The Body Part Split is Not Dead – Get Over It
Body part splits are dead! That’s the drum beat being hammered out around lifting sites across the Internet. These “bro splits” are only good for the hardcore chemically enhanced, or those of us with way too much time on their hands.
I’m calling BS.
Splits are not dead. Sorry, they can have value. Before you start throwing sharp objects my way, or your signed copy of Starting Strength, at least hear me out first.
Back around 2007 and 2008, I was one of the few writers calling attention to the fact that frequency training had value. The hate towards me was so strong that I had one major lifting site ban me, and another (one I worked for at the time) receive cries that I be fired because I was a fool.
Maybe I am, but that doesn’t negate the logic and science that supports the value of using frequency training.
So if I’m a fan of frequency training, why the need to write this article? Good question. Here’s why…
Back in the day body part splits were the only way. Frequency training, or full body workouts, were seen by most as outdated. Stuff that was cool in the 1950s, but wasn’t as advanced as what we do now. Sure, a few men still adhered to them, but you rarely saw full body workouts creep into popular bodybuilding magazines.
The pendulum had swung too far. It was pegged on the extreme; a place where only body part splits mattered.
Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a paradigm shift. The pendulum began to swing back, and in an accelerated manner. These days the pressure to stick to frequency training is so strong that body part splits are often painted as useless. And the pendulum is still gaining momentum. it will soon reach the extreme opposite end.
Is there real truth at the extremes? Rarely. The truth is often found in the middle ground. So, while there are valid arguments and science backing frequency training. there are also valid reasons to use a lower training frequency.
I wrote this article not to support one side over the other, but rather to provide some balance to a debate that is becoming one-sided. Before I get into my six reasons why body part splits aren’t dead, let’s address the recent criticism of “bro training” by Andy Van Grinsven in his viral article, Body-Part Splits Are Dead.
Body Part Splits Are Dead?
Andy Van Grinsven recently detailed five reasons why he feels body part splits are dead. Let’s take a look at this points. I provide a counterpoint for each.
Point #1 – Insufficient Training Frequency
“There’s a better way to train, though. Suppose that instead of 3 sets each of 4 exercises for a muscle (12 sets total), you did 3 sets each of 3 exercises for a muscle twice per week (18 sets total).
Although you’d be unable to match the volume per workout of a body-part split, the latter scenario would result in a sleeve-busting 50% increase in weekly volume compared to the traditional body-part split.” – Andy Van Grinsven
If growth was simply a matter of volume, this point might be valid. It’s not. Grinsven caps off this point be deflecting it back to the importance of muscle protein synthesis. Unfortunately this logic flow makes no reasonable connection.
“Hey, you could potentially do more volume using frequency training.” So? You could potentially do more volume using a split. In fact, most low frequency splits feature more weekly volume per body part than full body workouts.
Here, Andy Van Grinsven goes down a dead end street. His point was to stress the importance of frequency with regards to muscle protein synthesis, yet he leads the section beating the volume drum. This drum beat is completely misguided simply because most splits have greater body part volume.
In addition, if you turn frequency sessions into higher volume sessions, you’ll live in the gym. This also voids the upcoming point made by Grinsven that frequency training is better for the average Joe and Jane because they are too busy to live in the gym.
Point #2 – Fewer Opportunities to Perfect Form
“An oft-neglected way to improve strength and mass is by improving technique. Just take a look around at the piss-poor technique most scrawny lifters display and compare it to how fluidly the biggest lifters execute their movements.” – Andy Van Grinsven
True. Most average bros don’t study lift form very much. They also don’t work very hard to perfect it. Just keeping it real here. We all know that perhaps 10-20% (tops!) of commercial gym lifters actually take exercise form serious. This is regarding the major compound movements, obviously. Squats. Deadlifts. Bench.
With that said, frequency isn’t going to help improve the form of the 80 to 90% that aren’t paying attention to form to begin with. The lifters that are serious about form are likely to thrive and improve on just about any training frequency. They have established drive and motivation, which is arguably the biggest factor in success.
Even bigger than frequency.
Point #3 – Splits aren’t Applicable to Regular Lifters
“You’re not Mr. Olympia, so don’t try to train like him. You’re now free to move about the cabin.
