Split Routine Sequencing Part 1

Since I seem to write about exercise and training relatively less frequently (odd given that I started out in exercise physiology), I wanted to put down something that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while which has to do with split routines.  For anybody not familiar with the term, this is just any routine that splits the body into different muscle groups or bodyparts.  This distinguishes it from full-body routines (where the entire body is worked all at once in some form or fashion).

But I’m not just going to write another generic article about split routines; there are plenty of those around.  Rather, I 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.  Rather, 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.

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 least one or two 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 it’s advantages but every one brings it’s 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 I’ll show a variant that gets around this problem although it causes others.

The Upper/Lower Split Routine

A typical upper/lower workout might look like this (workout notation is setsXreps/rest interval in seconds).  I’m going to provide sample exercises but don’t read too much into them.  It would be better to think of it as pushing 1, pushing 2 or whatever.  Eventually I’ll write this up in far more detail but that’s not the point of this article.  Make no mistake, exercise selection does impact on much of what I’m going to talk about but then this article will start to get away from me length wise.

Upper Body Lower Body
Bench press 4X6-8/180″ Squat 4X6-8/180″
Row 4X6-8/180″ RDL 4X6-8/180″
Flye or Incline Bench 2-3X10-12/90″ Leg Ext or Split Squat
2-3X10-12/90″
Cable Pullover or Pulldown 2-3X10-12/90″ Leg Curl 2-3X10-12/90″
Lateral Raise 4X8-10/120″ Calf Raise 4X8-10/120″
Rear Delt 4X8-10/120″ Seated Calf 3X10-12/90″
Biceps 2-3X10-12/90″ Abs Whatever
Triceps 2-3X10-12/90″ Low Back Whatever

 

As I said above, some people don’t like that arms are tacked on at the end, I would again argue that the direct work from earlier in the workout makes too much superfluous (and I think most people do too much arm work in the first place).   The option on the second chest and back exercises have to do with individual differences in triceps and biceps endurance.  After the first compound push and pull, if arms are too tired to make a second compound movement effective, it’s better to do isolation.  If they aren’t, do a second compound movement.

Laterals are put in instead of a pressing movement for the same reason: if arms are trashed from the first movements, good luck doing shoulder press with any effectiveness.  People who want to emphasize overhead press have to make some major changes but that’s outside of the scope of this article.  Anyhow, with the above as a background, let me look at some sequencing issues.  Here would be two common ones (I’m leaving off the weekends clearly).

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 Upper Lower Off Upper Lower
2 Lower Upper Off Lower Upper
3 Upper Lower Upper Lower
4 Lower Off Upper Off Lower Upper

 

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).

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.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 C,D,T L,B,Bi,C Off C,D,T L,B,Bi,C Off
2 L,B,Bi,C C,D,T Off L,B,Bi,C C,D,T Off

 

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.  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.

One way to slightly balance the routines would be to move biceps from the lower body day to the chest/shoulder/triceps day so get chest/shoulders/arms and legs/back/core.  But this raises another sequencing issues.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 C,D,A L,B,C Off C,D,A L,B,C Off
2 L,B,C C,D,A Off L,B,C C,D,A Off

 

Option 1 has the problem that 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.

And believe it or not I’m going to stop there and talk about three-way split routines in Part 2.

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