There are a plethora of ways that you can approach your workouts, and having so many options can be both a good thing, and a bad thing. But are some of these options better than others? Well, that’s what we’re going to examine today…
Funny thing is this: you can guess [with a fairly decent degree of accuracy] where someone has picked up their routine from based on what one they use… Let me explain…
If you hear someone that talks about doing a Split Routine that consists of “Push/Pull/Legs”, then either they’re a NASM-certified Trainer, or they’ve been trained by one! This is classic, textbook-NASM teaching; and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! In fact, this approach is pretty damn perfect for Beginners and anyone just getting [back] into a routine in the gym (with or without prior lifting experience).
The premise of the “Push/Pull/Legs” Split is rooted in the idea that you commit to hitting the gym at least three times per week, and one day you do all ‘Pushing’ exercises (Chest Press, Triceps Press, Military Press, etc); the second day you’ll do all ‘Pulls’ (Lat Pulldown, Seated Row, Biceps Curl, “Face Pulls”, etc). And finally, well… ‘Legs’ should be pretty bloody obvious… but for anyone reading this who’s totally new to exercise, here are a few examples of what you could do: Leg Press, Leg Extension, Leg Curl, Calf Raise, Romanian Deadlift, etc.
Now, I’ve already slated the whole ‘not having time’ excuse in my last CXP Fitness article (Why You’ll Never Have the Physique of Wolverine or Wonder Woman), so I won’t rant again… But I’ll just say that if you “were able” [to find the time] to get you’re a$$ to the gym six days per week (Mon-Sat), then I would definitely suggest cycling through the ‘Push/Pull/Legs’ twice in the same week… So, that would look like this:
Mon – Push
Tues – Pull
Wed – Legs
Thurs – Push
Fri – Pull
Sat – Legs
Sun – Rest (or Active Recovery)
This may sound or look like “over-training”, but believe me: it’s NOT! Fact is, you’ll hit every muscle group twice per week, and each of those muscle groups has a nice couple of days rest before you go at it again, and this is actually optimal [for a beginner]!
Thing is, only stimulating each muscle just ONCE per week isn’t going to yield very good results… See, I liken “fitness acquisition” (I’m coining that phrase now!) with “language acquisition” (pretty sure that phrase is taken though!).
So, like with languages – where it’s great to get in at least a few hours of practice/lessons per week, if you cover something totally different every time, then let a week pass before you look at it again, you’ll be hard pressed to learn it very well. If there’s an “overlap” [of sorts] within the same week, then you’ll get a better grasp of what you’re trying to learn. This applies – very much – in the same way to muscles; effectively, they are trying to “learn” the stimulus you are providing, but if they don’t receive it as frequently, they’ll be slower to adapt and grow.
But okay, more “Splits”…
So, then you have some classic ‘Bodybuilder Split’ Routines. Usually these will be where they focus on just one major muscle group per day (Chest / Back / Legs / Arms / Shoulders – done Mon / Tues / Wed / Thurs / Fri), or they pair them up.
Classic pairings are: “Back & Bi’s” / “Chest & Tri’s” / “Legs & Shoulders”, and this may be repeated [as suggested before] – Mon/Tues/Wed, and again, Thurs/Fri/Sat.
The logic behind these ‘classic’ pairings is that the Back and Biceps involve Pulling exercises, the Chest and Triceps involve Pushing exercises, and as volume is usually a factor, they’ll favour doing more of these two muscles (on the given day), and save Shoulders for “Legs Day”. So, rather than just doing a couple of exercises per muscle group (as you would with the NASM Push/Pull/Legs), you’d do several exercises for fewer muscles each day.
So, just to illustrate this:
A NASM “Push” Day might involve two to three Chest exercises, two to three for Triceps, and two to three for Shoulders (as long as they’re “pushing” motions). The Bodybuilders’ Split will look at doing more like four or five per muscle group, therefore, saving Shoulders for Legs day means not having to plough through up to fifteen sets one day, then just five the next…
‘You’re trying to get as much work as you possibly can out of the muscle…’
Then we have a ‘modern twist’ on the pairings: “Back & Tri’s” / “Chest & Bi’s” / “Legs & Shoulders” – the key difference here being that Triceps get paired with Back now, and Biceps with Chest.
The sense of this is twofold – you can [arguably] go heavier with each exercise as the arm muscles involved in the Isolation moves won’t get used in the Compound moves as well; and after doing a Compound move that involves – say – the Biceps, they will get a break when moving onto the Triceps exercises, whereas they’d be pushed to exhaustion if you were to just go from – say – Lat Pulldowns onto Biceps Curls!
There are various Pros and Cons of these three versions (Singles/Classic-Pairing/Modern-Twist-Pairing)…
The idea of breaking things down to the level of just training one muscle group per day is to provide as much overload in that session as possible! You’re trying to get as much work as you possibly can out of the muscle, and then give it a number of days to rest.
Usually someone using this approach will go ahead and either do 3-4 sets of as many as 6-8 different exercises [for that one muscle group]; or they may choose just a few exercises, but do several more sets (opting for volume derived from a more limited variety of stimuli over a greater variation in itself).
‘… that will burn more calories, and provide greater overall muscle stimulus.’
Now, the science shows that the muscles don’t need as much as an entire week to recover; however, Bodybuilders have been using this approach for decades, and it doesn’t seem to have impacted their ‘gains’. But it is hard to refute the studies that show that more frequent training can yield better results.
One specific benefit, though, can be to address ‘imbalances’ [in muscle size]; quite often people can find that one Triceps is bigger than the other, or one Pec is smaller, or whatever. I actually had to overcome this a few years back when I broke my Collar Bone – my left Shoulder shrivelled up like a prune, and the right one got HUGE! So, post-recovery, I had to take a laser-like approach to emphasize “building up” the left one [so as to catch up to the right].
This makes for a good segue into the final “Split Routine” that you’ll find people use… The “Upper/Lower” Split – this is one of my favourites, because it is the most versatile in terms of enabling/encouraging you to train more frequently!
So, it should be fairly obvious, but basically, you’d do all of your Upper Body exercises ([for] Back / Chest / Biceps / Triceps / Shoulders / Traps / etc) one day, and Lower the next day ([for] Quads / Hamstrings / Calves / Glutes / Abs / Obliques). This is perhaps the simplest approach, and you get the most bang for your buck [as far as *Split Routines* go] as you’re utilizing more muscle groups each session, and that will burn more calories, and provide greater overall muscle stimulus.
Upper/Lower Splits are favoured by Trainers and Athletes who prefer more functionality over targeting specific muscles. This method can also yield some of the best results for those “time-restricted” folks out there; see, three times per week (with Push/Pull/Legs) is good, but four times per week (with Upper/Lower/Rest/Upper/Lower) is even better! This way your Upper Body gets worked at *least* twice per week (as does the Lower Body, naturally).
Again, as mentioned earlier, if you can get in six workouts per week, then you could happily cycle through and do:
Mon – Upper
Tues – Lower
Wed – Upper
Thurs – Lower
Fri – Upper
Sat – Lower
Sun – Rest (or Active Recovery)
For the Beginners and Intermediates out there, this format is going to really see you excel the quickest! Because – again – like I said with the Language Acquisition analogy: the increased frequency in stimulus that’s provided to each muscle group throughout the week is going to lead to quicker adaptation and your results will be more optimal!
‘… make every workout something different so that it isn’t so monotonous…’
Granted, you might argue that training the same muscles every other day is going to lead to exhaustion, and that “they’ll never recover [fully]”, however, a lot of that will come down to the load and intensity that you place on them every session…
That leads me nicely into the last portion of this article: Full Body Workouts!
Full Body Workouts are earning more attention in the gym-based world, finally! I mean, keep in mind that most Group X classes are designed to be Full-Body; CrossFit workouts are Full-Body; Bootcamps are Full-Body. But now, we’re starting to see more “Lifters” employing Full Body Workouts into their weekly routine too!
It actually makes [debatably] the MOST sense to take this approach! Think about it: the frequency of stimulus to the muscles is as high as can be (think: Muscle Gain). Using every muscle group each workout will result in the greatest possible calorie burn (think: Fat Loss). And you can actually [again – arguably] mix things up even more with this approach, and make every workout something different so that it isn’t so monotonous every time you hit the gym!
Now, the hardcore “Bros” and Bodybuilders (of a more “traditional” mentality) will argue until they’re blue in the face that Full Body Training isn’t going to yield results… But I beg to differ!
‘It’s a f*cking simple and basic formula, and it works for anyone!’
You’ll always hear me use the World’s Elite as the perfect comparative measure…
Elite Athletes, Navy SEALS, SAS, and others of that level of superior fitness – they use Full Body Training every single day! Literally. The core of Military-style training revolves around: Pull Ups, Push Ups, Squats, Lunges, Crunches … All done for very high reps. Done EVERY day!
You might argue that, ‘Oh, but they’re genetically gifted’ or whatever B.S. you wanna kid yourself with; but the fact is, the *majority* of those who go into the Military go in looking fairly lacklustre! But the Full Body Training that they do every day over several months… well, LOOK AT THEM!! They get turned into Elite “Warriors”! It’s a f*cking simple and basic formula, and it works for anyone! It’s just not so much fun!
As far as the Elite Athletes go… yes, you can argue that not everyone can perform like they can (not everyone can jump 8m or sprint 100m in sub-10s), but the principle is the same in that they don’t neglect entire parts of their body. Look at sprinters – they’re [mostly] using their legs, and yet they have broad shoulders and bulging biceps!
There is also even greater versatility that comes with Full Body Workouts – if we whip it back around to the gym-based stuff! Fact is, you can do Full Body *Endurance* Training, *Hypertrophy* Training, or even *Strength* Training. Take a look back at How Many Sets and Reps – Understanding the Effects of Rep Range and Set Volume, and you’ll see what a difference each of those methods will yield. Now amplify that with Full Body Training, and you’re going to see amazing results!
So, there you have it – Split Routines (in all their varied “glory”), and Full Body Workouts. Each of them have their place in one’s training line-up, and you’ll benefit from any of them at the end of the day (after all, the only thing worse than a “bad workout routine” is NO workout routine at all!). Perhaps start with one and progress to another after a few weeks – play around with them and see what feels right for you, what yields the best results, and which you find yourself sticking to with the most consistency.
I hope this has been a helpful read! I’ll catch you in the next article [for CXP Nutrition] where we’ll cover: Everything You Need to Know About “Going Keto”.
In the meantime, remember: Train Hard, and Train Smart!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO