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…
Q: 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 of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
About Tom Venuto
Tom 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