How to Pick Your Perfect Workout Split


“I just want to know the ‘best’ workout split”

When I first started working out I was enamored with how many different ways people could split up their training. Countless hours were spent researching all the different variations and why they were the “best.”

If you’re new to working out then chances are you’ve wondered which workout split is the “best.” And if you’ve spent any time researching your options you’ve heard people swear that the split they use is the optimal workout routine for EVERYONE. These people can be so emphatic about their chosen method that they can be quite convincing.

I’m here to say something that’s quite unpopular in fitness forums and groups – There is no absolute best training split – there is only what is best for the individual. In this article I’m going to breakdown the 3 factors you need to consider when picking a split, go over 3 of the most common gym goals and which splits work best with them, and list out the 4 most common resistance training splits.

“How do I Pick A workout Split?”

When deciding on a workout split there are a lot of things to consider such as your level of experience, genetic capabilities, age, sex, sleep habits, and a lot more. For the sake of this article I’ve simplified all of these considerations into three primary factors:

  1. How many times training sessions can you do per week?
  2. What is your current level of experience?
  3. What is your primary goal?

How many training sessions per week?

This is the biggest factor that’s going to influence what split you go with. Sure, it should be one of the other two but that’s simply not the kind of world most of us live in. Most of us have to be brutally honest with ourselves when it comes to how many days we can realistically train. If we’re not, we’re more likely to be setting up for failure.

Consider someone that currently does not work out regularly but is suddenly inspired and super motivated to get into the best shape of their life. They go online, find an Instagram model with abs that is selling their “Secret workout program to a better body,” buy the program, and they start working out 6x a week.

Here’s a week by week breakdown of how this usually goes:

  • Week 1: “Hit all 6 workouts feeling good”
  • Week 2: “Had to miss 2 workouts for work/social events.”
  • Week 3: “Felt like I fell behind last week, going to start over next week”
  • Week 4: “I’m just too busy to workout.”

This is a very common pattern for people to fall into when they first start working out. In fact, some companies actually target these types of people because they’re over eager, willing to spend A LOT of money up front, and almost always quit by week 4. The issue is simply the fitness version of ”having eyes bigger than your stomach.”

Acknowledging the time constraints of your everyday life and deciding how to make time for your training is the most important factor when deciding what kind of training split is best for your. Most newcomers to the world of fitness find good results when starting with 2-3 training sessions per week. This is because such a minimal time investment is easy to meet and therefore succeed with. Early success is critical when trying to start exercising regularly, making the criteria for success as simple as possible is one of the ways we can ensure formation of the exercise habit.

Acknowledging the time constraints of your everyday life and deciding how to make time for your training is the most important factor when deciding what kind of training split is best for your.

When you have the training habit well established and have a solid understanding of how your life schedule can integrate your training sessions you can start to explore training splits that require 3+ days per week. At this point the main limiting factor to how many days you can train is your ability to recover from each of those training sessions.

What is Your Current Level of Training?

This is another one of those areas where you have to be brutally honest with yourself. When it comes to resistance training people are usually categorized as beginner, intermediate, or advanced. It’s simple but it’s also not very clear. Most people start to consider themselves intermediate once they’ve been working out for longer than one month. To make it even more confusing everyone has different “qualifiers” when defining people.

  • Powerlifters may consider anyone a beginner until they can deadlift 2x bodyweight.
  • Bodybuilders may consider anyone with between 1 year and 10 years of training experience as intermediate.

For the purposes of this article we are going to use the time-scale method stating that anyone with less than a year of training experience is a beginner, 1 – 7 years is intermediate, and 8+ years is advanced. Here’s how your current level of training affects your choice of training split:

  • Beginners (Less than 1 Year of Training) – Don’t need a lot of stimulus to get results. Can experience significant muscle growth and fat loss while training 2-3 times per week.
  • Intermediates (1-7 years of Training) – No longer experiencing “newbie gains.” Need more frequent intense stimulus, 4-6 sessions per week, to further muscle development and fat loss.
  • Advanced (8+ years of Training) – Use very focused and precise training splits that are beyond the scope of this article.

What is your goal?

