Even though I originally started out in exercise physiology, I seem to write more about nutrition than training. For that reason I wanted to put something down on the topic of split routines, more specifically split routine sequencing.
What is a Split Routine?
For those not familiar with the term a split routine is any routine that splits the body into different muscle groups or body parts. This distinguishes it from full-body routines where the entire body is trained at every workout.
But I don’t just want to write another generic article about split routines and how to set them up. There are plenty of those around already. Rather, I want want to talk about an issue regarding split routines that I think is often overlooked which has to do with the sequencing of the actual workouts within a week and some issues that can crop up if people don’t take certain things into account.
I’m not going to try to cover every single type of split routine that can be set up, there are just too many variations. Hopefully by the time you’re done with this and see what I say about the types I will discuss, you’ll be in a better place to think about how you set up the split routines or what issues to at least consider when designing them.
The main issue here is how training days either overlap or, more usually, interact with one another. Often when people put together split routines they pay no attention to what days of the week certain muscle groups are trained or how that might impact or be impacted by the other days. This will make more sense when I get to the examples.
Primarily I’ll focus on two way split routines where the body is split into two distinct parts although I’ll try to look at some three way split routines where the body is split into three parts. I’m going to assume that the trainee is targeting a body part frequency of roughly twice per week or at least every 5th day.
By the time you go to hitting everything once per week a lot of this tends to matter less. I’m also going to assume that the trainee is avoiding weekend training although it honestly doesn’t change that much in the big scheme of what I’m going to discuss.
Let me say up front that there is no perfect split routine or split routine sequencing. Every one has its advantages but every one brings its own set of disadvantages to the table. So a lot of picking a split along with how you sequence the workouts depends on your own strengths and weaknesses or personal preferences.
The Two-Way Split Routine
As I said above, a two-way split routine is any approach where the body is divided into two distinct parts and there are a host of variations that can occur here. My go-to routine is an upper/lower+abs routine where the body is divided exactly in that fashion. In one workout the entire upper body is trained and in the other, the lower body and core work (abs and low back) is trained.
I like this routine for two primary reasons. The first is that it saves the stress that can occur in the shoulder girdle that occurs with different splits. If you’ve never had a rotator cuff or shoulder problem, consider yourself lucky. If you have, you will understand completely why I like this.
I also like it since, depending on your gym, pushing and pulling movements can be alternated. So you do your first chest exercise, then your first back exercise, then a second pushing movement, a second pulling movement, etc. If your gym is busy, you do all of one exercise and switch, giving muscles a bit of a break. If your gym is empty you can alternate superset and get the hell out of the gym faster.
A lot of people don’t like this type of routine, mainly men who aren’t happy that their arms are trashed by the time they get to direct work. At the same time I’ve had criticism of this routine by people who believe strongly that direct arm work should never be done. You just can’t win.
I would counter argue that since there is so much indirect work for the arms from compound pushing and pulling, less work is needed to get it done. But men have a lot of ego tied up in training their arms and sometimes you have to pander, I mean address, those psychological needs. I’ll also examine a variant that addresses this problem.
The Upper/Lower Split Routine
An upper/lower split is exactly what it sounds like. The body is split into a distinct upper body workout and lower body workout (with core work generally) which are alternated at each training session. So on the upper body day, chest, back, delts and arms are all trained. On the lower body day, quads, hamstrings, calves, abs and low back get trained. My Generic Bulking Routine (GBR) is based around this and eventually I’ll write something more comprehensive up about it.
Ok, so let’s look at how the two different workouts could be sequenced throughout the week and what potential issues crop up.
Option 1 is often recommended so that the heavy lower day comes before two days off for recovery. But a problem emerges immediately. If the upper body (especially upper back and shoulder girdle) is trashed from the upper body workouts, performing any movements such as a squat, deadlift or RDL in the lower workout tends to be compromised. This could be avoided by using movements such as leg press, leg curl, etc. for legs (since they don’t require upper back/shoulder girdle stability) but we all know that that is not mas macho enough.
Option 2 is arguably the better one here since it avoids upper back stress impairing the lower body workout. It is conceivable that general fatigue from the lower body workout could compromise upper body although this is arguably less of an issue than upper back/shoulder girdle fatigue really wrecking the lower body workouts (or making them dangerous in terms of form breaking).