Seriously, you’re probably not a world-class bodybuilder. You probably have a full-time job, partner, and kids. All in all, you probably don’t have hours on end each day to devote to training, nor tons of money to drop on performance enhancing drugs that allow three-hour back workouts. So why on earth would you use the same training split as one of those guys?” – Andy Van Grinsven
Another case of awful logic. You could apply this logic to any serious lifter with a training program he promotes. Beyond this, a very small percentage of body part splits are designed by elite, pro-level bodybuilders. Most are written by men like myself and Grinsven.
Sorry Andy, you dropped the ball here. Fumble!
You’re not a strength trainee like Marc Rippetoe, so why train like him?
You’re not a hardcore powerlifter like Jim Wendler, so why train like him?
You’re not an elite-level bodybuilder like Reg Park, so why use a 5×5 program?
This type of logic eats itself dead from within. It’s useless, and adds nothing to a debate, Grinsven’s point only exists to back his premise. Programs have to be looked at for their inherent value, and not by who designed them.
“Once you make this change, a crucial mental shift will occur. Instead of each workout representing a huge barrier (especially leg day), every workout will feel more like a conquerable opportunity, enabling you to approach the iron with consistent intensity and laser-like focus.”
I couldn’t disagree more. It’s easier for me to focus on body part splits. When performing a full body workout I dread the time it takes. I would rather punch myself in the genitals than have to warm-up on both squats and bench press in the same session.
This frequency approach works much better for rank beginners, but becomes extremely tedious once you have built a quality level of strength in your first year of training.
Point #4 – Impractical For Busy People
“On Wednesday, life throws you a curve ball and you can’t go to the gym. You continue your body-part split plan on Thursday, but get thrown off again on Friday when your kiddo gets the flu or your job runs overtime. The next time chest day rolls around, it’s been well over a week since you last hit your pecs. If that happens often, you’re going to end up training chest just two or three times a month!” – Andy Van Grinsven
More silly and pointless logic. This can happen to anyone on any split. Honestly, if you’re so busy that you’re only able to perform 50 to 75% of your scheduled workouts, you need rethink your approach regardless of the frequency.
If you’re using a full body workout and training three days per week, by missing 25 to 50% of your sessions you’ll only be in the gym 6 to 9 times per month. That’s 1.5 to 2 workouts per week.
If you’re using an upper/lower split and training four days per week, by missing 25 to 50% of your sessions you’ll only be in the gym 8 to 12 times per month. Here you’ll only be training either upper or lower body 1 to 1.5 times per week.
Kind of makes the need for frequency training somewhat mute.
If you’re this incredibly busy, what you need is a more flexible schedule. I won’t lie that frequency training can be a better option when life gets crazy, but let’s be real here… The problem isn’t the program, it’s your life and priorities.
I know plenty of busy lifters with successful careers that don’t miss workouts at a rate anywhere near this. Here, Grinsven uses hyperbole to bolster his point of view.
Point #5 – The Body Adapts and Stagnates
“But continued gains are only made if new stress is added over time. The body-part split that gave you your first taste of iron and ballooned you up into a miniature Hulk eventually stops working. The easiest way to introduce new stress and force new adaptations is to switch up the split as soon as you recognize you’re stagnating.” – Andy Van Grinsven
Pure opinion here. A split isn’t just going to magically stop working. This is utter nonsense. Do you really think one day you’ll just wake up and all your hard efforts will simply stop bearing fruit because you’re on a split?
If you’re using a good exercise selection, making every set count, and pushing hard, there is no stagnation.
The easiest way to limit stagnation is to push with unrelenting passion and drive.
I’ve yet to stagnate after 31 years of training. This has nothing to do with the program I am using. it’s internal. I listen to my body, evolve my training based on specific needs, and try new things and make small tweaks if minor stalls occur.
Switching up frequency is certainly a tool that can be utilized, but it’s certainly not so important that we can make the claim that without it the body will stagnate. this sounds like the advice on an inexperienced noob rather than a seasoned coach.
I could literally run the same frequency for decades and make continued, yearly progress. Here Andy is overvaluing frequency to (again) push his premise.
6 Reasons Body Part Splits Aren’t Dead
Now, let’s look at my side of the debate. Here are six reasons why I believe body part splits aren’t dead, and still carry validity.
Point #1 – More Compounds Equal More Warm-Up Time
Unless you’re a rank beginner, full body workouts can be a bear because of warm-up sets. I’m talking major compound movements here, but warm-ups due to volume of exercises also comes into play.