Lastly, you need to consider your goals to determine what kind of training you should be doing. For instance, an amateur powerlifter doesn’t need to be doing a body part split, and an aspiring gymnast doesn’t need to be doing a heavy whole body routine.

For many people it’s natural to start hunting for the best workout split before we’ve really thought about our goals. We tend to think “I just want to be in better shape! Isn’t that enough?” and it’s not enough. We have to be specific in defining our goals. Determine your goal and write it down! This will solidify in your mind what it is you are working towards. Here is a short list of some of the most common goals people have when they’ve taken the time to get specific.

  1. Lost ‘x’ pounds of fat
  2. Gain ‘y’ pounds of muscle
  3. Be able to do ‘z’ number of pull ups
  4. Compete in an amateur powerlifting competition
  5. Be able to run a 5k

Sometimes we have more than one of these goals simultaneously. We might want to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously (aka bodybuilding), or we might want to build muscle and gain as much strength as possible. It’s okay to have more than one goal but try to determine which one means more to you right now. It’s okay, and it’s expected, if you change your mind later.

Fat Loss Goal

When your goal is fat loss you should try to keep your training volume as high as possible while still allowing for sufficient recovery, aka max recoverable volume (MRV). The trick is to determine what your MRV is.

As a general trend, your MRV will increase with your training experience. So if you are a newbie you may only be able to perform any given workout 1-3x per week. If that’s the case you’d want to pick a split that aligns with that scheduling.

In general, when fat loss is the goal we want to keep training consistent while being in a caloric deficit. So pick a split that you know you can maintain for a while and implement a calorie restriction to start losing fat.

Muscle Gain Goal

The primary driver of muscle growth from within the weight room is volume. So when it comes to picking a split we want to maximize the volume per body part we can fit within our MRV.

Splits that work well for this are the Body Part Split or the advanced versions of the Push-Pull-Legs (PPL) split. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, and you may have to experiment with each to figure out what works best for you.

The body part split emphasizes a single muscle group each day so we can maximally work that muscle group. However, we have to wait an entire week before we train it again when it may be fully recovered after only 3 or 4 days.

The advanced variations of the PPL split allow for more frequent stimulation of muscle growth every 3 to 4 days. However, since these sessions focus on larger collections of muscle groups we may not be working them to their full capacity.

Cultivate Strength Goal

Building strength and building muscle mass are not the same goals. Yes, a larger muscle has a greater area of contractile fibers and can produce a larger force, but when it comes to developing strength as a focus there needs to be just as much emphasis on developing neural drive as there is on stimulating muscular growth.

A lot of people see the word “neural” and think this is going to involve really complex training but it’s actually really simple. To develop neural drive we need to practice lifting heavy often but not to failure.

Upper/Lower and PPL splits work really well for developing strength, especially with the primary powerlifting lifts (Bench, Deadlift, Squat, and sometimes Overhead Press), because it’s easy to repeat workouts within a given week.

For instance, let’s say I want to use a Upper/Lower split to increase my big lifts. I can do 3 sets of Bench and/or Overhead press on the upper body day and 3 sets of Squats and/or Deadlifts on the lower body day. I can then hit each lift 1-3 times per week. That increased frequency, paired with the intensity of lifting heavy, drives synaptic plasticity that will directly result in increased strength.

Popular Splits

So now that we’ve gone over the considerations necessary to determine which workout split is best for you we can go over the most popular splits. We’re going to go over workout splits intended mainly for resistance training. If your goals involve weightlifting, bodybuilding, body transformation, or strength building then you’ll find that these splits can directly apply to you.

Whole Body Workouts

Days Per Week: 1+

Level of Training: Beginner-Advanced

Primary Compatible Goals: Conditioning, Strength Training

Whole body workouts for beginners are great when you’re first getting used to being in the gym. You can simply walk around trying every machine and exercise you see other people doing. This is actually a really good way to get familiar with all the different equipment around the gym as long as you keep the weight low.

It requires a minimum of one workout per week which is great for making success an easy accomplishment. However, you don’t have to stop at one day per week. It’s possible to do whole body workouts a lot more over the course of the week. The only downside to frequent whole body workouts is recovery: when you are frequently working all of your muscles to exhaustion it’s less likely you will be fully recovered in a single day.