While I said I was assuming no weekend workouts, Option 3 at least eliminates the problems for lower body on one of the days but Fri/Sat still has the same issue: if upper back is wrecked, lower is likely to suffer on Saturday.
Option 4 avoids that along with any potential of the Monday lower body workout harming Wednesday from fatigue. It’s probably more common powerlifting or strength athlete type split and Saturday might be made into a lighter day (perhaps light bench and a shoulder emphasis or just overhead press as the primary exercise) but now I’m getting into all kinds of complications that I would really rather avoid (and I mainly wanted to focus on growth anyhow).
Push and Legs+Pull Split Routine
There is another potential solution to the issue of upper back fatigue from the lower day impairing the lower body day which is to change the split to chest/delts/triceps and legs/back/biceps since it’s usually upper back fatigue that causes the issues with squats, RDL’s, etc.
I really don’t like this type of split routine since it makes the workouts very imbalanced. Chest/shoulders/triceps ends up being fairly short (or people do too many exercises to compensate for the duration) and the legs/back/biceps ends up taking forever and being pretty exhausting since you’re training very large muscle groups comparatively speaking.
Like I said I really don’t like this split routine. If someone were going to use it, Option 1 probably makes marginally more sense just so the weekend can be used to recover after the heavy legs, back and biceps workout. But I’m not sure I see the point in trying to make what I think is a fairly poor approach workable since the workouts are so imbalanced in terms of time and effort level.
Chest/Delts/Arms and Legs+Back Split Routine
One way to slightly balance the routines time and effort wise would be to move biceps from the lower body day to the chest/shoulder/triceps day to get chest/shoulders/arms and legs/back/core as the two workouts. This leads to other sequencing problems.
Option 1 has the problem that training arms on Monday and Thursday will impair back training on Tuesday and Friday. If this split were used Option 2 makes enormously more sense to avoid that. Yes, potentially the same issue as above with general fatigue from the legs/back/core day hurting chest/delts/arms is there but I think that’s the better compromise to avoid training arms the day before back.
The Three-Way Split Routine
The next step from a two-way split routine is a three-way split routine where the body is divided into three different workouts. At this point the number of possible options starts to become fairly large since there are so many different possible combinations. Mind you, some of them are nonsensical but there are certainly more to worry about here.
For the most part, with a three-way split and four workouts per week, you end up hitting everything about every fifth day. If you allow for more workouts per week, for example 6 days per week, you can get everything twice/week. But this raises issue with having a life and people not wanting to generally live in the gym.
For lifters who insist on training each muscle group only once per week, many if not most of the sequencing problems go away. I’m not personally a huge fan of this approach but it does work for some.
As I said, the number of potential three way split routines that can be set up are pretty immense and I can’t begin to discuss all of them. Rather, try to focus on the principles of what I’m discussing so that you can look at any training scheme you set up within the issues I’m raising.
Three-Way Split Routine 1
The first split routine I want to look at divides the body into chest/back, legs/abs and delts/arms. I think I first saw this from Charles Poliquin although it was meant to be used on a 5-day rotation rather than a full calendar week. Dan Duchaine also presented it as a weekly training program in Body Contract with each day of training done once per week. For illustration I will show the Poliquin version with a 5 day rotation along with showing 2 weeks of training.
The pros of this workout are that chest/back can be supersetted although it also means putting two big fatiguing body parts in the same workout. Invariably, one or the other may suffer. Legs/abs is standard stuff, also fatiguing and delts/arms is kind of the lighter workout. Here’s what it looks like over two weeks with four workouts per week.
And the workouts just keep rotating.
I think you can see the problem that crops up immediately. In week 1, the second chest and back workout comes the day after delts and arms and that is going to pretty much ruin the workout since nobody trains chest and back effectively under those conditions.
The situation is a little bit better in week 2 since delts/arms on Tuesday gives a day of rest before chest/back on Thursday but the same dynamics are still present. Fatigue from the delts/arms workout hurts chest/back. Ultimately, this approach is a non-starter.
This identical problem crops up to a slightly lesser, but still present, degree in the original 5-day rotation it was presented in.
Again, the workouts just keep rotating. This workout has a practicality program in that it requires weekend training and each workout falls on different days of the week. For a majority of trainees, their training runs on the calendar week making this unworkable.
