Since earning my IFBB Pro card, I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort thinking and experimenting with different training methods geared towards hypertrophy.
Over the next few articles, I’ll share a few philosophies I’ve developed during that time.
We’ll start with one of the most popular topics: the training split.
Do You Even Need a Split Routine?
The answer is probably not. The biggest mistake I see among lifters is rushing into advanced training too soon. The vast majority of you will be best served by following a full body or upper/lower training schedule. A split routine is neither necessary nor appropriate until you have developed very high levels of strength and size.
Until you are at an advanced level, you need to spend time mastering the basics—demonstrating sound technique on the compound lifts, even at very high intensities or effort levels, and building a balanced strength base.
If you cannot squat and deadlift triple bodyweight and bench press double bodyweight with excellent technique, I believe you should use a full body or upper/lower training split.
I realize the vast majority of you will ignore this advice, but it’s important to me to give it anyway so that I know I’ve not misled anyone who desires to do things the right way.
The Problem with Traditional Splits
Let’s assume you have reached the point where a split routine is appropriate. In most cases, implementing a split routine will serve one or both of these purposes to increase the:
- Amount of training volume that can be performed for a given lift or body part in a microcycle*
- Frequency of training for a given lift or body part in a microcycle*
*A microcycle can be defined in multiple ways, but consider it a training week for our purposes.
Here’s why a split routine is necessary to achieve those goals. Let’s say your best squat is 800 pounds, and your best bench press is 500 pounds. If you were to train both lifts on the same day, it would probably require over a dozen warm-up sets just to get to your working weights on both lifts.
Furthermore, by the time you finished the session, you’d be so fatigued that you would be unable to train intensely again for several days. And you only performed two lifts!
Instead, if you trained squat on one day, bench press on another, and deadlift on a third day, you could add in a few accessory lifts after each main one and still finish in less time than in our first example. And you wouldn’t be so wrecked after a single day, either.
So, in theory, split routines make a great deal of sense for advanced lifters. However, in practice, most traditional splits fall a bit short in one aspect or another.
The Traditional Bodybuilding or Bro Split
You’re likely familiar with the traditional bodybuilding split. It usually divides the week into four or five training days, one for each body part:
- Day 1: Chest
- Day 2: Shoulders
- Day 3: Back
- Day 4: Arms (Biceps & Triceps)
- Day 5: Legs (Quads, Hamstrings & Calves)
Sometimes Days 1 and 2 are combined, and the order of body parts can vary, but most traditional bodybuilding splits are pretty close to what’s listed above. This split allows for a great deal of volume to be performed for each body part.
For example, you could easily do 20 or more sets for chest, if that’s the only muscle you’re training on a given day.
The problem with a traditional bodybuilding split is that the frequency of training per body part is quite low. Training a body part once per week is, for most people, less effective than training twice or even three times per week—even when the volume is constant over the course of that week.
So while a traditional split allows for higher training volume, it comes at the expense of training frequency.
The Push-Pull-Legs Split
This split is arguably just as common as the bro split:
- Day 1: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps (Push)
- Day 2: Back & Biceps (Pull)
- Day 3: Quads, Hamstrings & Calves (Legs)
Dividing all of the major muscle groups among just three days allows for a higher training frequency—the downfall of the traditional split. For example, you could set up a PPL split across four training days per week like this:
- Day 1: Push
- Day 2: Pull
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Legs
- Day 5: Push
- Day 6: Off
- Day 7: Pull
And so on.
There are many ways to arrange a PPL split to allow for increased frequency.
However, training volume cannot be kept as high as in a traditional split because there is so much overlap among body parts. If you’re training chest, shoulders, and triceps all in one training day, you’re likely to be so fatigued by the time you’ve finished training chest and shoulders that you have little energy left to spend on tricep work. The same goes for biceps on pull day and hamstrings and calves on leg day.
The Revised Upper/Lower Split
One solution is to return to the upper/lower schedule and add an anterior/posterior consideration for each training day. You’re still training four days per week, but each day focuses on either the anterior (front) or posterior (back) of the body:
- Day 1: Upper Anterior (Chest, Side Delts & Biceps)
- Day 2: Lower Posterior (Hamstring, Glutes & Calves)
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Upper Posterior (Back, Rear Delts & Triceps)
- Day 5: Lower Anterior (Quads & Abs)
- Day 6: Off
- Day 7: Off
Using this split, deadlifts are trained on the lower posterior day, and compound pushing movements are included for the triceps on the upper posterior day. Unlike the PPL split, this revised upper/lower split distributes overlap across the week rather than a single training day.
Let’s take a look at how the revised upper/lower split plays out in practice.
With the PPL split, training four days per week, you’re hitting most muscles once and a few muscles twice per week. Assuming you make good exercise selections, you’re training each muscle twice and only a few once per week. We’ll use this as an example:
Day 1 (Upper Anterior)
- Incline Bench Press (also trains triceps)
- Dumbbell Flye
- Side Delts
- Behind-The-Neck Press (also trains rear delts)
- Lateral Raise
- Barbell Curl
Day 2 (Lower Posterior)
- Romanian Deadlift (also trains back)
- Seated Hamstring Curl
- Lunge (also train quads)
- Calf Raise
Day 3 (Upper Posterior)
- Barbell Row
- Close-Grip Pulldown (also trains biceps)
- Reverse Pec Deck
- Weighted Dip (also trains chest)
Day 4 (Quads & Abs)
- Squat (also trains glutes)
- Leg Press (also trains glutes)
- Hanging Leg Raise
As you can see, this split guarantees a balanced level of development that will come at a faster pace than is likely to be achieved using the same movements divided in a traditional or PPL split.
Please keep in mind that this is all theoretical. All advanced lifters will have weak points and imbalances that need to be accounted for in a training program. Very rarely will a balanced split like the one above be optimal in practice. Therefore, view it more as a sound starting point from which to work. For those who do not wish to compete in bodybuilding, it will likely serve just fine as written.
If you would like to develop a training plan specifically for your needs and would like help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a consultation.
Ben Pollack is a professional physical culturist. In 2017, he won the world's largest powerlifting meet and became the strongest powerlifter in history in the 198-pound class with a 2039 raw total. He earned his Ph.D. studying the history of strength from the University of Texas in 2018. In 2019, Ben qualified to compete for his pro card in bodybuilding and became an IFBB pro in 2021.