Tom, would a body part split yield greater muscle gains in a shorter time period? For example, I’ve looked at a couple of options such as: Day 1: Legs/Abs, Day 2: Chest/Shoulders/Triceps, Day 3: Back/Biceps/Forearms, or even splitting it up to one body part a day like this: Day 1 – Back, Day 2 – Chest, Day 3 – Legs, Day 4 – off/ cardio/ plyometrics, Day 5 – Shoulders, Day 6 – Arms, Day 7 – off weights / cardio/ plyometrics. What’s more beneficial to someone who wants to add muscle and keep bodyfat levels low, in the shortest time possible?
There is no single best split routine or weekly training schedule for building muscle. You can build a lot of muscle with a variety of different training splits. In fact, it’s possible to build a lot of muscle with no split at all – full body workouts have their place, especially for beginners, for time efficiency and for “back to basics” strength training.
Body part split routines have lost some popularity in the past 5 to 10 years or so in the mainstream fitness community. They’re even criticized frequently by today’s crop of personal trainers and sports conditioning coaches – sometimes justifiably so, depending on the context. However, I predict they are going to come back, as popularity trends tend to swing in cycles over the years.
Despite the “flavor of the day” phenomenon in the fitness and diet industry, body part split routines actually have never gone anywhere. Competitive bodybuilders use them as their standard training method and always have. That’s because body part splits are extremely effective for muscle growth (hypertrophy) and visual / cosmetic physique goals.
Bodybuilders are the most muscular athletes in the world, who also happen to carry the lowest body fat of all athletes at contest time. If that’s what you’re looking for – a program to add muscle size in all the right places (visual aesthetics) – then split routines are a terrific option.
How to set up split routines is a big subject that could fill an entire chapter in a weight training book, so let me simply give you a quick, but complete summary.
There are 3 very popular options among bodybuilders and you mentioned two of them in your question (the 3 and 5 day split). I use a 4 day split, but all these methods are workable.
The 3 day Split, antagonistic option
Day 1: Chest, back
Day 2: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
Day 3: Quads, Hams
The 3 day Split, push-pull option
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Day 2: quads, hams, calves
Day 3: Back, biceps, forearms
The 4 day Split
Day 1: Chest, biceps, absDay 2: Quads, hams, calvesDay 3: Shoulders, Triceps, absDay 4: Back, calves
The 5 day Split
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: Shoulders
Day 4: Back
Day 5: Arms
* Abs and calves can be assigned a specific day or be done every other workout or even on off days.
* Possible weekly schedule arrangements for these splits are endless, but a common way to do the 3 or 4 day split is 2 days on, 1 day off then repeat the cycle.
The split routines that break down the body parts to the point of only one major muscle or muscle group being trained per day are not the type of training that you see athletes doing. However, these bodybuilding body part splits work extremely well for muscle hypertrophy.
Skip Lacour, a 5-time national heavyweight champion in natural bodybuilding, used this type of one-bodypart-a-day routine and so have countless other champs, so the effectiveness of body part training in the context of advanced, competitive-level bodybuilding is indisputable.
Personally, my default training program is a 4 day split, although I have used almost every type of training program over the almost 3 decades that I’ve been training and I occasionally go back to more “basic” strength training routines for variety.
In my muscle-building program, The Holy Grail Body Transformation System, I recommend one of two options:
1. For the bodybuilder who wants to gain muscle: a body part split routine on a 3, 4 or 5 day split rotation
2. For the non bodybuilder who wants to gain muscle: a 2 way split with an upper body day and a lower body + abs day (or the equivalent, such as a push pull or movement pattern-based 2 way split).
It’s important to note that 3-5 day body part splits are definitely bodybuilding-focused routines – and I’m referring specifically to bodybuilding literally, as in the competitor or person with visual / aesthetic goals.
All of your training decisions should be made within the context of your goals. Depending on your goals, there are advantages or disadvantages to body part split routines.
Advantages of body part splits:
1. Energy allocation. If you only have to train one body part in a session, you can put 100% energy into that muscle. If you have to train all your major muscle groups in one session, that is extremely energy-draining. Whatever is done last in the workout will always suffer compared to what is done first. This is a particularly important consideration for “priority training” when one body part is lagging in comparison to others.
2. Mental concentration. Many bodybuilders say that beyond physical energy allocation, they can mentally focus better with only one or two body parts to train per session. The mind to muscle connection is extremely important in physique training.
3. Time to do more volume. The beginner doesn’t need a lot of volume. The advanced bodybuilder on the other hand, can not only handle more volume but will often thrive on it. If you’re doing full body or even half body per session, you can only do so much volume without the workouts dragging out for hours. To train with the desired amount of volume and keep the workouts a reasonable duration, this necessitates split routines.
4. Time to do more exercises/angles. Split routines not only allow you to do more volume in terms of number of sets, you can also do multiple exercises. A football player doesn’t care about rear deltoid development or whether the lateral deltoid has enough width and “cap.” A bodybuilder on the other hand, wants to develop a muscle from every angle. On shoulder day for example, that would include front, side and rear deltoid exercises. On a basic mass/ strength program that only works the compound basic exercises, one might only do a military press. That can produce a good amount of size, but does not work every aspect of the muscle and does not allow the bodybuilder to specialize on one part of a muscle that might be lagging (example: rear delt exercise), in order to develop symmetry.
Disadvantages of body part splits:
1. Body part split routines are usually not appropriate for athletes. Athletes focus on movement patterns not individual muscles. For example: horizontal push, vertical pull, rotation, etc. Strength athletes usually focus on lifts, not individual muscles. For example: bench day, squat day and deadlift day, with assistance work done after the main lifts.
2. Body part split routines are usually not appropriate for beginners. A rank beginner would be best with a full body routine. An intermediate or recreational bodybuilder could pick and choose the type of training schedule, but can’t go wrong with a 2 day split (such as my T.N.B. workout program that is included with the Holy Grail body recomposition system). The body part splits are best for advanced bodybuilders with hypertrophy goals and cosmetic/ visual goals. So consider your training age a when making a decision on your lifting schedule.
3. Body part splits may not be practical for some people’s lifestyle and schedule. Most people don’t want to train 5 days a week and some people would like to get as much done in just 3 days a week as possible. But many non-bodybuilders (recreational lifters) DO want to gain muscle. On a program like TNB, which is a 2 day upper – lower schedule (or a typical strength program), you can get excellent muscle development with a 3-4 days per week frequency.
There are other considerations which might influence your choice of training schedule and split routine, but in summary, these are the big three:
3 Major Factors in choosing your lifting schedule
1. Goals (strength or sports or bodybuilding/cosmetic)
2. Training age (beginner or advanced)
3. Practical considerations (lifestyle/ schedule considerations)
There is no single best muscle building program for everyone. However, if you weigh all the pros and cons and consider these factors above, then one particular type of schedule might leap out at you as the most logical choice given your personal goals and your lifestyle.
Train hard and expect success! (because summer is coming!)
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