April 25th, 2014

Body Part Split Routines: What Are The Pros And Cons?

There is no single best split routine or weekly training schedule for building muscle, despite what all the muscle-building “gurus” want you to believe. 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. If all the conflicting advice from training gurus has you horribly confused about how to set up your weekly training split, look no further than today’s Burn the Fat Blog  Q & A post…

788Q: Dear Tom: Would a body part split yield greater muscle gains? For example, I’ve looked at a couple of options such as: Day 1: Legs and abs, Day 2: Chest, Shoulders and Triceps, Day 3: Back, Biceps, and 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 (or just cardio), Day 5: Shoulders, Day 6: Arms, Day 7:  off (or just cardio). What’s more beneficial to someone who wants to add muscle and keep bodyfat levels low, in the shortest time possible?

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, given 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 fairly complete summary.

There are several 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-legs option
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Day 2: quads, hams, calves
Day 3: Back, biceps, forearms

The Tom Venuto 4-day bodybuilder’s split
Day 1: Chest, biceps, abs
Day 2: Quads, hams, calves
Day 3: Shoulders, Triceps, abs
Day 4: Back, calves

The 5 day bodybuilder’s split (a body part a day)
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, or for higher frequency training, 3 on 1 off or 4 on 1 off.

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.

The one major body part a day routine has been used by countless national champion and professional level bodybuilders, so the effectiveness of body part training in the context of 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.

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. An athlete like a football player doesn’t care about rear deltoid development or whether the lateral deltoid has enough width and “cap” – he is concerned with strength and performance. 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 (outside of physique sports) 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 our T.N.B. program, found in Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle). 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.

3 Major Factors in choosing your lifting schedule

There are other considerations which might influence your choice of training schedule and split routine, but in summary, these are the big three:

1. Goals (strength or sports or bodybuilding/cosmetic)

2. Training age (beginner or advanced)

3. Practical considerations (lifestyle/ schedule considerations)

Let me say it again – there is no single best muscle-building program for everyone. The ideal of the “One True Way” is a creation of the guru business.

On the other hand, if you weigh all the pros and cons and consider all these factors above, then one particular type of schedule might leap out at you as the one most logical choice given your personal goals and your lifestyle at the time.

Train hard and expect success,

Tom Venuto, author of
Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle.

PS. The weight training program in the newest edition of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle uses a 2 day split. It sets up your weekly schedule with two different workouts, an upper body day and a lower body plus abs day.  It’s highly customizable, offering a 3 or 4 day per week option, providing a variety of substitutions based on what equipment you have, and is scalable for any experience level. This is a new rendition of a classic, proven program that will work for just about anyone with strength and muscle-building goals. I call it “T.N.B.” – The New Bodybuilding.

The 2-day Split, upper-lower option
Day 1: Upper Body (Chest, Back, Shoulders, Arms)
Day 2: Lower Body (Quads, Hams, Calves) and Abs

The 2-day Split, push-pull option
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, triceps, abs
Day 2: Legs, Back, Biceps, calves

I have taken the program to the  next level by adding an intensity of effort and load/repetition periodization program, plus an exercise rotation system to stimulate your body from multiple angles with multiple exercises (it also keeps your progress coming longer in each cycle and staves off boredom).  Although I personally do use body part split routines most of the time (the 4 day split I mentioned above), for people who do not have competitive-level bodybuilding goals, the 2 Day split is the single most popular strength and muscle-building program I have ever written, and you can see it in the new edition, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle:  Get it at Barnes and Noble or your favorite local bookstore, or on Amazon at: www.amazon.com/gp/product/0804137846/



About Tom Venuto

tomvenuto-blogTom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, fat loss coach, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom’s articles are published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Oprah magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows including Sirius XM, ESPN-1250, WCBS and Day  Break USA. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle

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13 Responses to “Body Part Split Routines: What Are The Pros And Cons?”

  • Sarah

    Thanks for this the two day split looks interesting. Do you repeat each workout twice a week? Also could you comment on sets and reps? 3x 10, 4×8, 2×20 etc. What’s good for burning fat, what’s good for building muscle and beginner to advanced.

    Thanks so much

    • Tom Venuto

      Sarah on a 2 day split, yes, the frequency of working each body part or exercise is usually twice a week shown above. When moving on to 3, 4 and 5 day splits (bodybuilding style workouts) the frequency of working each muscle group can vary anywhere from once every 4 days to once every 7 days. Whats good for burning fat is nailing the nutrition and adding some cardio. one does not necessarily have to alter the weight training style. Many weight training programs are designed to create the most fat loss or be most compatible with fat loss goals, but with bodybuilding style split weight training routines, the weight lifting is done for strength and muscle growth and fat loss benefit is secondary – the bodybuilder is using diet + cardio to get lean.

