Comparing Training Splits

Download the slides for this video here.

  1. The Bro Split (one muscle each day)
  2. One Lift per Day (squat/bench/deadlift/overhead)
  3. Push Pull Legs (bench/ohp, row, squat/deadlift)
  4. Upper Lower Upper Lower (bench/ohp, sq/dl, bench/oh, sq/dl)
  5. Whole Body (sq/bp/dl every day)

These are just 5 of the endless options you have for training organization. It can be mind numbing to look at all of the (seemingly arbitrary) ways to put together a workout and the result is paralysis by analysis.

The first step to alleviating the crippling anxiety that comes with potentially picking the wrong method is to understand that there really is no wrong method. The fact that these splits persist as part of generic training culture is a testament to their basic effectiveness.

But they still need to be understood. Each arrangement of training stressors in a week has unique features and lets you do things that the other training splits may not. Making the most out of whatever training split you commit to will hinge on your understanding of these trade-offs and how to exploit them.

The Bro Split

First on the list is the infamous Bro Split: one muscle group each day.

To the chagrin of many strength-sport disciples, this is probably the most common (and, therefore, most successful) training splits. It’s commonly associated with bodybuilding/physique culture, as it is represented in everything from Arnold’s Bodybuilding Encyclopedia to recent issues of Muscle and Fitness. The overwhelming number of casual gym goers show up for typical aesthetic goals, so it’s no surprsie that this is what influences the lot of them.

The reason the bro split works, despite its numerous ‘non-optimal’ features, is that it has an idiot-proof structure. Because each muscle gets trained once per week, new lifters actually benefit from going as hard as possible; the program works best when the muscle is torched with a ton of effort and volume so that the 7 day rest period can be justified. This scorched earth approach doesn’t work so well with splits that have a higher training frequency.

The bro split also prioritizes each muscle equally, which leads to a well-rounded physique that is less likely to have imbalances or weak points. This is actually huge for increasing strength potential and is what more competitive lifters should strive for.

It’s common wisdom at this point that higher frequency approaches tend to be better; most muscles can be stressed, recover and adapt within a few days so more training sessions per week should equal a faster rate of adaptation. Modern bro-splits will often feature 2-3x frequency for each muscle, but that has to be paired with more awareness of your effort and recovery. With multiple sessions per week, a ‘go harder than last time’ approach will blow the stress/recovery balance and inevitably lead to stagnation.

One Lift Per Day

Squat / Bench / Deadlift / Overhead Press: this is one of the most recognizable splits in the world of strength training. 5/3/1, Juggernaut and others have made this a staple approach to training for novice and intermediate lifters. It boasts some of the same benefits of the Bro Split, with the added benefit of being directed towards movement patterns rather than individual muscles.

This split is much better for directing progress towards strength gains. Skill acquisition will be higher, as most of the exercises in this split will be made up of the main competitive movement and mechanically similar variations.

There is still room for generic bodybuilding work; the last half of these sessions should be dedicated to smaller isolation movements that target individual muscles that contribute to the primary lift of the day. Bench day can be finished with a host of back and tricep exercises, Squat day can feature any quad destruction that you care to suffer through and so on.

Drawbacks will be different for lifters based on how advanced they are. Newer lifters and slow-gainers might have trouble getting their lifts to move with only one session per week while more advanced lifters might have trouble sustaining equal attention to all four lifts within the same week.

Push Pull Legs

There are two broad ways to structure this split.

One is to have ‘push’ and ‘pull’ work be upper body specifically, with benching and overhead pressing on the ‘push’ day and rowing movements on the ‘pull’ day. Leg day will then feature all forms of squatting, deadlifting, lunges, good mornings, etc.

The other is to have ‘pull’ day refer to the entire posterior chain, which will include deadlifts and other hip hinge movements along with rowing. Squat day then benefits from effort not being spread thin between multiple demanding lower body movements.

Back work getting its own day is the big selling point for this split. Pressing days can be spent exhausting pressing movements without exercises getting squeezed out to make room for rows and pulldowns and you won’t have a reason to skip back work and let your chronic rounded shoulders persist.

Whether you decide to put deadlift work on back day or squat day will depend entirely on A.) priority and B.) your tolerance to work. You may find that squat and deadlift work on the same day is just too taxing and one of the lifts suffers as a result. In this case, don’t hesitate to break them apart. Some might also not have big immediate goals with either the squat or the deadlift (or lower body work in general) and will be content to limit their weekly number of leg sessions.

Upper Lower Upper Lower

This split isn’t that much different than one lift per day; the main difference is that work isn’t limited to one particular movement. Upper body days will hit everything in the upper body. For bodybuilders, that means pecs, delts, lats, bis, tris in the same workout, twice per week. It’s a tall order to prioritize all of those in one workout; if you’re a physique guy, you can see why another split might be more beneficial.

For strength-specialists, however, the emphasis is on the lifts and this has the benefit of greater training frequency. If you bench and overhead press twice each week, you will be more fresh for each of the sets, as opposed to a one lift per day split, where you will be thoroughly gassed by the end. The result, as is often observed, is a greater training stress and faster gains.

I especially like this split when focusing on 2 lifts instead of 4. A powerlifter might prioritize benching and squatting, as both are easy to recover from frequency-wise. Less deadlifting tends to go farther and overhead press is just an accessory to bench anyways, so both of those can be done once per week after the main lift.

On the other hand, a strongman might invert that and give priority to overhead pressing and deadlifting while relegating bench and squat to accessory status.

2x per week frequency with any given lift will require extra attention to the set and rep progression. Any lifter who isn’t a complete novice won’t be able to increase weight on the same lift at the same sets and reps every 3 to 4 days, so the same protocol shouldn’t be used on both days. Common adjustments for 2x per week splits:

Heavy Day and Light Day

Day 1: 4×6 @ 80%

Day 2: 3×6 @ 75%

Here, the hard work is done on day one and that’s the day that will progress in weight/work each week. Day two is just a repeat of the workout with less weight and fewer total reps. ‘Light’ days are a great way to add in weekly training volume while keeping the work sustainable.

Volume and Intensity Day

Day 1: 5×5 @ 80%

Day 2: Top 5 @ RPE 9

The volume days are great for stoking hypertrophy gains and increasing capacity, as well as racking up practice reps to increase skill in the lift. The intensity day is more strength-specific, as the weight on the bar stresses the nervous system more. This is a pretty powerful 1-2 punch.

Different Lifts

You can use similar set and rep protocols for each session if you apply them to different movements. For example, a hypertrophy phase for squatting in a 2x per week split can use 4×8 on both days if one day is done with a squat and the other is done with, say, a front squat, a different stance or bar position or with a specialty bar.

Whole Body

Whole body splits are some of the oldest approaches to strength training. The simplest iteration would be something like a “Heavy/Light/Medium” routine where each day features squatting, benching and deadlifting but at a different volume and intensity level.

This allows the greatest frequency which should allow for the greatest return in strength gains. The only drawback is that it quickly becomes unsustainable if you aren’t paying attention to the difficulty and amount of work done in each session. If you like to cut loose during your workouts and push every set to the limit, a high frequency approach like this simply won’t do.

An intermediate LP like the Texas Method is a great, user friendly example of a whole body routine. DUP style progressions, where a different training threshold is trained each session, also work well.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: