In the 1970s there was also an explosion in the popularity of bodybuilding due to some guy called Arnold. Whether they know it or not, most gym trainees nowadays follow some variation of a bodybuilding split to the tune of chest and triceps, legs, back and biceps, rhomboids and teres major*, no matter their goals. Whilst the rest of the world has moved on it feels like gym goers are stuck in a time warp of body part splits and isolation exercises.
*I haven’t actually heard of anyone using that on a single day, but it would make for some interesting exercise selections.
So what’s the problem with body part splits?
Too much volume – ‘Natural’ athletes do not respond well to excessive volume, 15-20 total sets is more than enough for gains. Six different chest variations along with four different tricep exercises is overkill. Do you really need to do that much? Sometimes quality is better than quantity.
Lack of strength – most gym goers lack a good level of strength in the core lifts. Get strong before worrying about isolation movements. What’s the point in endless curls if you can’t even perform 10 chin ups?
Too much upper body, not enough lower – most individuals who utilize splits will train their upper body three to four times a week, whilst only training their lower body once. However the lower body houses the largest, most powerful muscles in the body, and deserves equal attention. Whether you train for athletic development or aesthetics, you will benefit from training the lower body more.
Lack of good recovery and rest – this ties in with the ‘too much volume’ point, five days plus cardio and ‘abs’ is not good for recovery or growth. I also think if you can go to the gym five days a week, you’re not training hard enough!
Too much time – your time in the gym should be maximised, we all have family and work commitments, don’t waste time in the gym with isolation exercises and endless sets and reps.
What people want
If you get to the bottom of it, most guys would like a lean, athletic physique à la David Haye or Georges St. Pierre. They don’t want to look like a blown up bodybuilder. In order to achieve this, training for strength and performance with an upper/lower or full body split will be more beneficial to those who are not pro bodybuilders and don’t train six times per week, twice a day.
Why should you use an upper/lower body split?
Get stronger – focusing on strength will improve your physique and performance.
More compound movements – these provide the biggest bang for your buck. Want bigger shoulders? Go heavy on military press. Show me someone who can military press 80kg, and I’ll show you someone with big shoulders. The same goes for building a big back – focus on chin ups and go heavy. Simple.
Goal orientated – having strength-related goals is a great way to stay on track and keep motivated. To get stronger you must be consistent. Good targets are 1-1.5 x BW for bench press, 2-2.5 x BW for deadlift and 1.5-2 x BW for back squat.
Less time – 45 minutes to an hour is enough time for flexibility, mobility, strength work and a finisher. Spend more time doing exercises that will give the biggest results; that means more time doing bench press, press ups and military presses and less time doing kickbacks, pushdowns and extensions.
Go heavy – less exercises for less sets and reps means you can go heavier more of the time.
Health – strength reduces as we age. Studies have shown that greater strength has a strong relation with lower mortality in older populations.
So now you’re sold on the benefits, let’s put it all together! The equipment needed has been kept simple, so you can perform this programme in a commercial facility with little hassle.
Perform a 5-10 minute warm up before lifting, including mobility and flexibility. Pay special attention to the first lift on each day, this is your breadwinner and should be treated with 110% effort. Use 2-3 sets as a warm up, then go as heavy as possible while using perfect form.
This sample programme is for the intermediate lifter and would be recommended for a four-week cycle, before taking a de-load week to recover.
Monday – Upper Body + Finisher
A Bench Press 6 x 4
B1 Flat DB Press 3 x 8
B2 Bodyweight Row 3 x 12
C DB Bent Over Row 4 x 10
D Finisher – Treadmill/Rower Sprints 800m, 400m, 200m. As fast as possible. 60-90 sec rest between sets.
Tuesday – Lower Body & Core
A Deadlift 6 x 4
B1 DB Step-Ups 3 x 8 per side
B2 DB Romanian Deadlift 3 x 12
C1 Kneeling Barbell Rollouts 4 x 8
C2 L-Sit 4 x 20s
Thursday – Upper Body + Finisher
A Weighted Chin Ups 6 x 4
B DB Overhead Press 4 x 10
C1 Press Ups 3 x 12
C2 Seated Cable Row 3 x 12
D Finisher – KB/DB Swings 3 x 25. Minimal rest between sets.
Friday – Lower Body + Core
A Back Squat 6 x 4
B Barbell Romanian Deadlift 4 x 10
C Walking Lunges 3 x 10 per side
D1 Plank Row 4 x 8 per side
D2 Side Plank 4 x 30s per side
Some of you won’t be able to or won’t want to train four times a week. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact I’d recommend starting out at three days a week to allow ample recovery time between sessions. You can spread the program over a longer period of time with a three-day upper/lower split. One way to organize it is outlined below: