Training Tips | Strength Training

Upper/Lower Split: The Best Workout Plan?

Upper/Lower Split

Trainers can argue and debate training methods and principles for hours on end. Everyone has an opinion or an anecdote, but those of us who rely on research know that some ways of training are better than others, no argument.

When it comes to strength training, any workout is better than none. But if you want to help your clients get the most gains, efficiently, you need to consider upper/lower splits. This means splitting training sessions into upper body and lower body workouts.

And, doing these split sessions more than once per week will greatly enhance strength and hypertrophy gains, as compared to trying to hit each muscle group just once per week.

Get your clients in the gym at least four times per week to do two upper body and two lower body sessions in order to get them to their goals faster. Read on for the fact, details, and evidence you need to convince them. 

One Muscle, One Day – The Old Way Is Out

By now it is considered a little old fashioned to train one muscle or muscle group just one day per week. Also known as body part splits, this strategy does allow you to push pretty hard on one set of muscles and get in a high training volume.

The problem is that you get too much recovery time. Seven days of recovery is more than is needed and can actually minimize progress.

Certainly, it’s true that working out one muscle group at least once per week is better than no training. But this isn’t an effective way to make real gains. Research shows us that muscles typically only need three days to recover, which means you can hit each one at least twice a week.

One study1 proved doing multiple sessions per week is more effective than just one. It involved two groups of participants: one trained each muscle group two days per week, while the other did just one session per week.

Those who trained twice a week experienced 6.8 percent growth in hypertrophy after several weeks. How did the once-per-week participants fare? They only saw gains of 3.7 percent. That’s nearly double the hypertrophy gains for adding one additional training session per muscle group each week.

To learn more about how to build muscle with both workouts and diet, check out this simplified guide on the ISSA blog.

What is an Upper/Lower Split Workout?

The idea of the upper/lower split is pretty simple. It means that you divide your training sessions into working the upper body or the lower body but not both at the same time. Do upper body exercises one day and lower body moves the next.

Upper Body Muscle Groups

You can vary this depending on individual needs, but in general the upper body split includes workouts and lifting that target the chest, middle and upper back, shoulders, triceps, and biceps.

Lower Body Muscle Groups

To hit the lower body muscle groups you want to target the abdominals, lower back, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Some people prefer to include the lower back and abs on upper body days.

The Upper/Lower Split Maximizes Hypertrophy

So, the accumulating research says that training muscle groups more than once per week is important for maximizing gains in muscle size. This is best explained by the fact that splitting lower and upper body splits allow for greater volume of training.

With two workouts per muscle each week you can include more sets, reps, and weight, and this increased volume is always better for hypertrophy than lower training volume. One reason this is true may be related to metabolic stress.

There are three things that induce increases in hypertrophy:

  • Mechanical tension – This is achieved through lifting heavy weights.
  • Muscle damage – Damage to muscle tissue, which regrows stronger and bigger, is caused by strength training, especially eccentric movements.
  • Metabolic stress – This is the buildup of the chemical byproducts of anaerobic metabolism.

Metabolic stress is often overlooked in building muscle, but it is crucial and may be responsible for up to 25 percent of hypertrophy. The main driver of metabolic stress? Increased training volume.

Check out this ISSA blog post to find out more about the differences in training for bigger muscles and for stronger muscles.

Non-Athletes vs. Athletes

As in all areas of training, split workout strategies are not one-size-fits-all. An important paper2 that analyzed 140 studies determined that splits may need to be tweaked a little bit differently for beginner and more advanced athletes and lifters.

Three-Day Training for Non-Athletes

The research suggests that for both trained and untrained non-athletes and beginners in the gym, working each body part or muscle group three times per week is most effective for gains.

Several earlier studies have found that a three-day per week training routine is effective, but the participants in these were all non-athletes, people who were not training for competitions. The conclusion is that non-athletes benefit most from:

  • Four sets per muscle or muscle group,
  • At 60 percent of 1RM,
  • Three times per week.

This volume, intensity, and split provides the most gains. Of course, there are likely to be individual variations.

Two-Day Upper/Lower Split for Athletes

In contrast, athletes, advanced lifters, and competitors need a higher volume of training to keep seeing results, according to the research. The ideal routine for these athletes is to train each muscle group twice a week, and to hit the weights harder. The ideal plan for athletes and competitors includes:

  • Eight sets per muscle group,
  • At about 85 percent of 1 RM,
  • Two times per week.

This provides greater training volume, which optimizes hypertrophy in the advanced group. Again, you may need to adjust for individual differences.

Scheduling Strength Training Split Sessions

A typical week with an upper/lower split looks like this:

  1. Monday – upper body
  2. Tuesday – lower body
  3. Wednesday – rest day
  4. Thursday – upper body
  5. Friday – lower body
  6. Saturday – rest day
  7. Sunday – rest day

Rest days refer to taking a break from strength training. Ideally these will be active recovery days. They are perfect for a light cardio workout like a slow jog, a walk, or another low-intensity activity. Of course, the exact days for each split can vary, but this is a good place to start.

A variation on the classic, four-day upper/lower split schedule is the three-day training schedule.

Week One:

  1. Monday – lower body
  2. Tuesday – rest day
  3. Wednesday – upper body
  4. Thursday – rest day
  5. Friday – lower body
  6. Saturday – rest day
  7. Sunday – rest day

Week Two:

  1. Monday – upper body
  2. Tuesday – rest day
  3. Wednesday – lower body
  4. Thursday – rest day
  5. Friday – upper body
  6. Saturday – rest day
  7. Sunday – rest day

This split schedule is similar to the classic, four-day split, but it has a slightly lower frequency for each muscle group. Use this schedule for clients who can only get to the gym three times per week.

Don’t Forget Cardio

Splitting strength training is a good workout schedule for most people, but it’s important to remember to include cardio. When you add cardio into an upper/lower split routine is up to you and individual clients and their needs.

For your clients who have limited time, add 20 minutes of cardio at the end of each strength training session. Use high-intensity intervals to maximize their time. Your more self-motivated clients can probably handle getting in cardio on their own time, whether they hit the elliptical at the gym or go for a run at home. They can do it whenever it feels best, but encourage them to stick with lower intensity workouts on rest days.

In fitness it will always be true that you should do what works best for you, or your client. But, the research is clear that the most effective and efficient way to schedule strength training is to split workouts into upper and lower body training.

How you arrange the details of the workouts, schedule, reps, sets, and training moves depends on individual factors. Just be sure you get your clients into the weight room to work on strength at least a few times each week for optimal health and fitness.

If you want to learn more about strength training and working with athletes, check out the ISSA’s comprehensive course on Strength and Conditioning.

Upper Lower Split Workout

Click HERE to download this handout and share with your clients!

ISSA

References

1 Peterson, M.D., Rhea, M.R., and Alvar, B. A. (2004). Maximizing Strength Development in Athletes: A Meta-Analysis to Determine the Dose-Response Relationship. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(2), 377-82. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/474f/ca21c496f489c26f4ea8c10e69a88d95f44b.pdf

2 Schoenfeltd, B.J., Ogborn, D., and Krieger, J.W. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med., 46(11), 1689-97. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27102172



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