Despite what some training gurus might lead you to believe, there’s no single best training schedule for building muscle. You can build a lot of muscle with a variety of different training splits. In fact, it’s possible to build a lot of muscle with no split routine at all. Full body workouts have their place, especially for beginners, for time efficiency and for “back to basics” strength training. But suppose you have a bodybuilding (visual aesthetics) goal. Is a split routine always better than full body training? What are the pros and cons of each? What are the best split routine options? And how do you choose one? All the answers are in todays post below…
Q: Tom, I see that you now have full body, 2 day, 3 day, 4 day, and 5 day splits on your Inner Circle site. Do you think a body part split will yield greater muscle gains in a shorter time than a full body or upper-lower program? For example, I’m especially interested in the 3-day and 5-day options such as: Day 1: Legs/Abs, Day2: Chest/Shoulders/Triceps, Day 3: Back/Biceps/Forearms, or even splitting it up to one body part a day like this: Day 1 – Back, Day 2 – Chest, Day 3 – Legs, Day 4 – off (cardio), Day 5 – Shoulders, Day 6 – Arms, Day 7 – off (cardio). What’s more beneficial to someone who wants to add muscle and keep bodyfat levels low, in the least time possible?
A: The short answer is you’ll probably get similar muscle gains from either a 3 day (push pull legs) split or a 5 day split (aka one body part a day, aka “bro” split). Your gains will also be similar to what you might get with a 2-day split or a full body routine as well, but under one condition: The weekly volume (number of hard sets per muscle per week) is the same.
On the other hand, if one of those routines allows you to easily accumulate more weekly sets than the other, then that routine might give you an advantage for muscle gains. This is one of the reasons that almost all bodybuilders use body part splits, not full body routines. Body part splits are usually the best choice for physique athletes.
The 3-day push pull legs split is the most traditional schedule and when you have muscle size goals, it’s hard to go wrong with that choice. It typically involves 5 days a week of lifting (sometimes 6 for competitive bodybuilders).
The 5-day split is more unconventional, and some say controversial because if you train 5 days a week (like Mon to Fri with weekends off), each muscle is trained with a much lower weekly frequency. However, it’s a popular routine and many people do it for the increased recovery between workouts or they choose this split purely out of enjoyment.
You could probably get similar muscle gains with a 4-day split as well. We recently released a 4 day split which is yet another bodybuilding body part split option that only requires 4 workouts a week: The 4 X 4 Body Building Split
The number of days per week you’re willing and able to train is one of the factors involved when deciding what routine to choose. The decision should also be based on your goals, training age, and personal preferences. Let me explain in a little more detail.
Pros And Cons Of Body Part Split Routines… And How To Choose One
For a while, body part split routines lost some popularity in the mainstream fitness community. These routines, especially the ones where you only work one major muscle per session, were even criticized by personal trainers and sports conditioning coaches. Sometimes that’s justifiable given the context of sports training and general population fitness, where split routines were deemed “non-functional.”
Despite the “flavor of the day” phenomenon in the fitness and diet industry, where new and different trends come and go, body part split routines actually never went anywhere. Competitive bodybuilders use them as their standard training method and always have. That’s because body part splits are extremely effective for muscle growth (hypertrophy) and visual / cosmetic physique goals.
Bodybuilders are the most muscular athletes in the world, who also happen to carry the lowest body fat of all athletes at contest time. If that’s what you’re looking for – a program to add muscle size in all the right places (visual aesthetics) – then split routines are a terrific option. 3, 4 and 5 day splits can all be effective.
There has been a lot of research comparing different training schedules and splits in recent years. The over-arching finding is they all produce similar gains in muscle size if the weekly volume (number of sets) is equal.
That’s true even when comparing full body training with a 4-day split. In a study recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the conclusion was that muscle gains on a 4-day split were about the same as on a full body routine when the volume was equated. The full body workout seemed to have a slight edge for strength gains, which is not surprising because higher frequency training is associated with increased strength.
But despite findings like these, body part split routines, especially 3-day and 4-day-splits, are the preference of competitive bodybuilders by an overwhelming margin. In another study from the same scientific journal, 127 high level competitive bodybuilders were surveyed and not a single one used a full body workout. 68% of them used a 4-day split. The remaining athletes used 2-day (upper-lower) and 3-day (push-pull-legs) splits.
How to set up split routines is a big subject that could fill a chunk of an entire weight training book, but let me give you a quick overview of some of the best schedules.
There are 4 very popular split options among bodybuilders. Two of them were mentioned in the question above. (The 3 and 5 day split).
For achieving bodybuilding goals, my favorites are the 3-day and 4-day splits, but yes we did recently add a 5-day split (aka “bro split”) to the Inner Circle training department recently and some people really enjoy it.
Also, the 2-day split is still used by some bodybuilders and is probably the most popular schedule of all for the recreational lifter.
The 2 day Split, upper, lower + abs aka “The New Body” (“TNB”) split
Day 1: Upper body
Day 2: Lower body and abs
The 3 day Split, antagonistic (aka “classic muscle”)
Day 1: Chest, back
Day 2: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
Day 3: Quads, Hams
The 3 day Split, push-pull-legs
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Day 2: Back, biceps, forearms
Day 3: Quads, hams, calves
The 4 day Split
Day 1: Chest, biceps, abs
Day 2: Quads, hams
Day 3: Shoulders, Triceps
Day 4: Back, calves
*Note: There are many body part grouping variations on this split
The 5 day Split
Day 1: Chest, abs
Day 2: Back, calves
Day 3: Shoulders
Day 4: Arms
Day 5: Legs (quads and hams)
* Possible weekly schedule arrangements for these splits are endless, but a common way to do the 3 or 4 day split is 3 on 1 off or 4 on 1 off then repeat the cycle (rotating schedule). Alternately 5 days a week are designated for training and 2 days off for recovery (fixed schedule).
