Evolution. That’s the best way I can describe how my training programs have gradually morphed from the simplistic beginner’s routines I started using in my parent’s garage at age 14 to the advanced four day, two-on-one-off split I use today.Your training must evolve too. If it doesn’t, you’ll remain stuck in the primordial muck and slime of beginnerdom forever.
The big question is, “How do I ‘evolve’ from basic to advanced training when everybody tells me something different?” The best selling book of the year says I should train upper and lower body in separate sessions three days a week. The trainer at the gym tells me to train my entire body in each session three days a week. Mr. Universe says I should only work one body part a DAY. Miss fitness champion says I should train five days in a row and take the weekends off.
Ummmmm… Help!… Please! Who the heck do I listen to? What’s best for ME?
I’m going to answer these questions for you, but let’s begin with the premise that any trainer, coach or fitness writer is simply expressing their OPINION when they write a training program or exercise prescription. You don’t have to accept everything you read as law or gospel. If you do much reading in the fitness and bodybuilding field, its obvious that few experts agree on anything.
The secret in ultimately evolving into your ideal routine is to listen to everything, learn from everyone and be attached to nothing. Yeah, I know that sounds like some kind of Zen saying, but it’s wise advice. Don’t get married to one training system or spend too much time at the feet of any “guru.”
Here’s another rule to train by: There’s no single best routine. There are many ways. Each way has its merits and is useful at certain times.
One sure-fire way to successfully start training is the full body workout performed three non-consecutive days per week (mon-wed-fri or tue-thu-sat). On this type of routine, you train the entire body at every session – one exercise per muscle group.
This is a very simple routine, but it’s the ideal way for a first-timer to start. Why not start with a split routine? You could certainly do that, but beginners often have a difficult time remembering technique on 8 exercises, let alone the 16-20+ in a thorough split routine. Multiple exercises can also leave a beginner quite sore and overtrained. Keep it basic in the beginning – its better to start with a simple routine you’ll remember and stick to, and build from there.
A basic full body routine that can even be done at home with nothing more than dumbbells was outlined in BFS, issue #13
THE TWO DAY SPLIT FOR INTERMEDIATES
If you’ve been training for at least three months and you’re still doing a full body workout program, you’re probably not getting maximum results. You’re not a beginner anymore. It’s time to graduate. This is where you get introduced to the wonderful world of “SPLIT ROUTINES.”
A split routine simply means that you no longer work your entire body in one session; you break up your body parts into separate sessions (for example, leg day, upper body day, arm day, etc).
The most common split routine is a two day split, which means you train half your body parts one day, the other half the next. You usually work out three or four days per week. An example of the two day split routine is the still-popular Body For Life program, where you lift three non-consecutive days per week, upper body one workout, lower body the next.
Personally, I prefer a two day split routine where your body parts are divided more evenly. The drawback to an upper body/lower body split is that you have more exercises to do on upper body day than on lower body day. An evenly divided basic two day split routine was outlined in BFS issue #14
If you train for health or general fitness, the two day split is an excellent routine that you could stay with indefinitely. In my opinion, however, it’s still a bit sophomoric. If you have ambitious goals, there are much higher levels you can aspire to. After about six months to a year of training, you’re ready for an advanced split routine.
THE ADVANCED THREE DAY SPLIT
The first of the advanced training programs is the three-day split. A three day split simply means that you subdivide your body even further so you only have to work three muscle groups per session. For example:
Day 1: Chest, back, abs
Day 2: Shoulders, biceps, triceps
Day 3: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves
I used this program very successfully for many years. When I first started, I trained six days in a row; Monday through Saturday, with only Sundays off. I suppose it was the pure unbridled enthusiasm of 20 year old obsessed with bodybuilding that kept me training so often (being in college and having no full time job to worry about didn’t hurt either).
I later discovered through trial and error out that training six days in a row is waaaaaay too much for almost anyone, except those “genetic freaks” who could probably grow muscle by curling empty egg cartons. Anyway, I got results in spite of myself, but looking back, I see that I would have made better progress had I allowed for more recuperation in those early years.
Allowing more recuperation is exactly what I did next – I inserted a rest day into the equation and then the muscle development really took off!
