The Ultimate Guide to Muscle Group Split Training

Brad Borland

Coach

Strength and Conditioning, Bodybuilding

The Ultimate Guide to Muscle Group Split Training

 

Bodybuilders like Steve Reeves in the 50s and 60s advocated full-body programs that included plenty of sets, reps, and some Olympic-style lifts. With modern hypertrophy training, the trend has swung to the other extreme, with ultra-splits sometimes training a single body part each day of the week.

 

 

Hypertrophy (increasing the size of the muscle) is achieved through fatiguing the targeted area with moderate reps and loads while performing somewhat of a higher volume. You must recruit as many fibers as possible, stimulate them under a moderate load for time under tension, and then apply an appropriate amount of volume with appropriate weekly frequency.

 

What Is Muscle Group Split Training?

Split training is the act of splitting your major muscle groups into separate training sessions. This allows you to add more volume into your training without having to add in too much training time per day. In other words, if you’re currently performing a full-body routine and wanted to add sets without adding time to your gym session, then you would split your body into two days in order to add more sets.

 

This is common practice once you reach a certain level of experience. But avoid splitting your training out of laziness, or based off of what everyone else is doing. The proverbial chest day (Monday) is all well and good, but do you have a definitive reason for that practice? Performing split training for its own sake doesn’t give you much ground to stand on when something isn’t working.

 

Think of your training on a weekly basis rather than a daily one, so that you can easily add or adjust training volumes and intensities. This can be illustrated by looking at two distinct programs that, for the most part, contain roughly the same amount of weekly volume, but display two distinct splits. 

 

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Total weekly volume
Full body

Lower body

(5 sets)

 

Lower body

(5 sets)

 

Lower body

(5 sets)

15 sets
Two-day split

Lower body

(8 sets)

   

Lower body

(8 sets)

  16 sets

 

As you can see, the volumes are similar, but the frequencies (or splits) are different. For the two-day split program, you can add a few sets into your training without fear of living in the gym.

 

Functional Training vs. Aesthetic Goals

This guide is for those who want a primer on split training for more muscle, but let's touch on a few other forms of training to see how they fit into the grander scheme of things.

 

Bodybuilding was once the go-to method for the vast majority of gym-goers. More muscle was the name of the game. But the breadth of interest has exploded over the past two decades, with camps forming around pure strength training, functional-style training, power lifting, and many other training styles.

 

Functional training attempts to form an exercise regimen based on purely practical elements,  focusing on everyday activities and the need to increase overall strength and real world capability. Hypertrophy training has a seat at the performance table, but targets mainly aesthetic aspects; lower body fat levels, and increased muscle mass. As full-body programs fit well with functional training, hypertrophy training works well with split plans.

 

Of course, there is carryover. Any time you train with resistance, all the same effects occur, just in different proportions. Someone training for strength will see an increase in muscle mass. Conversely, someone exclusively training for muscle mass will also experience increases in strength. The same goes for muscular endurance, power, and overall functionality.

 

That said, it's important to choose the tool that will work best for your specific goal. Carryover is great, but it takes a long time to drive a nail with a wrench.

 

When to Train With Splits

Initially, using a full-body program is best practice. At the beginner level, you need more frequency (practice) with the movements and need to set the stage by building a solid foundation. Here are a couple of examples of effective full-body programs.

 

Full Body Plan 1

Day 1 Warm up sets Work sets Rest (seconds)
Flat bench barbell press 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Medium or wide-grip pull up 2 x 5 4 x max reps 60
Barbell back squat 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Barbell Romanian deadlift 1 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Floor crunch - 3 x 15 30
Lying leg raise - 3 x 15 30

 

Day 2 Warm up sets Work sets Rest (seconds)
Barbell deadlift 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 120
Standing barbell shoulder press 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Parallel bar triceps dip 1 x 8 4 x max reps 60
Barbell curl 1 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Standing single-leg calf raise 1 x 12 4 x 8-12 30

 

Day 3 Warm up sets Work sets Rest (seconds)
Incline bench barbell press 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Barbell bent-over row 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Barbell front squat 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Kettlebell reverse lunge - 4 x 8-12 60
Hanging leg raise - 3 x 15 30
3-way sit up - 3 x 15 30

 

