Want to build more muscle the way champion bodybuilders do it? Then check out this post. Since I released the 4-Day Classic Bodybuilding program earlier this week, the questions about 4-day split workouts have been coming in hot and heavy… really good and important questions too. In this post, I’ll answer the biggest questions about training volume: How many sets, how many sets for big versus small muscles, how do you track/count the sets, and how many days in a row should you train on a 4-day split to maximize muscle gains without overtraining?…
Q: Tom, I have questions about your 4-day split. I’ve been lifting for 15 years, mostly doing 3-day splits (push-pull-legs), but I really like the idea of the 4-day split style. My first question is, when you say a body part like chest is considered a “large” muscle, does that mean you do 4 sets per exercise for those muscles and only 3 sets per exercise on the smaller muscle groups?
Also, how do you keep track of the volume? For example, if I did chest on Monday and completed 12 sets in one session, then I hit chest again on Saturday (using the 4 on 1 off cycle), does that mean my volume is 24 sets for the week or is it 12 sets per workout that we are counting as the “volume?”
Another question is, I know you’ve talked about doing a 4-day split yourself, but doing better for recovery with a 2 days on, 1 day off, 2 days on 1 day off schedule. Is there any downside to that 2 on 1 off schedule vs the 4 on 1 off?
These are great questions The 3-day split is an excellent program and it’s probably the most popular split among bodybuilders and physique athletes today. For bodybuilding and hypertrophy goals, you can’t go wrong with a 3-day split. But I think the 4-day split has been overlooked by a lot of physique athletes. 4-day splits can be equally effective as long as you get your weekly volume right and you customize the schedule based on your recovery needs.
First, let’s point out that training volume can mean a couple of different things:
1. Volume load / tonnage. One definition is volume load, also known as tonnage, which is the sets x reps x weight. You can calculate and track this number for a single exercise, a body part or an entire workout, and use it ensure progressive overload.
2. Weekly sets. Another way to quantify volume is by counting the total sets per body part per week.
When you’re tracking sets, one way to count them is to look at the number of sets per exercise. It’s true that this may vary between large muscle groups and smaller muscle groups.
Doing 4 sets per exercise for large muscle groups and 3 sets per exercise for smaller muscle groups is a good rule of thumb, but it’s not carved in stone. I’ll circle back to sets for small vs large muscles in a moment.
A second way to count sets is sets per body part. So if you did three sets of three exercises for chest, that’s nine sets of chest.
A third way to count sets it total sets per body part per week.
It’s important to distinguish between sets per exercise, sets per session, and total sets per week. It’s most informative to look at sets per week.
Sets per muscle group vs sets per workout vs sets per week
Weekly sets per muscle group is an excellent number to keep track of to know how much volume you are doing. Using only sets per muscle group per workout can steer you wrong if you’re not also accounting for your weekly training frequency.
10 sets per muscle group per week is a considered a benchmark for the minimum volume if you want to optimize muscle gains.
The suggested range for sets is pretty wide. It can run anywhere from 10 to 20 sets per week per muscle group. It seems to me that at least 12 sets per week per major muscle is what most advanced, experienced bodybuilders settle on if they have average or better genetics and no time restrictions. 12 to 15 sets is a common range.
Lately there have also been guidelines published for maximum recommended volume per workout. Usually researchers and coaches suggest not doing more than 10 to 12 sets per muscle per session. It’s ok if you want to do 15 sets per muscle per week or even more, but the current consensus is that if you’re going to do that much (high) volume, it’s ideal to spread that volume out across the week more rather than do so many sets in one workout.
Doing an extreme number of sets for one muscle in one session has been shown to increase muscle damage, making it harder to recover. But everyone is different. Some people can handle a ton of volume in one session and thrive on it. You have to see what works for you and really understand your fatigue tolerance, recovery capacity as well as your personal preferences.
Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem doing 14 to 16 sets for one muscle in one workout and have on occasion done that, especially when using supersets. But it’s not my normal practice and it’s not the best practice
Sometimes advanced-elite bodybuilders can handle 15 to 20 sets per week and grow on it. More than 20 sets per muscle group per week is usually considered excessive except for the genetically gifted with high recovery capacity.
One exception to these maximum volume guidelines is when you’re doing short blocks of specialization training for just one muscle group.
More than 20 sets per week on every muscle group would be a recovery-demanding stress to the body. (To say the least! It would be brutal, not to mention time-consuming). However, if you wanted to blast one body part like chest with 20 sets per week for a couple months or so to give it a growth spurt, most people can handle that. (Example: Hitting chest twice every 7 days with 10 sets per workout).
Maybe an even a better approach is to start with fewer sets and add sets week by week until you reach a peak, then back off to a more normal volume. This can be an excellent method of progressive overload. It’s especially useful and effective when gains in pounds lifted are harder to come by. This is commonly known as volume cycling. (Example: Start with only 10 or 12 sets for chest, and gradually increase the total sets to 20 over a period of weeks or months, then change routines and drop back to the usual 10 to 12 sets).
How to calculate training volume in sets per week
If your workouts don’t fit neatly into a 7 day calendar week, and they don’t when you use our “classic” 4-day splits (4 on 1 off, 2 on 1 off), you have to do a bit of math to figure out your weekly volume.
If you do 12 sets for a big muscle on Monday, and then 12 sets again for the same muscle on Saturday, that is NOT 24 sets per week. That’s because you’re not doing chest again the following Monday, you’re not doing it again until the following Thursday.
Here’s an example of how to do the weekly sets math: I am currently doing a 4-day advanced bodybuilding split and running it 4 days on and 1 day off, so it’s a 5 day microcycle.
I’m starting out the block more conservatively than usual this time with only 3 exercises for chest at 3 sets each (I’m going to increase the sets later). That’s 9 sets in a single workout. When you train 4 days on and 1 day off, each muscle is getting worked once every 5 days, so that’s 9 sets every 5 days.
How many sets is that per week (7 day calendar week)? Well, I flunked a math class in high school (algebra II) and had to retake it in the summer (that sucked), but even I can calculate this. Check it out:
Doing 9 sets in 5 days (9/5) is 1.8 sets per day (average). With 7 days in a week, the weekly volume is 7 days X 1.8 sets per day = 12.6 sets per week.
So you can see I’m more than hitting the minimum 10 sets a week benchmark. As my training block progresses, I will increase the sets per exercise, so the weekly volume may increase over time and I might end up closer to 15 to 18 sets per week, at least for certain body parts I want to bring up.
How many sets for small muscle groups versus large muscle groups?
With small muscle groups, most people do fewer sets per exercise, per session and per week. That’s not only because they’re smaller muscles, but also because the minor muscle groups are getting hit indirectly when you train the compound exercises on big muscle groups.
For example, triceps are a so-called “small muscle group.” (With three heads, the triceps are actually not that small, but we’ll still call them “small”). When you train chest presses and shoulder presses, the triceps get minor work on those days. Doing bench press or shoulder press definitely doesn’t count as a full set for triceps, but some coaches and researchers say it should count as a half a set.
I think that’s far too complicated and creates too much confusion to count chest and shoulder pressing as a tricep set. In addition, I have never seen any significant growth in my triceps from doing chest and shoulder pressing alone without direct tricep exercises. The easier alternative is to simply set up your workouts understanding that the triceps (and biceps) do get a little bit of work from compound exercises (presses and rows), so we hit them with slightly fewer sets.
You might do only 3 sets per exercise for the small muscles, and 4 sets per exercise for the large muscles. Or, you might do 3 to 4 exercises on the large muscles and only 2 to 3 exercises on the small muscles. You’ll still probably want to get fairly close to the 10 sets per week benchmark, though 8 or 9 really intense sets will probably do the trick for smaller muscles.
Some people don’t even train small muscles like the forearms and traps directly at all. But when you do, usually a single exercise (at the very most two) does it.
When subdividing an area like the posterior chain, it’s also usually not necessary to do even 8 or 9 sets for a muscle like the lower back or glutes (unless someone is a bikini or figure athlete with a major priority on glute development.
As you can see, how many sets you do for any body part also has a lot to do with how big of a priority it is for you to build up that muscle. If it’s a priority, you can do more sets and exercises.
What about how many days in a row you should train on a 4 day split?
Regarding 2 on 1 off versus 4 on 1 off, I have run both of those schedules with success. There are pros and cons of each.
On paper, 4 on 1 off should be slightly better because you’re hitting each muscle with a higher frequency – once every 5 days. The 2 on 1 off only hits each muscle only once every 6 days.
However, a lot of people say they get burned out quicker when training 4 on 1 off. That’s happened to me too. Training 2 on 1 off allows for better recovery. There is only a one day difference in frequency between these two schedules but there is something very impactful about training no more than two days in row without taking a rest day (three at most). It makes a big difference in recovery.
Using the 2 on 1 off schedule worked so well for me I stayed on it for years and had great success. But sometimes I like to push myself and get that slightly higher frequency so I’ll switch to 4 on 1 off (or another program with similar frequency). If I start to feel run down or overtrained, I simply switch back to the schedule with more recovery. At the very least, I would take a de-load.
Are there any disadvantages to a 2 on 1 off schedule? If the weekly volume is the same, I can’t see any disadvantage in terms of muscle gain results. The only disadvantage is that this is a rotating schedule. That means on some weeks you might have Sundays off, and other weeks you might have to train on Sunday, and so on. It’s been my experience that a lot of people don’t like those rotating schedules. For example, they want every Thursday and Sunday off.
The alternative option is the 4 X 5 fixed schedule. (4 X 5 means 4-day split, 5 workouts a week). You would use the same 4-day body part groupings but the 5 training days and 2 rest days would always be the same every week.
So, any of these weekly training schedules can work with the same 4-day split, but you should listen to your body and adjust your training frequency, as well as the volume and intensity, based on how you feel you are recovering, and based on your results. You should also respect your personal preferences, because if you really like one specific training schedule, you’re more likely to stick to it.
Last but not least, don’t forget, the most conservative 4 day split of all is the 4 X 4 schedule. On this program, you train the same 4 days each week and you get 3 days of total rest. A lot of people who know they need more recovery time, including older trainees, choose this schedule.
A lot of “experts” argue that working each muscle only once a week is too low of a frequency to maximize gains, and there may be some truth to that. But I’ve seen too many high-level bodybuilders who built great physiques with the 4 X 4 schedule to think that it’s not effective if the volume is equalized. Once again, the key to making it work is to make sure you hit those weekly benchmarks for volume.
There’s more than one way to set up these 4-day split routines and none of them is right or wrong provided you follow all the other muscle-building best practices. A lot of it comes down to how well you can recover and also simply to your own preferences.
I know some of this stuff can be a little confusing, and it’s definitely nuanced, so if you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ve been using these types of split routines for over 30 years, and I’m also familiar with what the research says about them, so I’m sure I can help.
Also, I explain all of the possible body part groupings, the split routine schedule options, and all the other details about body part split training in the 4-Day Classic Bodybuilding training manual. You can get it here:
Members: 4-Day Classic Bodybuilding is included with membership. Download here: Members-only download page
Non-members: Get 4-Day Classic Bodybuilding in the Inner Circle store here: Non-members order page
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
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