The new, improved routine looked like this:
Mon: Chest, Back, Abs
Tue: Shoulders, Bicep, Triceps
Wed: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves
Thu: Rest day
Fri: Chest, Back, Abs
Sat: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
Sun: Quads, Hams, Calves
Mon: Rest Day
This program has a lot of flexibility built into it. Suppose you want every Thursday and Sunday off – you can do that, you simply train around your desired rest days; 3 on 1 off, 2 on 1 off. A three day split can also be performed 2 days on 1 day off if you want more recovery between workouts. It would be ideal to work each muscle once every 5-6 days, but if you’re really pressed for time, you can even use three day split every other day (Mon – Wed – Fri), which works each muscle once per week.
THE ADVANCED FOUR DAY SPLIT
This is the program I am currently using and to this day I have not found a more effective routine for an advanced bodybuilder (and believe me, I’ve tried them all!). To use this routine effectively, you need a solid base (at least a year of consistent training) and you need 4- 5 days each week to train.
Here’s what a four day split looks like:
Day 1: Chest, biceps, abs
Day 2: Back, Hamstrings
Day 3: Shoulders, Triceps
Day 4: Quads, Calves
As you can see from the body part groupings, you only have to train two muscle groups per session (three at most if you count abs). This keeps your workouts brief and allows you to concentrate better on each exercise.
Another advantage of working only two muscle groups per workout is energy conservation. Intense, heavy training is extremely draining, energy wise. If you work a large muscle group such as legs for multiple sets on multiple exercises, you’re not going to have the energy left for two, three or four more body parts.
In full body workouts and even two day splits, whatever body parts you do last get a half-hearted effort because of your fatigued state. You also tend to hold back on the initial exercises, (consciously or unconsciously) because you know you have a lot ahead of you. The result is that you’re not training as hard as you could if you only had two body parts to work per session.
A final advantage of only training two muscle groups per workout is the excellent recuperation each muscle receives between sessions. As a beginner, you can recuperate very quickly because your workouts are not as intense. A beginner could easily hit the same muscle group after resting only 48-72 hours (once every two to three days).
The advanced trainee blasts each muscle with much greater intensity, literally breaking down more muscle fiber in the process. This requires at least 96 hours to recuperate, and most advanced bodybuilders allow 5-6 days (120-144 hours) between workouts for the same muscle group.
A four day split can be done 4 on 1 off, 3 on 1 off, or my favorite: 2 on 1 off. Here’s what it looks like:
Mon: Chest, biceps, abs
Tue: Back, Hamstrings
Thu: Shoulders, Triceps
Fri: Quads, Calves
Sun: Repeat 2 on 1 off cycle.
FIVE DAY SPLITS, SIX DAY SPLITS AND ONE BODY PART A DAY ROUTINES
If going from full body workouts to two day splits, to three day splits, to four day splits increases the effectiveness of your workouts as you become more advanced, then going to a five or six day split is even better, right? Maybe, but maybe not.
As in all things, there is a point of diminishing returns. Get too much rest and the muscle begins to atrophy and a detraining effect occurs. Your mission is to experiment with different schedules until you find the frequency that provides just enough (but not too much) recovery. For some people, splitting the routine over more than four days is beneficial.
Here’s an example of a six day split, where you train one muscle group per day (except arm day, where you do both biceps and triceps as a unit, and the abs and calves, which can be inserted anywhere in the routine).
Tue: Back, abs
Sat: hamstrings, calves
There are quite few bodybuilders who use these routines with great success. The advantages are obvious: (1) the workouts are extremely brief, (2) you can put 100% of your focus and attention on a single body part, (3) you have plenty of time for multiple exercises, allowing you to work each muscle group from a wide variety of angles.
In general, the people who thrive on these routines are those with excellent genetics, superior recovery ability, bounding enthusiasm and plenty of time to train. For most people with average genetics, rest days between workouts are an absolute must. Even though you only work each muscle group as infrequently as once every 7 days on this program, the central nervous system sometimes doesn’t get enough recovery with daily weight training.