Full Body Plan 2

Day 1 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Hang clean 2 x 5 3 x 5 60
Barbell deadlift 2 x 10 4 x 5 60
Wide-grip pull up - 4 x max reps 60
Incline bench barbell press 2 x 10 4 x 5-8 60
Barbell back squat 1 x 10 4 x 8-10 90
Wide-grip upright row - 3 x 8-10 60
3-way sit up - 3 x 10-15 30

 

Day 2 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Standing barbell push press 2 x 10 3 x 5 60
Barbell Romanian deadlift 2 x 10 4 x 8-10 60
Barbell front squat 1 x 10 4 x 8-10 60
Push up - 3 x max reps 30
Close-grip pull up - 3 x max reps 60
Barbell curl 1 x 10 4 x 5-8 60
Parallel bar dip - 4 x max reps

60

Hanging leg raise - 3 x 10-15 30

 

Day 3 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Barbell box squat 2 x 10 4 x 5-8 90
Lying dumbbell leg curl - 3 x 8-10 60
Flat bench barbell press 2 x 10 4 x 8-10 60
Barbell bent-over row 1 x 10 4 x 8-10 60
Dumbbell/kettlebell hang clean and press - 3 x 5 60 after each arm
Farmer’s walk - 3 rounds 30
Standing calf raise 1 x 10 4 x 8-10 30
Bicycle crunch - 3 x 10-15 30

 

Over time, you’ll want (and possibly need) to switch to more of a split routine. Here a few reasons to go from using a whole-body program to a split.

 

Added Volume

Sometimes you just have that gut instinct that you can effectively increase your training. You may just want the challenge, you may want the pump, or you may have the simple desire to do more work. Maybe you’ve hooked up with a training partner for some more advanced workouts. Whatever the reason, adopting a split routine is the best way to increase volume without spending more time in the gym.

 

A More Aggressive Routine

As you advance, your body will adapt to the demands. After a while, you will be able to withstand more stress, volume, and intensity. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different splits and see which ones work best for your goals, schedule, and lifestyle.

 

Sharper Focus

You may want to hone in on lower body work, or spend more time on your posterior chain for better balance. Over time, you’ll find yourself wanting to focus on specific areas that need more detailed attention.

 

Improved Recovery

Whole body programs are great because they train everything, every time you step into the gym. However, over time, you may need a break from the pounding. It can become difficult to manage the intensity and focus when you're burning the whole house down every time you train. That, in turn, will cause more stress, calling for more recovery time. Split training can help alleviate that issue. 

 

How to Train With Splits

There are many split styles to choose from, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed as a newbie. On the other hand, many gym goers choose the road most taken, and train everything only once per week. This could be out of laziness, a follow-the-leader mentality, or the false notion that one needs an enormous amount of rest between similar sessions in order to recover properly.

 

Think of it this way: if you were training your whole body three times per week and then dropped to only once per week, then you’ve gone from a frequency of 156 times per year to 52. Even with more volume per session, that’s still a drastic cut in stimulating frequency.

 

A more moderate approach should be taken. Train everything twice per week, to start. This will allow more volume while allowing for adequate, but not too much rest. For example, you could perform  the following splits on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Workout 1 would be on Mondays and Thursdays, and Workout 2 on Tuesdays and Fridays.

 

  • Workout 1: Upper body: Chest, back, shoulders, arms
  • Workout 2: Lower body: Calves, quads, hamstrings

 

  • Workout 1: Chest, back, shoulders
  • Workout 2: Arms, calves, quads, hamstrings

 

  • Workout 1: Chest, back, quads
  • Workout 2: Shoulders, arms, hamstrings, calves

 

  • Workout 1: Chest, shoulders, arms
  • Workout 2: Quads, hamstrings, calves, back

 

Sample 2-Day Split

Days 1 and 3 chest, back, shoulders. Days 2 and 4 legs, arms

 

Day 1 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Incline bench barbell press 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Flat bench dumbbell press 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Reverse-grip pull up 2 x 12 on pulldowns 4 x 6-8 60
Bent-over barbell row 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Seated dumbbell side lateral raise - 3 x 6-8 60
Seated dumbbell shoulder press - 3 x 6-8 60
Incline 3-way sit up - 3 x 20 30

 

Day 2 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Standing single-leg calf raise 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 30
Bulgarian split squat 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 30
Lying leg curl 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Dumbbell curl 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Close-grip bench press 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Lying leg lift - 3 x 20 30

 

