“I’m running a 4-day upper/lower split.”
“I’m thinking about starting a PPL split.”
“I used to run a bro split. I don’t talk about that part of my life anymore.”
If you’ve heard things like this and wondered “…what the heck is a workout split?” Then you’ve come to the right place!
We’ll be answering the following questions:
- What is a workout split?
- Why are the benefits of workout splits?
- What are the different types of workout splits?
- How should I choose a workout split?
And don’t worry – we have spreadsheets for every type of program we describe below. So if you find something you like, you’ll be able to make a free personal copy and run it yourself!
Table of Contents
- 1 What are workout splits?
- 2 How to Choose a Workout Split
- 3 Types of Workout Splits
- 3.1 Upper/Lower Workout Split
- 3.2 Push, Pull, Legs (PPL) Workout Split
- 3.3 Body Part Workout Split
- 3.4 Full Body Workout Split
- 3.5 Maximal Effort & Dynamic Effort Split
- 4 What are the benefits of workout splits?
- 5 Making Sense of All This
What are workout splits?
A workout split is a way to organize athletic training, usually based on muscle groups. Workout splits are most frequently referred to in the context of resistance training, especially for sports like powerlifting, bodybuilding, and strength training.
The most common way to divide a workout split is by muscle group. For example, if someone says they are “running an upper/lower split,” it means they target their upper body muscle group on one day and their lower body muscle group on another day.
Training Days per Week
Workout splits can also describe the number of training days in a week.
For instance, if someone says they are “running a 3 day split”, that means they are training three days a week. In this case, we don’t know if their training program works different muscle groups on different days, we only know they train three days each week.
Finally, you’ll sometimes see a program described as a “4 day upper/lower split” or a “6 day PPL.” In these cases, we know how many training days per week are in their program and how the muscle groups are targeted.
How to Choose a Workout Split
Choosing the right workout split depends on lots of different factors, but mostly on your goals and the amount of time you have to dedicate to training. Experience level is also worth considering, but not as much as training goals or available time.
We’re going to keep things simple and divide goals into a few categories. We’ll touch on strength gain, muscle size/hypertrophy, and weight loss.
Please note that these are general guidelines and not hard rules. These are good places to start, but you may need to make adjustments as you go.
Just remember that it’s important to give a training program an honest try. That means running it all the way through as written at least once before you decide to make modifications.
Common frequency: 3 to 4 days
Common split: Full body, upper/lower
Strength programs tend to program 3 or 4 training days per week, usually as a full body workout split or upper/lower muscle group split.
Increase Muscular Hypertrophy
Common frequency: 4 to 6 days
Common split: Full body, upper/lower
Hypertrophy programs are a little higher frequency than pure strength programs, so 4 to 6 training days per week is more common for these types of programs. They are often run as body part or PPL splits.
With that said, hypertrophy programs can also be effectively run as upper/lower splits. An example of this would be the beginner bodybuilding program by Ripped Body.
Common frequency: 5 to 6 days
Common split: Full body
Since weight loss depends on creating a caloric deficit, training programs designed for weight loss goals are often high frequency. This usually means 5 or 6 training days per week. This helps provide more opportunities to burn calories through exercise.
Programs designed for weight loss tend to be full-body programs, though they will still rotate movements throughout the week to focus on different principle muscle groups.
Available Time per Week
The amount of time you have available to train each week is an obvious but often-overlooked part of choosing a workout split. It’s important to be honest with yourself when determining how much time you can reliably dedicate to your training routine.
It’s better to achieve 100% adherence to a 3 day per week program than to have 80% adherence to a 5 day per week program.
If you’re not sure, start with fewer days per week to get a feel for your availability and commitment levels.
Finally, experience level can help determine training frequency and the type of split.
Generally speaking, beginners require a lower training frequency than intermediate or advanced lifters.
So, for example, if a beginner were choosing between a 4 day program and a 5 day program, they should probably choose the 4 day program. Simply put, beginners don’t need as much stimulus to grow and get stronger.
It’s also a bit simpler to recover from a 3 or 4 day training program vs. a 5 or 6 day training program, improving the novice’s likelihood of success. Rest and recovery is a skill like any other and dialing in the diet and recovery protocol for a 6 day training regimen may prove difficult for the beginner lifter.