Let’s sat you are knocking out both squats and bench press on a given training day. For the sake of example, your first squat set is with 315 pounds and your initial bench press set is with 225 pounds. Your warm-ups might look like this:
- Bar x 10
- 135 x 8
- 185 x 5
- 225 x 3
- 275 x 1-2
You then proceed to hammer out 3 to 5 working sets of squats. After these 8-10 sets you’ve been in the gym 45 minutes, and you still have 4 to 7 exercises to go. Fun times? You decide.
- Bar x 10
- 95 x 8
- 135 x 3
- 175 x 1
Now it’s time to perform the real work. After 3 to 5 working sets on bench, you are now 15 to 19 sets into your training day, and likely at least 75 minutes into your session. You are ready to head home and eat, but still have plenty of work to do.
Even if you’re a quick worker, it’s hard to knock out 2 major compound movements in less than an hour. You could skip warm-ups sets, drop knee wraps, avoid foam rolling and stretching, and dump 5 minutes of steady state cardio, but it’s still a heckuva long day.
Early Intermediates and beyond will find it very difficult to complete a quality full body or frequency workout in under 75 minutes. The norm for me is 90-120 minutes. Obviously, mileage will vary.
With that said, most of you who are no longer “newb weak” will find full body workouts to be tedious and time consuming.
Upper/lower splits are a far better option here, I won’t deny that. But with that said, they can still easily turn into 20 set sessions. If you’re making every set count, as you should be, and warming up properly, these sessions can be a time investment as well.
Splits typically allow you to ram from once exercise to another. Once you are warmed up and spent on the bench press, for example, you can bounce over to dumbbell benches or machine chest press without needing warm-ups.
I personally prefer sticking to one body part per session I focus better, and workouts feel less like an endless checklist. Mileage may vary.
Point #2 – Muscle Protein Synthesis is NOT the Only Factor
Muscle protein synthesis was become the holy grail of training. It’s touted as the only thing that really matters. Nothing could be further from the truth.
So, let’s back track a moment…
Most research reveals that muscle protein synthesis is elevated anywhere from 48 to 72 hours after training a muscle. This means (on paper) that after a few days a muscle stops growing. It’s repaired, recovered, and is ready to be stimulated again.
There are many questions that I still want answered about this process though. Does a minimal amount of work performed frequently not only elevate synthesis, but also elevate it maximally?
If you drive 25 miles per hour, one hour a day, three days a week, you have a total of 3 hours on the road and 75 miles under your tires. If you drive 75 miles per hour, and drive for two hours only once a week, you have 2 hours on the road but 150 miles under your tires.
Does muscle protein synthesis work like this? Is it being stimulated maximally during frequency training, or only stimulated enough to yield some results?
Much of the research indicates that frequency stimulates more growth, but is this true for all workout styles and types? We do not know. Perhaps some forms of hypertrophy training are more intense, and stimulate a greater degree of muscle protein synthesis per week despite this reduced frequency.
But pack to the original point. There are more factors involved than just muscle protein synthesis.
Your body is a complex mechanism. The mental/motivational aspect of lifting is hyper-powerful. For me, and I would wager for most successful bodybuilders and powerlifters, mental strength and savvy are the key determining factors in success. Not workouts. Not set and rep schemes. Not splits. Not even specific exercises.
if you give someone with drive and mental prowess a weak program, I guarantee they will “out-gain” a lifter with weak mental strength and drive who is using an optimal program.
Beyond the mental aspects of training, the human body also has a skeletal system, joints, connective tissue, a central nervous system, different bone/limb structures, etc. We also have differing genetic predispositions when it comes to recovery, stamina, sleep, appetites, and on and on and on.
I stand firmly by the opinion that training is more art than science. Listening to your body, and learning to adapt your programming based on needs, is far more important than using what is labeled as “optimal” on paper.
Programs are merely starting points. Any seasoned, successful coach will tell you the same thing.
if you live my the belief that muscle protein synthesis is GOD, and the only training factor that matters, you also risk dying on your own sword. May the force be with you young Jedi!
Point #3 – Splits DO Hit Body Parts Multiple Times Per Week
The problem with frequency proponents is that they have adopted the body part mindset that they are so dead set on railing against. Let me explain.
The bodybuilding world has long enjoyed placing each and every exercise into a nice and tidy body part box. Squats were labeled as a “quads” exercise, bench press a “chest” exercise, and so on. The problem with this logic is that the best muscle building exercises are also the most brutal compound movements.
Compound movements, by their very nature, target multiple muscle groups. Many of them.
Bench presses hit the chest, shoulders and triceps. To a lesser degree they also work forearms, biceps, rear delts, etc. Seated military presses also work the shoulders and triceps. So if you have a chest and shoulder day, shoulders and triceps are getting hit hard twice.