Day 3 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Incline bench dumbbell press 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Flat bench barbell press 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
T-bar row 2 x 12 on pulldowns 4 x 6-8 60
Wide-grip pull up 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Wide-grip barbell press - 3 x 6-8 60
Front plate raise - 3 x 6-8 60
Floor crunch - 3 x 20 30

 

Day 4 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Seated calf raise 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 30
Barbell back squat 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Barbell Romanian deadlift 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Barbell curl 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Weighted dip 1 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Hanging leg lift - 3 x 20 30

 

Intelligent Split Selection

Instead of haphazardly throwing together any random split, take the time to honestly assess your training and make calculated decisions. Ask yourself a few questions before moving on from a full-body plan to a split routine, or from one split style to another:

 

  • Is what you’re doing now no longer helping you progress?
  • Have you tried adjusting your existing routine to kick-start progress?
  • What are the things you’d like to change?
  • Which split fits best into your schedule?
  • What do you want to prioritize in your training?

 

Once you have your answers, see your new program through. Hammer away and give it at least 4-6 weeks before adjusting anything. Once you’re on course and need to adjust something, change only one thing at a time. Changing too many variables at once will make it tough to know which change actually had a positive impact.

 

For those who want to split their training even further, you can have your pick of several more options. Below are several three-day splits you can easily use as three days on, one day off, or six days in a row (repeating the three days twice in a row) with the seventh day off from training.

 

  • Workout 1: Chest, back
  • Workout 2: Shoulders, arms
  • Workout 3: Calves, quads, hamstrings

 

  • Workout 1: Chest, shoulders, triceps
  • Workout 2: Calves, quads, hamstrings
  • Workout 3: Back, biceps

 

  • Workout 1: Chest, biceps
  • Workout 2: Calves, quads, hamstrings
  • Workout 3: Back, triceps, shoulders

 

  • Workout 1: Back, shoulders
  • Workout 2: Calves, quads, hamstrings
  • Workout 3: Chest, arms

 

Using a three-day split will allow for even more volume, but be cautious about adding too much. Your goal should be to stimulate growth, perform the right amount of frequency, and still have time to recover.

 

Sample 3-Day Split

Day 1 chest, back. Day 2 shoulders and arms. Day 3 legs.

 

Day 1 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Flat bench barbell press 2 x 12 4 x 6-12 60
Incline bench dumbbell press - 4 x 6-12 60
Machine fly - 4 x 10-15 60
Wide-grip pullup 2 x 12 on pull down 4 x max reps 60
Bent-over barbell row 1 x 12 4 x 6-12 60
Rack deadlift - 4 x 6-8 60
Floor crunch - 3 x 20 30
Lying leg lift - 3 x 20 30

 

Day 2 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Seated dumbbell press 2 x 12 4 x 6-12 60
Standing side lateral raise - 3 x 10-15 60
Bent-over rear lateral raise - 3 x 10-15 60
Barbell curl 2 x 12 4 x 6-12 60
Incline bench dumbbell curl - 4 x 6-12 60
Triceps cable press down 2 x 12 4 x 6-12 60
Parallel bar dip (weighted) - 4 x max reps 60
Hanging leg raise - 3 x 20 30
Incline board sit up - 3 x 20 30

 

Day 3 Warm up sets Working sets Rest (seconds)
Standing calf raise 2 x 12 3 x 10-15 30
Seated calf raise - 3 x 10-15 30
Barbell back squat 2 x 12 4 x 6-12 120
Single-leg squat - 3 x 10-15 60
Reverse lunge - 3 x 10-15 60
Romanian deadlift 1 x 12 3 x 6-12 60
Lying leg curl - 3 x 6-12 60

 

The Art and Science of Grouping Muscles

There is a method to the madness. You shouldn’t just haphazardly throw programs together like rolling the dice. There are certain parameters to adhere to so you can optimize your training for the best possible results.

 

The first rule is to train larger muscle groups first, and place them strategically to not overwork certain areas. You don’t want to train biceps before back on the same day. Fatigued biceps will become a weak link for the forthcoming back work. Same goes for triceps and shoulders as they relate to chest work. The bottom line is train the larger muscle first. That is why in some programs, they are ordered as follows:

 

  • Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
  • Back, Biceps
  • Quads, Hamstrings, Calves

 

Another factor to consider is programming adequate rest. For example, say you have chest and back on one day. In order to maximize your training outcome, you’ll want to avoid direct shoulder, triceps, and biceps work on the day before so that they'll be rested when it's time to hit them. Try to avoid training crucial areas before big lift days. It may look like this:

 

  • Chest, Back
  • Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps
  • Quads, Hamstrings, Calves

 

This way, your shoulders and arm have plenty of time to recover before you train chest and back again.
 

