Training splits for hypertrophy – which one is right for me or my client?
Many of us may not be following a training split at the moment, with limited equipment available, so higher intensity whole body workouts or cardio work is the only option some of us have at this time. However, we may be thinking beyond lockdown, reflecting on our training programmes, and thinking – how can I make my training as optimal as possible when I’m back in the gym?
The first step when you go to plan a training programme focused on hypertrophy (muscle growth) is going to be deciding what split you, or your client, is going to adopt. A training split is simply how you have divided your training sessions by body parts/muscle groups, usually weekly. It is so important that any structured programme has a clear plan – aka the split. When we are talking about clients, generally, the number of sessions they book in with you, the number of times they can commit to going to the gym out with that (the time available) and their specific goals are going to influence the choice of training split.
If there are any parts of the body that someone is looking to improve, this might influence the choice of split as well, so that they can ensure they are getting optimal volume through that muscle group. Volume is the amount sets and reps completed, and is one of the most important things when it comes to hypertrophy, so we will mention it a lot throughout this blog.
It was previously believed that increasing frequency of training through a muscle group would lead to greater hypertrophy, so training a body part twice per week was optimal for growth. The strong advantage of training a body part twice per week is the fact you will get more volume through the muscle, which is key. However, recent studies[i] have shown that training a body part once per week will give the same results, as long as total volume is the same! So this might mean slightly longer sessions, but a reduced frequency of training – pro’s and con’s for different individuals.
So what are the most common split choices (there are various others), – and how can we choose them for us, or our clients?
Full body split
Full body split is usually someone’s starting point as a beginner in the gym, or if you’re client is a novice. The main benefits of a full body split is you can train multiple muscle groups, which allows you to be creative with sessions and can easily mix them up and keep them interesting. They also do not put too much volume or load through specific muscle groups, as the sessions are spread across different body parts, which is well suited to someone who is less conditioned and is building up their fitness levels. It can also allow you to practice and become familiar with the larger compound movements. Typically, this would involve 2 – 3 full body sessions per week, looking to eventually progress onto a more challenging split. In order for full body sessions to be optimal for muscle growth, for an advanced lifter, they would require a lot of volume, so would involve extremely long sessions, hence why other splits are more favourable.
Upper – Lower split
A common progression from a full body split is upper, lower. This split can be done bi-weekly, which allows you to train your upper body twice, and lower body twice, across a week, while maintaining adequate rest and recovery time. It is a sensible progression as it now allows you to be more focused on separate parts of the body, allowing you to put more volume through each body part. There can be variants of this split as well, sometimes having clients who can train 3 x per week on an lower – upper – lower split, if they are looking for lower body based results in line with their time available, for example.
A more advanced split, this tends to be used by more experienced lifters. This can be done across a whole week with rest in between, or for very high-volume programmes, a 4-day split with a rest day after before starting again. The order of session can also be mix and matched to suit other factors in yours or a clients schedule. Grouping muscle groups together through there similar movement patterns allows training to be very effective. On push day, you would train chest, shoulders and triceps, as these are all activated through pushing movements (bench press, shoulder press, tricep pushdown etc). With most load (weight) going through chest exercises at the start, your shoulders and triceps (as accessory muscles) would take a lot of secondary volume. This means your training would be extremely efficient, as all muscles involved in similar movements would be trained together, and allowed to recover while you trained your other body parts later in the week. (Pull day would effectively be back and biceps, with leg day completely lower body focused). Again, there are various ways you can manipulate this, such as push/pull upper, and push/pull lower across the week, which would allow more volume across the lower body, effectively split between quads and hamstrings.
Bodybuilding ‘bro’ split
The ‘bro’ split as it is commonly referred to, involves training each individual body part separately across the week, and is most commonly used by bodybuilders who commit a lot of time to attending the gym. A typical bro split would be chest/back/legs/shoulders/arms in a 5-day split across the week. This can allow for high-volume sessions that are extremely focused on specific body parts, which can be great for results. However, it does require a lot of dedication to make the gym that much per week, and can be very difficult due to the high volume nature of the sessions if you aren’t conditioned enough yet. It can be slightly more difficult to use this split with clients, as it typically means you will only train certain body parts with them, and may not be able to monitor their progress in other areas.
There are many other training splits, and you can manipulate and create your own splits, but it is important that these are well thought through, and do not create muscular imbalances or posture issues through too much volume and load in certain body parts.
Ultimately, the optimal split is going to be different for everyone. Everyone has different goals, different commitment levels and different amounts of time available. What is clear is that split choice should allow for the optimal amount of volume through muscle groups to achieve the best possible results, and it is your job as the training programme designer to work out what is going to be most effective for you or your client. One thing that also shouldn’t be dismissed, is enjoyment, and clients should always be given a plan that involves training they enjoy, or ultimately they will struggle with adherence in the long run.
[i] J Sports Sci 2019 Jun;37(11):1286-1295.
doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906. Epub 2018 Dec 17.
How Many Times Per Week Should a Muscle Be Trained to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Examining the Effects of Resistance Training Frequency