I’ve experimented with these routines with good results. However, I always seemed to gravitate back to that 4 day split with a frequency of once every 6 days. Hitting each muscle only once every 7-8 days was too much rest between body parts for me and training almost every day was draining on my recovery ability.
My recommendation: If you’ve been training for years on a three or four day split, and you want to experiment with something new while reducing your workout time at each session, give this program a shot at least once. You might thrive on it. If your gains don’t improve, then you can go back to your three or four day split and you’ll have learned something about your body from the experience.
ADVANCED BACK TO BASIC TRAINING
Advanced back to basic training? That sounds like an oxymoron, but it really isn’t. Let me explain: In today’s bodybuilding and strength training literature, especially among High Intensity Training (HIT) authors such as Stuart McRobert (Author of “Brawn”), Randall Strossen (“Super Squats”), Mike Mentzer, Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden, you will read about brief, low volume, high intensity (lifting to failure) workouts being the “ultimate” way to develop muscle.
Many of these authors do NOT recommend split routines, opting instead for full body workouts (or very “abbreviated” two day splits), even for the advanced trainee. They often recommend only a single exercise, for as few as two to three sets and sometimes only a single set taken to total failure.
The HIT theory suggests that most people are overtraining on volume (too many sets and exercises) and undertraining on intensity (not working hard enough).
There’s a great deal of truth in what these writers assert. Unfortunately, many HIT and abbreviated training authors take the “less is more” philosophy to ridiculous extremes. Some also make the common mistake of thinking that their way is the only way and the best way for everybody. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again – there’s no single best way to train. Every technique, principle, routine, exercise or machine is nothing more than a single tool.
The funny part is, some of these “advanced” HIT routines look exactly like a beginner’s full body routine. Wouldn’t that mean you’re going backwards? Not necessarily. If you’ve been using high volume split routines for years, especially if your workouts are lasting 75, 90 or even 120 minutes, you’re probably in a chronically overtrained state. It would be well worth your while to experiment with some form of HIT or abbreviated training for at least 8-12 weeks to see what happens. Chances are, you’ll get an excellent spurt of strength and muscle growth. When it begins to taper off, or when you hit strength plateaus, then its time to go back to your trusty old split routine.
Another great use of abbreviated routines for advanced trainees is when your allotted time for training is suddenly cut short. Suppose your business expands, you have a baby, you start school full time or anything else happens in your life where you only have two or three days a week to work out. Abbreviated “back to the basics” programs can allow you to get the maximum benefit in the minimum amount of time. If you want to explore this option, I’d recommend Stuart McRobert’s Book, Brawn, Randall Strossen’s Super Squats, John McCallum’s Keys to Progress and Mike Mentzer’s “Heavy Duty” & high intensity training books You might also look into Ellington Darden and Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame (Warning: make sure you go back and re-read my little “Zen saying” before you get too deep into any of this HIT stuff – these guys are DOG-matic!).
After 20 years of training, I’m convinced that most of the time, a four day split has the most benefits for the bodybuilder or advanced trainee. Within that four day split structure, there are many different exercises and training techniques you can use, so you could stay on that split indefinitely as long as you provide enough variation in exercises, sets, reps, tempo and other training variables on a weekly or monthly basis.
From all the e-mail correspondence I get, I know there’s a huge diversity of experience levels among subscribers to this E-zine. If you’re in the beginner or intermediate stages, some of this information may seem over your head or inapplicable. But it DOES apply to you: the value is in thinking ahead about your long-term strategy so you know what’s coming next.
All successful people develop a long term strategy instead of looking only at short term tactics. The longer the time period you set goals for and the more you plan in advance, the more successful you’ll be in the long run. So don’t ignore the advanced splits in this article if you’re a beginner. Your day will come soon and you need to be ready.
If you’re already advanced, you’re probably a little more closed minded, thinking that you “already know what you’re doing.” That may be true, but keep in mind that there are always higher levels in your own training evolution. That might mean trying a different split routine or even going back to basics for a while.
Regardless of your experience level, remember this: Everything and everyone must grow and evolve. Nothing stands still. You’re either creating or disintegrating; growing or dying. Always look at the big picture, be open minded and look for ways to take your training to the next level.
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author of Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle (BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written over 140 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.