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Trainers can argue and debate training methods and principles for hours on end. But the arguing only goes so far. Those of us who rely on research know that some training methods are better than others.
If you want to help your clients get the most gains efficiently, you should consider upper/lower splits. This type of workout routine splits training into upper- and lower-body sessions.
Doing split sessions more than once per week will greatly enhance your strength and hypertrophy gains. You will see better results than you would when trying to hit each muscle group just once per week. Keep reading to find all the information you need to convince your clients to give upper/lower splits a try.
The term ‘workout split’ refers to the way you divide your workout routine each week. If you do arms one day and legs the next, this is workout split. Or you might split your workout based on a specific type of movement, such as pushing versus pulling.
Typically, though, you’re splitting your workout based on body region. Depending on the type of split used, you might be working one muscle group or one region each day.
Splitting your strength training efforts allows you to focus on one area of your body or one muscle group at a time. Instead of doing a 20-minute full body workout, for instance, you spend 20 minutes on just your biceps, shoulders, and chest. This type of targeted approach provides better muscle building results.
Training splits are used regularly in bodybuilding for this reason. In fact, one well-known study involving 127 competitive bodybuilders reported that each one followed a workout split approach (1).
Split training also reduces the risk of fatigue. Yes, you’ll likely fatigue the muscle group you’re working. But if you work out your entire body, you could get so tired after doing your biceps and chest that you put less effort into your quads and hamstrings. Doing a split workout avoids this issue.
There is more than one way to do a workout split. Here are four options from which to choose.
This split involves separating upper body and lower body workouts. On the upper body day, you work the chest, shoulders, back, biceps, and triceps. On the lower body day, you target the hip flexors, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles.
Each type of workout is completed twice per week. A workout routine with this split could involve doing upper body Monday and Thursday and lower body on Tuesday and Friday. Then, you schedule one day of rest in between.
When doing an upper/lower split, you do one or two exercises per body part. Another option is to include compound movements. These are exercises that work two or more of these muscles at the same time. Push-ups, pull-ups, and bench presses are all upper body compound exercises.
This is a good workout option for someone with limited gym time. All they have to commit is four days per week. It’s also a good split for beginners. Since each body part is targeted with only one or two exercises, they don’t require a lot of beginning strength.
A body part split involves training between one and three areas of the body in each exercise session. And each of these training sessions occur two times per week. This gives the muscle adequate recovery time.
This workout split is good for people interested in muscle growth. By working the desired body part twice a week, it is able to increase in size and strength.
When doing body part splits, you generally pair a larger muscle with a smaller muscle in the same area. If you work the chest, for example, you might also work the triceps. Another typical body split is back and biceps.
You can exercise several days a week when splitting by body part. You might do chest and triceps one day, back and biceps the next, and legs and shoulders the next. Take a rest day, then repeat this workout routine again.
A bro split is like a body part split. However, each training session involves working just one muscle group at a time. If you do arm and leg days now, you’re doing a bro split.
In this split, you train a different muscle group each day. In addition to arms and legs, you might add shoulders, chest, and back. This would involve doing a split five days a week. Because you’re working each group so heavily, plan for two days of rest.
One pitfall with this split is that the only muscles it targets in the lower body is the legs. But is a good workout split for clients with upper body strength goals.
This workout split is similar to the upper/lower split. However, the upper body days are separated by pull and push exercises. Like with the bro split, the leg muscles are the focus versus the entire lower body.
This workout split encompasses the three types of exercise used by powerlifters. For example, on the pull workout day, you might do deadlift exercises. On the push workout day, the bench press is a good option. Leg day could involve squats or a similar exercise.
If you want to build strength, aim for fewer reps with heavier weights. If you want to boost muscle size, increase your training volume. You can do this by aiming for a higher rep and set count.
A big draw for this workout split is the opportunity maximize your training and recovery schedule. You rest your lower body as you work the upper body and vice versa.
This is beneficial if you’re experiencing tendonitis or other issues and need to rest an area for a few days between workouts. You can also plan more specialized training on your off day, which is ideal for athletes. The upper lower split is also great for powerlifters. It’s a natural split for their upper body bench exercises and their lower body squats and deadlifts. Let’s dig into these benefits a bit more in the next sections.
Accumulating research suggests that training muscle groups more than once per week is important for maximizing gains in muscle mass. This is best explained by the fact that splitting lower- and upper-body sessions allows for more training.
With two workouts per muscle each week, you can include more sets, reps, and weight. This increased volume is always better for hypertrophy than a lower training volume.
Three things cause 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.
People often associate muscle size with muscle strength. But muscle size and strength are actually two different things. Because of this, the best strategies for building strength are not the best strategies for building muscle mass.
Hypertrophy is key to increasing muscle mass. So if you want to build bigger muscles, you will want to maximize hypertrophy.
