can quickly lead to muscular fatigue which negatively impacts workout performance. For example, if you’re lifting shoulders and decide to super set behind the neck press and Arnold press, the weight used and/or reps performed on the second exercise is going to suffer. This is because the primary movers of both exercises are shoulders, traps, and triceps.

If your goal is maximize the weight lifted for a given exercise then supersetting using a body part split is not a wise idea. However, you can overcome this by lifting multiple body parts on one day and supersetting antagonist (e.g. chest & back) or non-competing (e.g. legs & shoulders) muscle groups.

Sample Body Part Split Routine

Body Part Split
back
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Deadlift 3 15
Barbell Row 3 35
Cable Low Row 4 45
Chin-up 4 AMRAP
Body Part Split
Chest
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Incline Barbell Bench Press 3 25
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 3 35
Cable Crossover 4 45
Push-ups 4 AMRAP
Body Part Split
Shoulders
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Behind-The-Neck-Press 3 25
Arnold Press 3 35
Cable Lateral Raise 4 45
Dumbbell Reverse Fly 4 45
Body Part split
Quadriceps
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Front Squat 3 25
Lunges 3 35
Leg Extensions 4 45
Body Part split
Hamstrings
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Romanian Deadlifts 3 25
Good Mornings 3 35
Lying Hamstring Curls 4 45
Body Part Split
Biceps
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Alternating Dumbbell Curls 3 30
Cable Curl 3 35
Preacher Curl 4 40
Body Part Split
Triceps
Exercise Sets Reps
Close Grip Bench Press 3 30
Skullcrushers 3 35
Bodyweight Dips (Triceps Emphasis) 3 AMRAP
Body Part Split
Calves
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Standing Calf Raise 3 30
Seated Calf Raise 3 40
Donkey Calf Raise 3 50
Body Part Split
Traps
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Hang Clean 3 30
Dumbbell Shrug 3 35
Barbell Shrug 4 40
Body Part Split
Abdominals
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Decline (Weighted) Crunches 3 30
Hanging Leg Raises 3 AMRAP
Plate Side Bends 3 30
Body Part Split
Forearms
Exercise Sets Rep Goal
Reverse Barbell Curl 3 30
Dumbbell Wrist Curl 3 35
Dumbbell Holds 3 180 seconds
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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.