A second option is that the delts/arms workout comes two days before chest and back. Depending on individual recovery and the intensity of the delts/arms day, that gives the potential for residual fatigue. Overall I just don’t think this schedule is really workable unless it’s moved to hitting everything only once per week ala Duchaine’s Body Contract. I’v shown two options below
Practically these aren’t that significantly different. And yes you could set them up in different sequences (i.e. Legs on Monday or Friday). I simply choose to separate the two upper body days since they have the greatest potential for overlap.
Option 1 is at least workable since most will recover from the Friday delts/arms workout over the weekend. Then again, to make this work, workout volume has to be roughly doubled from a higher frequency approach which means upwards of 12 sets per muscle group. Depending on individual recovery, delts/arms on Friday might leave someone wrecked by the time Monday rolls around. That’s an individual recovery issue.
For option 2, I just reversed the delts/arms and chest/back days to Monday and Friday respectively. Someone would have to have truly sucky recovery to not be ready for the Friday chest/back with three full days from the Monday delts/arms workout. Still, Friday’s chest/back might negatively impact on Monday’s delts/arms. Whether or not anybody cares is up to them.
If there is a general problem with this split, it’s two-fold. The first is that the chest/back workout is pretty gruelling, especially if the volume is high (as in the once/week schedule) while delts/arms much less intensive.
The delts/arms workout can also be a little bit “weird” to set up due to the fact that most shoulder movements are either pressing oriented (meaning a lot of triceps) or isolation work. A properly done upright row is sort of pulling but biceps aren’t heavily involved.
This just means that working out how much extra triceps work to do (due to the overlap) versus direct work needs to be done can be strange. Setting that up is a different topic for a different day. It’s not intractable and I think the unevenly distributed workload of the workouts is the bigger issue. In the big picture, I think there are better ways to go about it.
Three-Way Split Routine 2
While I really wanted to look at this one last, the next logical split routine for me to look at is the classic push, pull, legs split. Or rather, chest/shoulders/triceps, legs/abs, back/lats/biceps. It’s just a clustering of all pulling movements on one day, lower body and core on another, and all pulling on a third day.
It has some of the drawbacks of the upper/lower I presented above in the sense that triceps and biceps often take a bit of a hit intensity wise at the end of their respective workouts. But you can also look at it in the same sense that they don’t need much work (a handful of sets) since they are so heavily involved in everything that has come before.
I’m going to assume 4 workout days and show how one way of sequencing this will rotate across a 2-week span.
You can see that each workout is done roughly every 5th day and that the workouts simply rotate through the weeks, repeating themselves every two weeks. But there is one huge problem.
Every two weeks, the pull workout on Monday comes before legs on Tuesday. This brings up the same issues I mentioned in the two-way split where upper back fatigue may negatively impact the leg workout. Once again, this depends on what lower body movements are being done. Squat, RDL, and deadlift don’t go well with a tired upper back. Leg press and leg curl is fine.
A second issue is that the shoulder girdle is being hit pretty hard two days in a row with push followed every week. This can cause shoulder problems down the road. But this is easily remedied by switching the split to pull/push/legs as shown below.
Now, instead of having a pulling workout coming before legs in Week 2, there is a pushing workout. Certainly shoulder fatigue from heavy benching could cause problems but, in general, pushing workout don’t negatively impact on legs as much as back workouts do.
Another option would be to do this as legs/push/pull but the same problems start immediately with pull coming before legs in Week 1. So this isn’t really workable.
Legs, pull, push puts push workouts before legs but still has the issue of shoulder girdle being worked hard two days in a row.
One issue that is essentially unconsidered is the fact that the triceps long-head is involved in both pushing and pulling movements (it is a shoulder extensor which means it works during rows and pulldowns). If you really want to get up your butt with this, you could consider the potential for push and pull days to negatively impact each other. People for whom the triceps is a very limiting body part are more likely to experience this.
Three-Way Split Routine 4
Although I’m still no huge fan of this approach to training, the push, pull, legs split routine can work very well if each is only done once per week (with much higher volumes per workout). I’ve shown 4 options below.
You could also put legs on Monday and do Push Wed and Pull Friday or vice versa. Those are just mirror images of Option 1 and 2.
Frankly any of those options work just fine. If there is a small potential issue it’s the long-head triceps issue I brought up above. Option 1 and 2 have this problem where fatigue from Monday might impact on Wed.