Lastly, keep a keen eye on how much volume is given to each day, along with the types of movements. For example, on a two-day split, as illustrated above, you train chest, back, and shoulders on day one, and arms and legs on day two. With a moderate and manageable amount of volume, this split makes sense. The chest, back, and legs take so much time and energy that you’ll want to split them up a bit. Chest and back (push/pull) pair nicely, and legs get a separate day with some arm work, which won’t tax your system as much.

 

The volume might break down like his:

  • Chest: 8 sets, Back: 8 sets, Shoulders: 8 sets
  • Quads: 8 sets, Hamstrings: 4 sets, Calves: 4 sets, Arms: 8 sets

 

Larger, more taxing areas are well-balanced and coupled with smaller body parts. The more you split body parts on separate days, you’ll need to keep an eye on where the bigger, more taxing lifts will go. Avoid grouping the lifts that stress the central nervous system the most all on one day, such as presses, rows, deadlifts, and squats, among others.

 

Common 3-Day Split Types: Push/Pull

Just like it sounds. You group pushing body parts together, as well as pulling muscles. Chest, shoulders and triceps (all facilitating push exercises) will be grouped. The same goes for back and biceps for pulling. Legs get their own focused day. This helps you train muscles that have direct overlap with each other, making your effort more time-efficient. After you train chest, your shoulders and triceps are already indirectly stimulated. You can easily finish up those body parts with a moderate volume, and allow for complete recovery before the next push workout.

 

Common 3-Day Split Types: Antagonists and Supersets

This style has you training opposing muscle groups on the same day. The key advantage here is that pairing opposing muscle groups forces blood into nearby areas, making it easier for neural focus, metabolic processes, and overall training effect to be maximized. Additionally, when training one muscle group, the opposing group is forced to relax and stretch. For example, when performing a set of arm curls, your triceps become stretched and become more efficient at recovery.

 

If you’re supersetting (performing exercises for opposing groups back-to-back), this becomes even more apparent. Switching back and forth between triceps pressdowns and biceps curls creates an effect that will not only optimize your efforts, but also save time. Some common pairs include:

 

  • Barbell or dumbbell presses paired with barbell, dumbbell, or cable rows
  • Chest flys paired with pullups, chin ups
  • Biceps curls paired with lying triceps extensions or cable press downs
  • Leg extensions paired with leg curls
  • Barbell back or front squats paired with barbell or dumbbell Romanian deadlifts

 

The goal is to go from one exercise to another without much rest. Continue the back and forth cadence until you’ve completed all sets for each pair. At first, you may need to cut back on the amount of weight you normally do for certain exercises, but you’ll eventually gain your original strength back plus some.

 

When to Stop Splitting

Muscle group training should only go so far. There are limits and diminishing returns for almost every effort in life. If training everything only once per week is so effective, why isn’t everyone satisfied with their progress?

 

That trend doesn’t have many legs to stand on. Imagine training your chest on a Monday and then have to wait an entire seven days to train it again. Secondly, most average lifters will train their chests with numerous heavy sets, only to neglect their leg or back training. Finally, training only one body part per day doesn’t make for much of a workout. I’ve seen some lifters train back or shoulders on separate days without breaking a sweat. Not much of a workout indeed.

 

A two- or three-day split is plenty when you adjust for volume, keep sets moderate, and take appropriate rest between training. Of course, everything works for a while. Once you need a change, answer all of your questions honestly, and then make one change at a time. Give each change time to take effect, and then move onto the next thing. Going from one extreme to another will only leave you frustrated and discouraged.

 

Compound vs. Isolation

Compound movements are multi-joint in nature; more than one joint is used during the movement. Isolation exercises, in turn, use only a single joint. A squat, for example, is performed using the hip, knee, and ankle joints, therefore it is deemed compound. Biceps curls, on the other hand, are performed with only elbow action, and are classified as isolation.

 

There is a sliding scale when it comes to how you use these two categories. With any program, no matter the type of split, you’ll want to comprise most of your chosen movements from the compound category. They offer the most bang for your buck; the more joints involved in the movement, the more muscle activation from many groups. For example, the bench press stimulates chest, shoulder and triceps growth. A pec deck fly machine, on the other hand, will only isolate the chest. Additionally, since they allow for you to use more weight, you will be able to stimulate more muscle growth with compound exercises for proper overload. 

