It’s possible to build a lot of muscle with no split routine at all. Full body workouts have their place, especially for beginners, for time efficiency and for “back to basics” strength training. But suppose you have a physique and visual aesthetics goal and decided to go with a body part split. What is the best split routine for building muscle?
Despite what the “gurus” want you to believe, there’s no single best split routine for building muscle. You can build a lot of muscle with a variety of training splits. There are simply pros and cons of each one. If all the conflicting advice from training gurus has you horribly confused about how to set up your weekly split routine, everything will become clear as you read the Q & A post below…
Q: Dear Tom: Would a body part split yield greater muscle gains vs full body? 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 splits lost some popularity for a while in mainstream fitness. I was seeing split routines get criticized by certified personal trainers and sports training coaches all the time. Sometimes it was justifiable, given the context. But as I predicted, split routines have become popular again, at least some of them.
Despite the way training trends swing in cycles over the years, body part split routines actually have never gone anywhere. Competitive bodybuilders and physique athletes use them as their standard training method and always have.
That’s because body part splits are incredibly effective for muscle growth (hypertrophy). Split routines are superb for visual aesthetic and cosmetic goals. (Like when you want to compete, look like you compete, or just look good naked).
Bodybuilders are the most muscular and aesthetic athletes in the world. They also happen to carry the lowest body fat of all athletes at competition time. Is that what you want? Do you want to add muscle to specific places on your body, for Greek statue symmetry? If so, then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – split routines are a terrific option. The best.
How to set up your split routine? This could fill a whole chapter in a lifting book. But I’m going to give you a brief, yet complete summary below.
There are several popular split routines 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 can be effective.
The 3 day Split, antagonistic (3-day “classic muscle”)
Day 1: Chest, back
Day 2: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
Day 3: Quads, Hams
The 3 day Split, push-pull-legs (most popular for muscle-building)
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Day 2: quads, hams, calves
Day 3: Back, biceps, forearms
The 4-day bodybuilder’s split (Tom’s choice for advanced bodybuilding)
Day 1: Chest, biceps
Day 2: Quads, hams
Day 3: Shoulders, Triceps
Day 4: Back, calves
The 5 day bodybuilder’s “bro” 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 you can do them every other workout or even on off days.
* Possible weekly schedules for these splits are endless. 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 4-day and 5-day advanced bodybuilding splits are not the kind of training usually recommended for athletes outside of physique sports. The 5-day split especially, has not been without controversy. (As evidenced by the “bro split” nickname, implying that only meatheads, aka “bros” would do this).
A 5-day split has you training one major muscle each day. Usually each muscle is only worked once a week and gets bombed with lots of exercises. There has been some recent evidence that working each muscle so infrequently is not optimal. But even this split works great for hypertrophy as long as the total weekly volume (number of sets per muscle group) is high enough.
Personally, my default training program is a 4 day split, and my second favorite is the 3 day split. (Though I’ve used almost every type of training program over the 3+ decades I’ve been training). I also occasionally go back to more “basic” strength training routines for variety.
It’s important to note that 3, 4, and 5 day body part splits are definitely bodybuilding-focused routines. I’m talking specifically about bodybuilding literally, as in the competitor or person with visual aesthetic goals.
All your training decisions should be made in 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 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 your whole body or even half your 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 length, this calls for splitting 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 doesn’t work every aspect of the muscle and doesn’t 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 not appropriate for all 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 – see links below. The body part splits are best for advanced bodybuilders with hypertrophy goals and cosmetic/ visual goals. So consider your training age 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, let alone 6, 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 my TNB workout, 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 (Are you training for strength, sports conditioning, or bodybuilding / aesthetic reasons?)
2. Training age (Are you a beginner or an advanced trainee?)
3. Practical considerations (What is your schedule like? What will fit into your lifestyle?)
Let me say it again – there is no single best split routine for building muscle. The ideal of the “One True Way” is a creation of the guru business.
On the other hand, you can weigh all the pros and cons of a body part split routine vs full body training and consider all these factors above. After doing that, one particular type of schedule might leap out at you as the one most logical choice. This should be very much based on your personal goals and your lifestyle at the time you choose a routine. The fact that a 4-day split is my choice has as much to do with the fact that I enjoy it the most as any other factor.
Train hard and expect success,
Founder & CEO, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
Author of The BFFM Guide to Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Related: Should you train each muscle once a week or twice a week?
PS. The New Body (TNB)-28. Although I personally prefer body part split routines most of the time (the 4 day split I mentioned above and sometimes the 3-day split), for people who do not have competitive-level bodybuilding goals, the 2-Day split is the single most popular strength and muscle-building program. A complete 2-day split can be found in my Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle book and it’s called TNB 28 (based on a 28-day cycle). The schedule looks like this (2 options):
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
PPS. The New Body (TNB) TURBO: The even newer version, TNB TURBO uses the same 2-day split but adds superset training to maximize time efficiency. This kind of training can literally cut your workout time in half (easily at least by one-third) and is scientifically proven. You can learn more, including seeing a few of the studies, by visiting this page: TNB TURBO TRAINING PAGE
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
Great article! It really explained how to decide what kind of a routine is appropriate for one’s goals. Thanks for your clarity!!
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.
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?
Its doubtful that one would make gains and continue gaining up to genetic potential on minimalist routines. Thats because there’s so. much evidence today that muscle growth is related to training volume. That’s to say, more is better, up to a certain point. However, I do believe you can maintain muscle you’ve already built on a surprisingly minimal amount of volume
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.
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.
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.
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
Its strange i always was getting smaller with a high frequency routine even in a calorie surplus. Think my body responds better with a high volume low frequency approach.
Individual response can vary a lot. I know a lot of people who do better with more volume per workout and lower frequency, even though the “science-based” training community today really pushes on 2X per week frequency and spreading volume across week more. Im like you. I much prefer working each muscle once every 5 days or so with more volume per workout and no one (or study) will change mind. It pays to follow the science but also pays to pay attention to our own results and keep doing more of whats working. Cheers.