The number of reps recommended for building muscle mass is different from the number of reps recommended for building strength. Because of this, you should use your fitness goals to determine the number of reps that you should do. Most texts recommend six to twelve reps for achieving muscle mass through hypertrophy. Fewer than six reps are recommended for building strength.
Increased training volume is the main driver of metabolic stress. And as noted above, metabolic stress is one of the three causes of hypertrophy. Metabolic stress is often overlooked in building muscle, but it may be responsible for up to 25 percent of hypertrophy.
As in all areas of training, split-workout strategies aren’t one size fits all. An important paper on training frequency and hypertrophy analyzed 140 studies and determined that splits may need to be tweaked a little bit for beginners and more advanced athletes and lifters (2).
The research suggests that for trained and untrained nonathletes and beginners in the gym, working each body part or muscle group three times a 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 studies were all nonathletes. The conclusion is that nonathletes benefit most from four sets per muscle or muscle group at 60 percent of one-repetition maximum (1RM) three times per week. Some individuals are likely to benefit from slight variations. But this volume, intensity, and split tends to provide the most gains.
In contrast, advanced lifters, competitors, and athletes—especially endurance athletes—need a higher volume of training to keep seeing results, according to the research. The ideal routine for athletes is to train each muscle group two times per week and to hit the weights harder.
The ideal upper/lower split workout plan for athletes and competitors includes eight sets per muscle group at about 85 percent of 1RM two times per week. This provides greater training volume, which optimizes hypertrophy.
Research suggests that muscles typically only need three days to recover, which means you can hit each one at least two times a week.
One study on strength development in athletes proved that doing multiple sessions per week is more effective than just one (3). The study involved two groups of participants. One group trained each muscle group two days per week, while the other trained just once per week.
Both groups experienced growth in hypertrophy. In other words, they both experienced an increase and growth in muscle cells. But the groups’ hypertrophy gains weren’t equal.
Those who trained twice per week experienced 6.8 percent growth in hypertrophy after several weeks, while those who trained only once per week saw gains of 3.7 percent. That’s nearly double the hypertrophy gains for adding one additional training session per muscle group each week.
If you want to try a specific workout split routine with a client, determine the training frequency. You could set up a 3 day split for your client, a 4 day workout split, or a 6 day split, for instance.
Training splits with less frequency may be good for a client who is a beginner or has limited time. More advanced clients may need a 6 day split to keep progressing. A higher training frequency can help them achieve maximum muscle gain.
Because workout splits work certain muscle groups more intensely, scheduling rest days is critical. This gives the muscle enough time to recover. Adequate recovery is important for increasing muscle strength and size. It’s also critical to avoiding injury.
Adding an additional training session per muscle group each week doesn’t necessarily mean that you need more sessions at the gym. Instead, you can increase your number of training sessions per muscle group by focusing on more than one muscle group at a time. In an upper/lower split workout routine, you will train the muscle groups in one half of your body each day at the gym.
As you focus on more than one muscle or muscle group per session, make sure you are still giving your muscles time to recover. High-intensity interval training is currently popular. But limited recovery time in this type of training can be detrimental. Achieving the right level of recovery time through upper/lower splits will help you maximize the results of your training.
Scheduling sessions for your training splits shouldn’t be difficult. Below you will find an easy-to-follow guide to planning your training splits as part of a four- or three-day workout schedule.
A typical week with an upper/lower split routine looks like this:
Rest days refer to taking a break from strength training. Ideally, these will be active recovery days. They’re 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.
This split schedule is similar to the four-day split, but it has a slightly lower frequency for each muscle group. This schedule works well for busy clients who can only get to the gym three times per week.
Cardio is often associated with fat loss rather than muscle building and strength training. But it is important to remember to include cardio in your workout routine even if you are not trying to lose weight. Cardio exercises will help keep your heart strong and healthy.
If you have clients interested in losing weight, it’s also important to remember that strength training might actually be more effective than cardio in inducing fat loss.
When working with clients who have limited time, you can add twenty 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 by hitting the elliptical at the gym or going for a run at home. They can add cardio whenever it feels best. But encourage these self-motivated clients to stick with lower intensity workouts on rest days.
It is common to feel stressed about your workout plan and lose motivation. But there are steps you can take to reduce stress and boost motivation. In fitness, it will always be true that you should do what works best for you or your client.
Research is clear, though, that the most effective and efficient way to schedule strength training is to split workouts into upper- and lower-body sessions. Because of this, you should try to get your clients into the weight room to work on strength at least a few times each week for optimal health and fitness.
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Hackett, Daniel A.; Johnson, Nathan A.; Chow, Chin-Moi. Training Practices and Ergogenic Aids Used by Male Bodybuilders. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: June 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 6 - p 1609-1617 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318271272a
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
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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