Option 3 and 4 avoid that completely and are functionally fairly equivalent. Legs splits the two upper body workouts and it’s just a function of which you do on Monday and which on Friday. Let us not forget that Monday is universal bench press day. Either do push on Monday for that reason or save it for Friday since all the benches will be taken.
Option 3 has the minor issue of back fatigue impacting on compound lower body training on Wed but thats about it.
And option 4 eliminates that. Push day on Monday gives plenty of time for triceps to recovery by Friday and pulling doesn’t hit triceps long-head nearly as directly so there’s unlikely to be an issue the following Monday. And legs just falls right in the middle without a Monday back day to cause problems with squats are RDL’s. Frankly, as much as I dislike training each muscle group once/week, this split avoids nearly all of the problems inherent in the others save one.
That has to do with the shoulders possibly not getting worked as effectively on Monday after heavy pressing. This occurs any time both chest and delts are worked in the same workout and the solution is just to forget about heavy overhead pressing after your triceps are tired. A properly done upright row with or without laterals is plenty.
To address that let me look at one another split.
Three-Way Split Routine 5
A potential three-way split to eliminate the above problem would be to move delts to the lower body day to give the following split routine: chest/triceps, legs/delts/core, back/biceps. This automatically brings up a problem which is that the shoulder girdle is being worked at every workout. Eventually this can cause shoulder problems.
Once again, if you’ve had shoulder or rotator cuff problems, you already know why this can be a danger. If you haven’t had them, well…realistically eventually you will and maybe you’ll understand why I’m so conservative on this topic.
But ignoring that, here is one sequencing option.
I don’t even have to show the second week as a huge problem crops up immediately. Legs/delts on Thursday will basically wreck chest and triceps on Friday. So this sequence is a non-starter.
So let’s look at a different order: chest/triceps, legs/delts, back/biceps.
This sequence has no enormous problems except for the Thu/Fri sequence in Week 2. Here chest/triceps will impact negatively on delts the next day. It’s also a lot of stress on the shoulder girdle.
The next order to try is back/biceps, chest/triceps, legs/delts.
The same basic comments as above hold. Chest/triceps is the day before legs/delts and it’s a lot of shoulder girdle stress.
Finally is back/biceps, legs/delts, chest/triceps
And the same problem from the first option shows up, Week 2 has chest/triceps following a delt workout making this a non-starter.
Finally, this fits extremely well into a one workout per week approach even I don’t care for this kind of training.
The two problematic options are 3 and 6 with the potential of the legs/delt workout impairing chest/triceps 2 days later. All of the others are workable although all share the same global issue of shoulder girdle stress. But this is a problem inherent to this approach no matter what type of sequencing is being done.
And to really drive the point home:
There are two types of people. Those that have had shoulder problems and those that will have shoulder problems.
Once you’ve experienced them, you’ll understand why I tend to emphasize this so much.
Three-Way Split Routine 6
And let me look at one final variation on the original push, pull, legs approach. This is for those people (i.e. all men) who just aren’t happy if they aren’t blasting their arms with too many sets. The approach here is to move all arm work to the leg day to get a chest/delts, legs/arms, back/lats schedule.
This avoids the constant shoulder girdle issue although delts may suffer after chest. Back which is the most complex muscle group gets it’s own day which is not inherently a bad thing. Legs is exhausting but tacking on some arm work usually isn’t a huge deal unless you want to go nuts with volume. Which of course all men do.
A Homework Assignment
Now, since I’m tired of making eye-straining charts, here’s an assignment, using that split write out the different options just as I have for the other split routines I talked about. Just vary the order of the workouts throughout the week and see what problems crop up immediately.
Hint: it will be when legs/arms comes before either the chest/delts or back/biceps day since arm fatigue will ruin either workout.
Because the real point of this article was less to examine every split routine and more to give you some principles to think about. Most people seem to set up split routines (or choose exercises) seemingly at random without any thought to some of the issues I’ve hopefully made you aware of. Writing it out will hopefully bring those to light. So pick the split and days of the week you want to train and write out the options to see what order makes more or less sense.
And of course you can do the same thing for any other split routines. By the time you get to four way splits, the number of possible iterations becomes damn near unlimited and anything you can think of has probably been done.
But draw it out and see how it fits in the training week, what problems crop up when one workout falls in front of or after another one. You’ll find that any time you solve one problem, another usually shows up. But life, she is full of these little compromises.