 

Isolation exercises don’t allow for as much weight to be used, but still serve the purpose of “finishing off” a muscle group once it is exhausted from all of the heavier compound work. But a word of caution: since these exercises use only a single joint, they present a risk if performed with too heavy of a weight. Too many lifters risk injury by loading up too much on isolation movements, especially those exercises that put the joint in a stretched position, like chest flys or incline bench biceps curls.

 

As you move from a full-body program to a split routine, it becomes more feasible and practical to add in a few isolation movements. The reason really boils down to time. Since you’re training every body part for each session in a full-body routine, you have little time to isolate each and every muscle group with a variety of exercises. You’d be in the gym for hours for each session. Instead, opt for mainly compound moves to train as many muscle groups as possible for better efficiency. Try to focus on the big multi-joint movements like bench presses, squats, rows, chin ups and dips.

 

As you move to a more split routine, you’ll free up a little more time for isolation exercises. You should still focus mainly on those big, compound lifts, but now you’ll have a bit more freedom to add more angles. For example, you may have had a chest routine consisting of flat bench barbell presses and incline bench dumbbell presses. Now you can add a fly or cable movement at the end with moderate weight, and a few more reps to recruit the last few muscle fibers in your chest.

 

Some of the more common compound and isolation exercises:

 

Chest

Compound

  • Barbell and dumbbell flat, decline and incline bench press
  • Push up
  • Machine and Hammer Strength press

 

Isolation

  • Flat, incline and decline bench dumbbell fly
  • Cable fly
  • Machine fly (pec deck)

 

Back

Compound

  • Pullup and chin up
  • Barbell and dumbbell row
  • Cable and machine row
  • Deadlift
  • Machine and Hammer Strength pull down machine
  • Machine and Hammer Strength row machine

 

Isolation

  • Straight arm lat pull
  • Dumbbell cross bench pullover
  • Ab wheel rollout

 

Quadriceps

Compound

  • Barbell back and front squat
  • Leg press
  • Hack squat
  • Lunge

 

Isolation

  • Leg extension machine
  • Sissy squat

 

Hamstrings

Compound

  • Lunge
  • Leg press (feet placed high on foot plate)
  • Step up

 

Isolation

  • Lying, standing and seated leg curl
  • Barbell and dumbbell Romanian deadlift
  • Russian lean

 

Triceps

Compound

  • Parallel bar dip
  • Bench dip
  • Close-grip bench press

 

Isolation

  • Cable press down
  • Overhead cable extension
  • Lying barbell or dumbbell extension
  • Overhead dumbbell extension

 

Biceps

Compound

  • Reverse grip biceps chin
  • Barbell drag curl

 

Isolation

  • Barbell or dumbbell standing curl
  • Incline bench dumbbell curl
  • Preacher curl
  • Concentration curl

 

Shoulders

Compound

  • Overhead barbell or dumbbell press
  • Barbell or dumbbell upright row
  • Barbell push press
  • High rope pull

 

Isolation

  • Best over, side or front dumbbell lateral raise
  • Rear cable or machine lateral raise
  • Barbell or plate front lateral raise
  • Barbell or dumbbell shrug

 

It Starts With Understanding

When you set out to choose any new program, it’s important to first develop a basic foundation and understanding of its principles and mechanisms. When choosing muscle group splits, using mostly compound movements, graduating from a full-body program, and knowing when to increase volume and intensity are key.

 

If you feel in need of change, or have squeezed every last ounce from your current training, adopt a split program. The first step should be a small one, moving to a two-day split. This, in turn, will practically double your volume of training, and allow you to apply more intensity to each workout.

 

A two-day split is perfect to fit into any week of training, and also easy to maintain when you miss days for whatever reason. In other words, you won’t have to cycle through five or six days of individual body part training to start from the beginning again.

 

Once you feel you’ve advanced, have more time to dedicate, or have reached another rut and need more recovery time, you can move on to a three-day split. This usually happens after at least a six-month stint with the two-day split.

 

The overarching message is to give any new program time to work. Don’t expect overnight results. Progress with any program takes weeks and months to cultivate. Change one thing at a time, so you’re sure what’s working and what doesn’t. Deciding on what split to adopt should be focused on progress, not what everyone else is doing. 

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