Beginners are often recommended to run full body or upper/lower splits, as they are more likely to hit muscle groups twice each week. This is more optimal for increasing strength and building muscle. More advanced lifters may increase or decrease this frequency depending on their individual training goals and capacity to recover.
Types of Workout Splits
The main types of workout splits are:
- Upper/lower workout split
- Push, Pull, Legs workout split
- Body part workout split
- Full body workout split
- Maximal effort & dynamic effort split
There are others, but these are the most common. Most workout programs will fall into one of these four groups.
Upper/Lower Workout Split
Upper/lower workouts divide training days into upper body or lower body days. Upper/lower workout splits tend to utilize four training days per week, though occasionally six training days per week are programmed.
On upper body days, chest, back, shoulders, and arms will usually be trained. On lower body days, the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves will usually be trained.
Upper/lower splits usually program four training days per week: two upper body days and two lower body days.
- Upper/lower splits tend to hit each muscle group twice per week, which has been shown to be superior for growing muscle compared to training those muscle groups just once per week.
- A 2016 meta-analysis of resistance training studies concluded that “…frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week. It can therefore be inferred that the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth.”
- Upper/lower splits are flexible, allowing for different training goals to be achieved within the same muscle group.
- Training some muscle groups twice per week, especially the upper body, may be sub-optimal for maximizing strength. This depends on the athlete’s training history and goals, but many powerlifters find that training the bench press three or more days per week to be optimal for peaking that particular lift.
Popular Upper/Lower Split Workout Program Spreadsheets
Popular upper/lower splits include the following training programs, all with spreadsheets:
Push, Pull, Legs (PPL) Workout Split
A push, pull, legs workout split organizes training based on movement type. Each training session of a PPL workout split will either focus on pushing movements, pulling movements, or leg exercises.
PPL splits almost always call for six training days per week, two for each movement type.
- PPL splits allow for training the deadlift and squat on separate days, which can be easier than training them on the same day. This assumes that the deadlift is trained on pull days and the squat is trained on leg days.
- Like upper/lower splits, PPL splits allow for training the same muscle groups twice per week (assuming a 6 day routine is followed).
- If you’re following a 6 day PPL program, well, that’s a lot of time spent in the gym. It also places a lot of demand on your body in terms of recovery.
- If you’re following a 3 day PPL program, that’s likely not enough frequency or volume to optimize strength gains or muscle growth.
Popular PPL Split Workout Program Spreadsheets
Body Part Workout Split
A body part split targets one or two muscle groups per training session. It is also known as a “bro split” because of its historical popularity amongst young men.
Common body part splits will devote a training session to each of these muscle groups:
Abdominal muscles are typically targeted on training days devoted to smaller muscle groups, like arms or shoulders.
- For more advanced lifters that can safely push themselves to the limit, body part splits offer the opportunity to truly exhaust a muscle group.
- Since each muscle group is targeted once per week, recovery time is maximized with the body part split.
- Muscle groups can be worked from multiple angles in the same training session, allowing them to be “sculpted” for a particular look.
- For example, a body part split may afford a lifter to perform three different kinds of bicep curls in order to optimally target the short head and long head of the bicep. In an upper/lower split, this type of muscle sculpting may not be practical, as it would extend the length of the training session.
- Most body part splits utilize five training days per week, which may be demanding for some schedules.
- Because of the relatively low frequency for the main compound lifts in such a split, body part splits are not optimal for developing strength.
Who are body part splits recommended for?
Body part splits are recommended for intermediate and advanced bodybuilders that need to maximize recovery for each muscle group. Body part splits can also be useful for switching up a training routine and introduce new stimulus to the muscles.
For example, a bodybuilder may use a body part split to focus on certain muscle groups after running a few cycles of a PPL split.
Popular Body Part Split Workout Program Spreadsheets
Full Body Workout Split
A full body workout split is a training routine that works all of the muscle groups in the body in a single training session. This means a full body workout split will stimulate the upper body, lower body, and core muscle groups.
- Full body workout splits tend to be quite efficient, only requiring three or four training sessions per week.
- Full body workout splits usually consist of compound lifting movements, which are effective for building strength while working many muscle groups simultaneously.
