Written by Ben Prinsloo
Approaching A Workout Split
In the new year we all begin to reevaluate our training programs, or we set out to create or find new ones. One of the age-old questions in such endeavours is which “split” to follow. Do you do chest and biceps on the same day? Do you do legs twice a week? There are numerous articles and studies which all arrive at a different conclusion.
So, empirically speaking, there is no right answer. Throughout my own training, however, I have tried every practical split, and I can at least provide my views and experiences on each split. In order for a coherent read, I will break down the splits into two general principles, which can be subcategorised or combined, endlessly.
The Push-Pull Organisation
In this split, you work out your full body in either 2 or 3 days, generally. Each day is dedicated to either a pushing motion or a pulling motion. This means that on push day you work your shoulders, chest, triceps, quads, and calves. On a pull day, you work your traps, rhomboids, lats, biceps, lower back, and hamstrings.
On the 2 days split for this, you will generally do all the muscles for the push or pull motion on the same day. In the three day split, the most common practice is to split the push day in half, and do the pull workout in one day – upper body push on one day (shoulders, chest, triceps), and lower body push on the other day (quads and calves), generally with the pull day in between. Personally, I like to pair shoulders and quads on one push day, and chest, triceps and calves on the other.
The other approach to the push-pull organisation is to pair each push motion with a pull motion. This means that for every bench press you do, you will do a row; or for every leg extension you do, you will do a hamstring curl. The combinations of muscle group splits are therefore widely varied if one adopts this approach, and the split can cover the whole week in some instances.
The advantages to the push-pull organisation are that firstly you won’t get stuck in a workout. For those that like to freestyle a little throughout their workout, as long as you know which motion you need to do, it’s generally easy to figure out an exercise to do, even if you do not yet know much about the gym – if you are pulling the weight towards you it’s a pull exercise, and if you are pushing it away from you it’s a push exercise.
Secondly, it allows muscles to be worked out more frequently. If you adopt the 2 or 3-day split, it means that you can work each muscle twice or three times in that week. Thirdly, and of particular importance is the practicality it introduces. As a martial artist, aesthetics must always be balanced with function, in my case.
If I only work one muscle a day, then it is an exhausting affair to suddenly try to incorporate other muscles at the same time. What this means is that when I am sparring I need to be able to lift my legs at the same time that I keep my hands up, and if I am used to training only one muscle group at a time, this is very challenging. When my gym routine incorporates upper and lower body parts in the same day, this makes me much fitter in that regard.
The drawback of the push-pull split is arguably less focus on each individual muscle group. It is, therefore, more challenging to gain size with such a split than it is when each day focuses on an individual muscle group. More challenging, although certainly not unachievable. Many bodybuilders incorporate the push-pull split, sometimes seven days a week, and gain size dramatically. So long as one has the energy and focus, just as much, if not more, work on each muscle group can be achieved through this split, than it can in other splits.
The Muscle-Group Split
In this split, you work out each individual muscle group (or groups) on a different day. For example, chest on a Monday, quads on a Tuesday, back on a Wednesday, hamstrings on a Thursday, and so on. There are countless combinations for such a split – some people advise that quads and hamstrings should be done on the same day, some people advise that they should be split; some people advise that chest and triceps should be done on the same day, others advise that chest and biceps should be done on the same day. There is not really a correct way of going about this. However certain key points can be observed to guide you into choosing such a combination.
Do not do more than one big muscle group on the same day – this in itself is a variable rule as there are multiple approaches to which muscles form part of which groups. Some believe the back muscles (traps, lats, rhomboids, and lower back) are all part of the same muscle group and should be treated as such in a workout, others prefer to split the muscles (for example considering traps to be part of the shoulder muscle group).
Further, certain muscle groups, which are necessarily big muscle groups, pair well together, an example being the chest and shoulder muscles. Suffice to say, however, as long as you understand that the purpose of this split is to give extra focus and attention to each muscle group, the fewer muscle groups you do on each day, the more focus you can provide in each workout.
How you pair little muscles with the big muscles is up to you! Triceps, biceps, and calves, while being important aesthetic muscles, are small muscle groups in relation to the quads, chest, back, and hamstrings. Everyone has their own justification for how they ought to be paired – some say they should complement the muscle group being worked that day – for example, calves with quads, or triceps with chest or shoulders. This works because the little muscle is a secondary muscle to the actions required to work the main muscle group of the day, and therefore the little muscle is getting a workout anyway, so one may as well take full benefit of it and give it a few extra isolation sets.
Others argue that the little muscle group should contrast the big muscle group of the day – for example, triceps with back, biceps with chest or shoulders. This works because the little muscle is not being worked substantially by the main muscle group actions, and can, therefore, perform at a higher level in isolation exercises. Quite frankly both approaches work, and as long as your approach works for you, and your results match your effort, stick with it. Alternatively, if you find that you can’t do an arm curl after your back workout, or you are just getting bored of your split, mix it up!
Be aware of your recovery time. If it takes you seven days for each muscle group to recover, then stick with a six or seven-day split. However, if you find that you are 100% recovered within 2 or 3 days you either need to pick up the intensity of your workouts, or vary your split so that after 3 to 6 days you are working out that muscle group again.
If you are recovering too quickly, and then resting that muscle group for too long your muscle is not getting stimulated frequently enough, and the result is slow or minimal progression. On that note, if you find that you are recovery too slowly, consider your diet and supplementation. Protein is obviously your first point of call, but if you are feeling stiff for too long, consider supplementing with Myprotein L-Glutamine. It works like a charm!
In conclusion, I would say, based on my own experiences that as long as you are training hard and eating well, the method of your split is not that important. As long as you understand that more focus on each muscle can mean more size and strength, and more focus on multiple muscles will mean better fitness and functionality.
Keeping in mind, however, that even when your workouts incorporate multiple muscles substantial size and strength gains can be achieved, and equally in workouts where you focus on individual muscle groups, substantial fitness and functionality can be achieved.