Intermediate people can also experience a lot of benefits from whole body workouts. They are particularly nice for people that have unpredictable schedules – they can easily hit every body part when they get a chance. When it comes to advanced people there are a lot of internet comments stating that it’s hard to make gains at that level with whole body workouts. However, Bret Contreras (aka ‘The Glute Guy’) regularly posts his whole body workouts on Instagram and that guy is making gains on gains, so don’t be afraid to try it if you’re advanced.

In general, whole body training is going to have a big impact on your strength and conditioning. Newbies will probably experience a significant amount of fat loss and muscle gain with whole body workouts, however this will probably slow down as their experience increases.

Example of a Whole Body Workout

  • Squats (3-6 sets)
  • Bent Over Rows (2-3 Sets)
  • Bench Press (2-3 Sets)
  • Pull Ups or Lat Pull Downs (1-2 Sets)
  • Overhead Press (1-2 Sets)

Upper/Lower Split

Days Per Week: 2+

Level of Training: Beginner-Advanced

Primary Compatible Goals: Conditioning, Strength Training

When I first started training this was the split I used because it simply made the most sense – “Today I will work everything below my waist, tomorrow I will work everything above the waist.” It actually worked quite well for about 6 months for developing strength, building some muscle, and losing a bit of my fluff.

Similar to full body workouts, you are not limited to only performing these workouts 2x per week. However, you are limited by your ability to recover but since you are alternating working different halves of your body it’s more likely your legs have recovered by the time you train them again, even if you train 3 days in a row.

This is the most common split I will have new clients start out using because it is easy to follow and yields very good results for anyone at the beginner level. Additionally, it does have the benefit of defining success as “two workouts per week.” When that is all a client has to put in to succeed at their week in training they are more likely to continue their training for a very long time.

Example of Upper/Lower Split Workouts

 

Upper Body Day

  • Bench Press (3-4 Sets)
  • Bent Over Row (3-4 Sets)
  • Overhead Press (2-3 Sets)
  • Lat Pulldown (2-3 Sets)
  • Lateral Shoulder Raises (1-2 Sets)
  • Hanging Leg Raises (2-3 Sets)

 

Lower Body Day

  • Squat (3-4 Sets)
  • Split Squat or 1-Legged Leg Press (3-4 Sets)
  • Hip Thrusters (2-3 Sets)
  • Leg Extensions (1-2 Sets)
  • Leg Curls (1-2 Sets)
  • Calf Raises (2-3 Sets)

Push Pull Legs

Days Per Week: 3+

Level of Training: Beginner-Advanced

Primary Compatible Goals: Fat Loss, Building Muscle, Strength Training

The “Push, Pull, Legs” split is by far the most popular split I ever see mentioned. In fact, the majority of programs I see people use are based on this general template. This is because this is a really good template to build your workout program on.

With this split you divide upper body movements into either ‘push’ or ‘pull, categories and do any lower body exercises on ‘leg’ day. Spreading these days out across your week is usually based on your experience level.

Beginners will usually spread 3 days of training over the week, such as:

  • Sunday: Rest
  • Monday: Push
  • Tuesday: Rest
  • Wednesday: Pull
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Legs
  • Saturday: Rest

This layout is really common and allows for sufficient recovery in most people. However, many people change which days they work out on to better fit their schedules. As long as you hit all three days in a week it works!

Intermediates and advanced trainees also benefit from this type of split, however they usually distribute to differently. The two main ways Intermediates/Advanced people distribute their training sessions are by doubling their sessions in a week or by using a ‘rolling’ schedule.

Double Schedule

  • Sunday: Rest
  • Monday: Push
  • Tuesday: Pull
  • Wednesday: Legs
  • Thursday: Push
  • Friday: Pull
  • Saturday: Legs

Rolling Schedule

This one actually doesn’t fit into normal week by week schedule. It’s essentially performing your sessions in the order of push, pull, then legs but taking every 3rd day off. This type of schedule is great for people that want to maximize recovery and have very open schedules across the week – like students. However, working professionals don’t typically have the availability necessary for a schedule like this.

  • Sunday: Rest
  • Monday: Push
  • Tuesday: Pull
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Legs
  • Friday: Push
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Pull
  • Monday: Legs
  • Tuesday: Rest
  • Wednesday: Push
  • Thursday: Pull
  • Friday: Rest
  • Saturday: Legs
  • Etc…

In general, the Push, Pull, Legs training split is very malleable based on your availability. It simply needs a minimum of three days per week. However, if you have more days for training you can bring up any lagging body parts by adding in a second day such as:

  • Push, Pull, Legs, Push
  • Legs, Push, Pull, Legs
  • Push, Pull, Legs, Push, Legs

Examples of Push, Pull, Legs Workouts

Push Day

  • Bench Press (3-5 Sets)
  • Military Press (3-4 Sets)
  • Close Grip Bench Press (2-3 Sets)
  • Tricep Dips (2-3 Sets)
  • Tricep Pushdowns (1-2 Sets)

Pull Day

  • Deadlift (3-5 Sets)
  • Bent Over Row (3-4 Sets)
  • Pull Ups or Lat Pulldown (2-3 Sets)
  • Seated Row (2-3 Sets)
  • Bicep Curls (2-5 Sets)

Leg Day

  • Squats (3-5 Sets)
  • Split Squats or Leg Press (3-4 Sets)
  • Hip Thrusters (2-3 Sets)
  • Leg Curls (2-3 Sets)
  • Leg Extensions (1-2 Sets)
  • Calf Raises (2-5 Sets)

Body Part Split (Aka “the Bro Split”)

Days Per Week: 4-5

Level of Training: Intermediate-Advanced

Primary Compatible Goals: Fat Loss, Building Muscle, Strength Training

The Body Part Split, also known as the “Bro Split”, is commonly used with bodybuilding. The focus of each day is on one particular body part and the goal is to work that body part to exhaustion. Typically, anywhere between 12 and 24 working sets are completed, depending on recovery capabilities and experience. This split is useful when your goals are aligned with bodybuilding, as it allows for maximizing volume and training to failure of a single muscle group per day.

The prototypical body part split is:

  • Sunday: Rest
  • Monday: Chest
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Back
  • Friday: Shoulders
  • Saturday: Arms

Another popular version of the body part split is the four days per week variation. In this version the arms day is removed and split among other training sessions. Such as:

  • Sunday: Rest
  • Monday: Chest & Triceps
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Back & Biceps
  • Friday: Shoulders
  • Saturday: Rest

The placement of rest days and order of training sessions is completely up to the individual. Although it is wise to avoid training nearby groups back-to-back. For instance, chest then shoulders is a bad idea, but chest then legs or back is fine.

Example of Body Part Split Workouts

Chest Day

  • Bench Press (4-6 Sets)
  • Incline Bench Press (3-4 Sets)
  • Dumbbell Pec Flyes (3-4 Sets)
  • Dips (3-4 Sets)
  • Cable Crossovers (3-5 Sets)

Back Day

  • Barbell Deadlifts (4-6 Sets)
  • Bent Over Rows (3-4 Sets)
  • Pull Ups or Lat Pulldowns (3-4 Sets)
  • Seated Rows (2-3 Sets)
  • Shrugs (2-3 Sets)

Shoulder Day

  • Barbell Military Press (4-6 Sets)
  • Wall Assisted Handstand Holds (3-4 Sets)
  • Lateral Shoulder Raises (3-4 Sets)
  • Arnold or Cuban Press (2-3 Sets)
  • Battle Ropes (2-3 Sets)

Leg Day

  • Barbell Squat (4-6 Sets)
  • Split Squat or Leg Press (3-4 Sets)
  • Leg Curls (3-4 Sets)
  • Leg Extensions (2-3 Sets)
  • Calf Raises (3-5 Sets)

Arm Day

  • Close Grip Bench Press (4-6 Sets)
  • Preacher Curls (4-6 Sets)
  • Tricep Pushdowns (3-4 Sets)
  • Concentration Curls (3-4 Sets)
  • Forearm Curls (2-3 Sets)

Conclusion

When picking your perfect workout split there are three main factors to consider: Training experience, Availability, and Goals. There are an infinite number of ways you can split up your training but the most popular are the Whole Body, Upper/Lower, Push-Pull-Legs, and Body Part Split. When deciding which split will work best for you you first need to consider your level of experience, followed by your availability, and lastly, your goals.