- Examples of compound movements include the squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift.
- Depending on the specific workout program, some full body splits don’t focus on developing smaller muscles to the same degree as body part splits.
- For example, a common full body workout split for beginners is the Ivysaur 4-4-8 Novice Strength Program. While it’s great at quickly building strength, if the trainee wanted to build big calves, the squats and deadlifts in this program are unlikely to help them achieve that goal efficiently.
- A common response to this is “Could I add calf exercises to some of the training days in this program?” The answer is yes, adding additional accessory movements can help develop lagging muscle groups. It’s just important to make sure that these accessory movements don’t impede on the main goal of the program. This combination of heavy compound movements with additional acessory movements in the general principal of powerbuilding programs.
Popular Full Body Split Workout Program Spreadsheets
Maximal Effort & Dynamic Effort Split
A maximal effort and dynamic effort split consists of four workouts per week: maximal effort lower body, maximal effort upper body, dynamic effort lower body, and dynamic effort upper body.
It is similar to an upper/lower split, but goes one step further by programming in a more specific way.
Maximal effort workouts consist of working up to a high-intensity max for the day, often, but not always, a one rep max for a particular lift. In this context, “high-intensity” usually means 95% or more of a lift’s one rep max.
Dynamic effort workouts, also known as speed work, involves lifting sub-maximal weight as explosively as possible. In this context, sub-maximal usually means 50% to 65% of a lift’s one rep max.
This split is often part of a conjugate program. Conjugate programs originated from Westside Barbell, a world-famous powerlifting gym in Ohio. Some would say that if you’re not at Westside, you’re not truly doing conjugate training.
- This type of programming often requires rotating exercises on a frequent basis. This can keep training fresh.
- Conjugate training tends to require a lot of extra equipment (e.g. bands and chains). This can be a challenge for those without access to this type of equipment.
- The high number of exercise movements may be challenging for beginners to master without outside coaching.
Popular Maximum Effort & Dynamic Effort Split Spreadsheets
What are the benefits of workout splits?
The benefit of any workout split is to achieve a specific training goal. Common goals are to increase maximal strength, build muscle size, lose weight, or become more competitive in a sport.
These goals are all achieved by manipulating the key variables of a workout split: the frequency, volume, and intensity of training.
All of these variables help determine the total exposure to stimulus, the amount of fatigue accumulated, and the amount of recovery time available between training sessions.
Training frequency refers to how often you train each week. It also can refer to how often a particular muscle group or lift is trained each week.
Changing training frequency is an effective way to manipulate how often a muscle group is exposed to stimulus each week.
Training frequency and training volume tend to be inversely related. The more frequently a muscle group is training, less volume is needed in each individual training session to achieve the desired amount of weekly volume.
Training volume generally refers to the amount of work performed in a training session. It can be measured by tonnage, the number of working sets, INOL, and other methods.
As an example, let’s say you squat 100 lbs for 3 sets of 3 reps.
Tonnage is the number of repetitions multiplied by the load of each repetition. In this example, 100 lbs lifted for 3 sets of 3 reps would be 900 lbs of tonnage (100*3*3).
The number of working sets would simply be three sets.
Another way of measuring volume is through INOL. It also incorporates intensity too, which neither tonnage nor count of working sets takes into consideration.
The INOL formula is:
(Rep Count) / (100 – Intensity)
So, using the same example, let’s say your one rep max for the squat is 125 lbs. This makes 100 lbs 80% of the one rep max.
The INOL for this squat training session would be (3*3) / (100-85) or 0.45.
Training intensity refers to how much energy or effort is being expended during a workout. In lifting, this is measured by the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or the percentage of a one rep max.
The higher the intensity is, the lower volume tends to be.
Making Sense of All This
Don’t get tripped up by trying to figure out the best workout split. Such a thing doesn’t really exist, at least not for everyone. There are a wide variety of paths that people have taken to become incredibly strong, massively muscular, totally toned, or whatever your individual goal may be.
The most important thing is to choose a program, stick to it, measure your progress, and adjust from there.
If you want some more guidance, check out Lift Vault’s most popular programs of 2020. You’ll find a bunch of winning programs there that are gotten results for thousands of people.