It’s important to note that 3, 4 and 5 day body part splits are definitely bodybuilding-focused routines. I’m referring to bodybuilding literally, as in the competitor or recreational lifters who have visual / aesthetic goals.
All of your training decisions should be made within the context of your goals, time availability, experience level, and personal preferences. Depending on your goals, there are advantages or disadvantages to body part split routines. Certain individuals might want to stick with full body workouts or the more basic 2 day (upper / lower + abs) split.
Advantages of body part splits:
1. Energy allocation.
If you only have to train one body major part in a session, you can put 100% physical energy into that muscle. If you have to train all your major muscle groups in one session, that is energy-draining. Whatever is done last in the workout will always suffer compared to what is done first. This is a particularly important consideration for “priority training” when one body part is lagging in comparison to others.
2. Mental concentration.
Many bodybuilders say that beyond physical energy allocation, they can mentally focus better with only one or two body parts to train per session. The mind to muscle connection is extremely important in physique training.
3. Time to do more volume.
The beginner doesn’t need a lot of training volume. The advanced bodybuilder on the other hand, can not only handle more volume, but also often finds they need more sets and exercises to maximize their gains. If you’re training your full body or even half your body per session, you can only do so much volume without the workouts dragging on a long time. To train with the desired amount of volume and keep the workouts a reasonable duration, this requires split routines. It’s also worth noting that if a certain split routine allows someone to achieve more weekly volume than another routine, this could produce greater muscle gains.
4. Time to do more exercises/angles.
Split routines not only allow you to do more volume in terms of number of sets, you can also do multiple exercises for each muscle. A football player doesn’t care about rear deltoid development or whether the lateral deltoid has enough width and “cap.” A bodybuilder on the other hand, wants to develop a muscle from every angle for aesthetics. On shoulder day for example, that would include front, side and rear deltoid exercises, plus trapezius. On a mass/ strength program that only works the basic compound exercises, one might only do a military press. That can produce a good amount of size, but does not work every aspect of the muscle and does not allow the bodybuilder to specialize on one part of a muscle that might be lagging (example: rear delt exercise), in order to develop symmetry.
Disadvantages of body part splits:
1. Body part split routines are usually not appropriate for all athletes.
Athletic training usually focuses on movement patterns not individual muscles. For example: horizontal push, vertical pull, rotation, etc. It may also involve plyometric or power training. Strength athletes usually focus on lifts, not individual muscles. For example: bench day, squat day and deadlift day, with assistance work done after the main lifts.
2. Body part split routines are usually not appropriate for beginners.
A rank beginner usually does best with a full body routine and a small number of basic exercises. An intermediate or recreational bodybuilder could choose any type of training schedule, but can’t go wrong with a 2 day split (such as our T.N.B. program). The body part splits are best for bodybuilders or advanced trainees with hypertrophy goals and cosmetic/ visual goals. So consider your training age a when making a decision on your lifting schedule.
3. Body part splits may not be practical for some people’s lifestyle and schedule.
Many people don’t want to train 5 (or 6) days a week because that is a big commitment. A 4 day schedule is most common for experienced recreational lifters. On a program like our T.N.B., which is a 2 day upper – lower schedule (or a typical strength program), you can get excellent muscle development with a 4 days per week frequency. When someone only wants to lift 3 days a week, a full body routine is a good choice.
4 Major Factors in choosing your lifting schedule
As you can see, there are many considerations which might influence your choice of training schedule and split routine. To conclude, let’s review the big 4:
1. Goals (strength or sports or bodybuilding/aesthetics)
2. Training age (beginner or advanced)
3. Time available / schedule considerations
4. Personal preference
Again, there is no single best muscle building schedule for everyone. However, if you weigh all the pros and cons and consider these factors above, then one particular type of schedule might leap out at you as the most logical choice given your personal goals and your lifestyle.
Last but not least, it doesn’t hurt to try a wide variety of training schedules. You might find one in particular that you stick to most of the time as your default program because it works well and you enjoy it. Or you might find that the novelty effect of rotating different training schedules and frequencies throughout the year helps stimulate greater muscle gains than doing the same program year round.
This is one of the reasons we offer so many different training plans at Burn the Fat Inner Circle and continue adding new ones to our training department. Join us at the Inner Circle for access to the entire library of training plans and see our newest and most popular programs below…
Founder and CEO, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
PS. Newest training program: The 4 X 4 split only requires 4 workouts per week. To check out this newest type of split routine available at Burn the Fat Inner Circle click on the image below or visit this page: 4 X 4 Muscle & Physique
PPS. Most popular: Our best-selling workout program of all time is TNB TURBO. This is a 2-day split, also with only 4 workouts a week. What makes it unique is that it’s 100% superset training which is the most time efficient method for building muscle. Most workouts can be finished in as little as 30 minutes…
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
Bartolomei, S, et al, A comparison between total body and split routine resistance training programs in trained men. J Strength Cond Res 35(6): 1520-1526, 2021.
Hacket D et al, Training Practices and Ergogenic Aids Used by Male Bodybuilders, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 27 – Issue 6 – p 1609-1617, 2013.