Upper/Lower Split

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Upper/Lower Split: The Best Workout Plan?

Reading Time: 7 minutes 50 seconds


Date: 2021-08-28

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.

One Muscle, One Day—The Old Way Is Out

When it comes to working out, old school doesn’t have to mean outdated. In fact, sometimes old-school methods can be better than newer ones. Research shows, for example, that more traditional methods of weight training are more effective and cause fewer injuries than newer methods that use the bench or weight machines.

Not all old-school methods are backed by research, however. One method that is rightfully considered a little old-fashioned is body-part splits. This workout strategy centers on training one muscle or muscle group one day per week. It allows you to push pretty hard on one set of muscles and get in a high volume of training. But research shows that this old-school strategy is not ideal.

Why Is “One Muscle, One Day” Not the Best Idea For Personal Training?

The problem with a one-muscle, one-day workout routine is that you get too much recovery time. Seven days of recovery is more than you need and can minimize progress.

It’s true that working out one muscle group at least once per week is better than not training at all. But this isn’t an effective way to make gains.

How Many Times A Week Should You Train Each Muscle?

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. 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.

How Many Muscle Groups Should You Train for Each Day At The Gym?

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.

What Is An Upper/Lower Split Workout?

The idea of an upper/lower split workout is pretty simple. As the name suggests, an upper/lower split is a workout routine that splits training on the upper and lower parts of your body. You do upper-body exercises one day and lower-body exercises another day.

What Is An Upper-Body Workout And A Lower-Body Workout?

Upper-body workouts can vary according to individual needs. But upper-body splits generally include workouts and lifting that target the chest, middle and upper back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps.

Lower-body splits target the abdominals, lower back, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. Some people, though, prefer to include the lower back and abs on upper-body days and focus more on legs during lower-body days.

How Do You Incorporate Forearm Training In An Upper/Lower Body Split?

Forearm training can be incorporated into the upper-body training sessions of a split workout routine. Deadlift exercises and pull-ups can improve your grip strength and thus indirectly improve your forearm strength. But you can also incorporate specific isolation exercises for forearms in your upper-training splits.

Check out this article for specific exercises (along with recommendations for sets and reps) that you can do to boost forearm strength in an upper-body training session.

The Upper/Lower Split Maximizes Hypertrophy

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.

What Is Upper Hypertrophy?

Upper hypertrophy is a term for the growth and increase in size of muscle cells in the upper body. 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.

Why Would You Want To Maximize Hypertrophy?

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.

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

What Is The Best Rep Range For 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.

Why Does Training More Often Trigger More Muscle Growth?

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.

Nonathletes vs. Athletes

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.

Why Would Nonathletes Want A Rigorous Upper/Lower Split Workout Plan?

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.

How Many Days A Week Do Athletes Work Out?

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.

How Do Athletes Approach Upper/Lower Split Workouts?

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.

Scheduling Strength Training Split Sessions

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.

How Many Strength Training and Conditioning Sessions Should You Have Per Week?

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

  • Monday—upper body

  • Tuesday—lower body

  • Wednesday—rest day

  • Thursday—upper body

  • Friday—lower body

  • Saturday—rest day

  • Sunday—rest day

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.

Week one:

  • Monday—lower body

  • Tuesday—rest day

  • Wednesday—upper body

  • Thursday—rest day

  • Friday—lower body

  • Saturday—rest day

  • Sunday—rest day

Week two:

  • Monday—upper body

  • Tuesday—rest day

  • Wednesday—lower body

  • Thursday—rest day

  • Friday—upper body

  • Saturday—rest day

  • Sunday—rest day

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.

Don’t Forget Cardio

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.

How Often Should You Do Cardio While Weight Training?

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.

How Common Is It To Feel Stressed Over Or To Lose Motivation For Your Workout Plan?

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.

Love the thrill of hitting your strength training goals? Monetize your passion for fitness—learn how to create the ultimate strength, agility, and conditioning programs with the ISSA’s Strength and Conditioning course. Enjoy a successful and fulfilling career helping fitness clients reach their performance goals! 

Upper Lower Split Workout

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


[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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