The Single Most Effective Workout Split
3 Ways to Organize Your Training
While there are several ways of organizing your week in the gym, here are the most common approaches:
The Bro Split
Here, you devote separate days to obliterate specific muscle groups or body-regions. Here's a common example:
- Monday: Back
- Tuesday: Chest
- Wednesday: Quads/Hamstrings
- Thursday: Shoulder/Calves
- Friday: Biceps/Triceps
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
The idea behind the bro split is that by focusing on only one or two muscle groups per session, you're able to work them really hard. Which is why (in theory at least) you only need to train them once a week. More on that sketchy rationale in a bit.
The Upper/Lower Split
In this arrangement, you train lower body twice a week and upper body twice a week, in rotating fashion, like this:
- Monday: Lower Body
- Tuesday: Upper Body
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Lower Body
- Friday: Upper Body
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
The upper/lower split is currently popular among powerlifters, and it's a good way to train.
The Whole Body Split
Perform exercises for all (actually "most") muscle groups each training day. Typically, you'll train 3 days per week:
- Monday: Whole Body
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Whole Body
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Whole Body
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Which Is Best? For Most, It's Whole Body
While you can make progress using any of these splits, my experience is that the whole body option is best for most lifters. Allow me to quickly qualify my definition of "most" just so we're all on the same page:
Most lifters aren't competing in a high-level physique contest where they'll lose points if their calf-to-arm ratio is off. They simply want to be bigger and stronger and look like they obviously lift.
Most lifters aren't massively muscled guys who can (for example) squat over 700 pounds or bench north of 500.
While most lifters love to hit the weights, they probably have other interests and obligations as well. For example, they might have a job, or even a family, or both. (I know! Crazy, right?)
If you happen to fit this definition of "most," perfect. If not, stick around anyway because I'll be presenting three strategies that you'll find useful no matter how you currently train.
Three Reasons to Use the Whole Body Split
1 – Your Muscles Recover Faster Than You Think
Most of the time, even if you're working very hard, the muscle(s) you just trained Monday night will be recovered by Wednesday morning. If you don't train them again on Wednesday, you'll be losing ground, which obviously, is suboptimal.
The exception to this rule? Let's say you weigh 302 pounds, have less than 12% body fat, and have workouts that consist of paused back squats at 650 pounds for sets of 6, among other Herculean accomplishments.
If that describes your situation, you might best be served by an upper/lower split, or perhaps even a bro split, because the more weight you lift (in absolute terms), the more damage your muscles experience. And the more muscle you have, the more muscle that you're damaging with your workouts. Both of which mean you need more time to recover.
If, on the other hand, you weigh 175 and squatted 315 pounds for sets of 8 last night (which is pretty impressive), you'll be good to go in 2-3 days. Extending this example, if you weigh 130 and squatted 195 pounds for 4x8, you'll be ready to train again in 36 hours, give or take.
Note: Don't get caught up too much in how you "feel" after a training session. As John Broz loves to say, "The way you feel is a lie." Recovery is best assessed by how you perform. If you wake up absolutely torched from your last session but still manage to hit your expected numbers, you've recovered.
2 – You Get to Train Muscles More Often with Fewer Workouts
Consider this: Using a bro split, you train 5 times a week (suboptimal in terms of efficiency) while training each muscle group only once a week (suboptimal in terms of effectiveness).
The upper/lower split is a bit better: Training 4 times a week, you hit each muscle 2 times per week.
However, using the whole body approach: you receive the benefit of maximum effectiveness with maximum efficiency because while training only 3 times per week, each muscle region is stimulated 3 times during the week.
Here are those numbers expressed graphically for ease of comparison:
Now of course, if you're freakishly big and strong, the price you'll need to pay is inefficiency: Your muscles take so long to recover after each workout, you can only train them roughly once a week. By extension, that means you need to train at least 5 days a week to cover all your bases, muscularly speaking.
The thing is, most of us have the luxury of more effective options, so why suffer needlessly?
3 – You Manage Fatigue Better
Whole-body training allows you to perform your exercises in "circuit" fashion, rather than completing all sets for one exercise before moving to the next. Now it's true that even on a bro split, you can use this circuit arrangement, but the fatigue is still fairly localized. For example, on back/chest workout, you could use the following bro-split circuit:
- Incline Dumbbell Press
- T Bar Row
When training a whole body split however, fatigue is more widely dispersed between different muscle groups. For example:
- Front Squat
- Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
- Romanian Deadlift
- Low-Cable Row