  • Bob Erwin

    I like the four day TNB and four day split, but can I alternate rest days between cardio and weights. E.g. M, W, F, Sat, Weights. Cardio on off days.

    Is this possible without losing muscle or strength in the process?

    • Tom Venuto

      absolutely. Arguably, thats even ideal. until/ unless you want to do more than 3 days a week of cardio, then it inevitable that on some days you’ll do weights and cardio in the same day… which is fine, but to avoid losing strength/ muscle id suggest doing cardio after weights not before – cardio before weights, if its intense, will interfere with weight lifting performance and thats not a compromise you want to make if strength and muscle are high on your priority list

  • Phil

    I always thought the rest factor was part of the advantage of splitting off parts for individual workouts.
    You work one part to exhaustion, then give it a few days to rebuild and recooperate…no?

    • Tom Venuto

      absolutely phil. Although many people – especially beginners – can train 3 days a week on a full body workout (no split) with only one rest day in between and fully recuperate from that. On the other end of the spectrum you have advanced bodybuilers who prefer working on only one or two body parts in a session and they do a lot of exercises, a lot of sets, a lot of volume and that causes a lot more muscle damage compared to the lower volume workout youd be doing on a full body program, and in that case the extended time between workouts is indeed part of the advantage.

  • Cindy

    Great article! It really explained how to decide what kind of a routine is appropriate for one’s goals. Thanks for your clarity!!

  • Brian Brown

    Love the comments, absolutely all true as we well know! First time I ever looked at your web-site. Very impressive! I’ve been telling people very similar things for years when asked at the gym about how to train and eat. Of course, I do not have near the knowledge or training experience as you. But have learned the basic common sense principles you speak of through my 37 years of training. In fact, without ever visiting your site, I constantly refer people to it by your name- knowing they will get sound no bullshit advice/ knowledge from a guy with integrity who has done it the right way- Naturally!! When I think back over over the years of training and folks I’ve known, there’s really only two I think of that keep it clean and natural and are still training because of it- You and John Venditti. That’s not many considering all the lifters I’ve known in my time. Keep up the good work! It would be good to hear from ya.

  • James

    Hi Tom. I wanted to know if I can at some point in time eventually reach my genetic potential using minimalist routines doing at least two sets per exercise two workout sessions per week?

  • Grant

    Hi Tom. I’m a big fan and used info from your blogs and books when I competed and it helped a ton. I personally use the four day split you use. It is ideal for me but I keep coming across articles where they say a training frequency of training a muscle group twice a week is best for muscle growth. I have tried hitting an upper lower routine but find it to be very draining. Out of your experience do you find training a muscle group once every 7 days just as effective as every 3rd or 4th day.I do 9 sets total for the big body part and 4 to 6 total sets for a small body part for example in a workout. I appreciate your knowledge ando articles.


    • Tom Venuto

      Ive seen the trend toward the recommendation of higher training frequency and I understand the reasons why h ave a lot to do with recent research about protein synthesis rates. Trying a higher training frequency may indeed help in some situations. However, i have zero reason to beleive that traditional bodybuilding routines that work each muscle once every 5 to 7 days arent also effective. To compare this type of training vs more frequent training one has to keep in mind that the volume of work may be different, as may the intensity. and that both methods could work. The majority of bodybuilders I know still train with a frequency of once every 5 to 7 days and do more volume. The weekly volume might be similar but if you switch to twice a week, you often have to decrease the volume per workout or you’ll be in the gym for hours. Each method has its pros and cons. I lean a bit more toward prescribing twice a week for the regular recreational lifter. However, Im not jumping on this bandwagon anymore than i have any of the others that have come down the pike over the years. Im still much more in favor of body part split routines and once every 5 to 6 days frequencies myself for serious bodybuilding goals for all the reasons discussed in the article, and others…. including the fact that it works better than anything else ive ever tried. That said, I sometimes train small muscle groups or lagging muscle groups more often while doing a bodybuilding split routine. This is called variable split training, where each muscle is not worked with the same frequency. If what you are doing is working, keep doing it. If you have a lagging muscle, try hitting it more often, at least for a short period of time and see what happens.

  • Bob Erwin

    Tom. I have the original BFFM PDF book and the New BFFM TNB book. I like the leg workout in the TBN exercises, but feel my muscle gains in biceps, etc. suffer using TNB. Question: Can I do a 4 day split using the exercises for the various muscle groups listen int the TNB workouts? E.g. Chest, Biceps, Abs. 3 chest exercises, 3 Biceps exercises, and then 2 or 3 ab exercises from the table of exercises in the TNB workouts.

    • Tom Venuto

      You could do a 3 day split or a 4 day split and this allows you time to add a lot more volume for direct arm work. I use a 4 day split myself; 1: shoulders triceps, 2: back, calves, 3: chest, biceps, abs, 4: quads, hams

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