Behold, frequency training.
And what if you have an split that is more powerlifting inspired? Perhaps you have a squat day that also works quads and hamstring. And on your back day you knock out deadlifts. Guess what? Your quads and hamstrings are getting work during deadlifts, as well as your upper back. Curiously enough, your upper back is also worked on your back day.
We could go on and on. Traps are worked both during shoulder and back day. Rear delts are worked during shoulder day and back day. Round and round we go.
Exercises work more than one body part. Breaking news, right? If you analyze a split you’ll see that there are certainly major crossovers to other body parts which act as de facto frequency training.
Period. End of story. Perhaps, even, a nail in the coffin to this debate. I report, you decide.
Point #4 – Over the Long Run It Really Doesn’t Matter
For a natural lifter, over the long run it really doesn’t matter how you lift – as long as you are working hard and eating right. Sounds controversial, right? Let me expound upon this opinion.
Dr. Casey Butt performed exhaustive research on natural muscle building potential. His research looked at over 300 top natural bodybuilding champions (the elite of the elite) from over the last 60 years. One of the byproducts of his research was an understanding of what the typical gains curve looks like for a male that does not take anabolics.
Optimal natural muscle building gains, for lifters that are not currently extremely underweight, look something like this during the first five years of lifting:
- Year 1 – 16 pounds of muscle gained
- Year 2 – 8 pounds of muscle gained
- Year 3 – 4 pounds of muscle gained
- Year 4 – 2 pounds of muscle gained
- Year 5 – 1 pounds of muscle gained
We can see that (roughly) a lifter gains about half his remaining potential each year. So, if you have a potential to gain 32 pounds of muscle mass over the course of your life, you will gain half of this during your first year. If you have 20 pounds left to gain after year three or four, the potential exists to gain about 10 pounds the following year.
If – and this is a big if – training and diet are spot on.
Let’s pretend, for the sake of debate, that we have two lifters. Lifter A uses frequency training for five years, and is completely optimal in everything he does. Rate of muscle gain goes according to the chart above, and he rocks out 31 pounds of mass.
Now, let’s look at Lifter B. He’s a “split bro,” and uses a body part workout for 5 years. His training isn’t optimal, and he only gains 12 pounds of muscle during his first year.
- Year 1 – 12 pounds of muscle gained
He still has 19 pounds of mass to gain over the course of his life. During year two he gains half of this.
- Year 2 – 9.5 pounds of muscle gained
Years three, four and five continue this game of halfsies.
- Year 3 – 4.75 pounds of muscle gained
- Year 4 – 2.375 pounds of muscle gained
- Year 5 – 1.1875 pounds of muscle gained
After five years our sub-optimal bro-splitter has gained 29.8 pounds of muscle mass. Compare this to Mister Super Brain, who’s only concern is muscle protein synthesis. Optimal Lifter A gained 31 pounds of mass.
The difference… 1.2 pounds. And this gap will close and close and close even tighter during years six through ten.
The point here is obvious. Even if splits are only 75% as effective as frequency training, over time the difference in gains is minimal. Obviously there are a lot of assumptions made here, but the logic is solid. I’m being very generous by allowing for a 25% decrease in gains due to split training. The difference could be as little as 5 to 15%, yielding only a trivial difference in mass accumulation over the course of five years.
Point #5 – 95% of the Lifters I’ve Interviewed Used Splits
This section will be short and sweet.
I’ve been in this game a long time, as a fan but also as a writer. During the last 10 years I’ve interviewed, profiled, or documented the stories of hundreds of natural bodybuilders, figure and bikini athletes, and transformations of average Joe or Jane. The overwhelming (vast!) majority of these men and women relied on splits.
The point? Regardless of what we know about muscle protein synthesis, splits can – and do – work. Does this mean they are optimal? You decide. Does this mean that these top athletes would have made even better gains if they used frequency training? You decide.
It might hint at the points I made early: That heart and drive are very important, and that there are other factors involved in training results other than just protein synthesis.
Point #6 – Bro Splits Don’t Work Because the Gains of Most Bros Suck
This logic is ridiculous.
The average gym rat isn’t making good gains because their exercise selection sucks, they are weak as heck and avoid aggressive progressive overload on 90% of movements, and their diet is awful. You could put these guys on the very best frequency program and their results would still suck.
Proclaiming that bro splits suck because the average trainee never builds much muscle is an obscene injustice.