I want to continue from last week’s article about split routine sequencing, where I focused only on two-way split routines and some of the issues that come up in terms of sequencing the different workouts, and look at three-way splits. In this situation, the body is split into three different “parts” (in terms of muscles worked).
Once again I’m making a couple of assumptions in what I’m going to look at. The first is that someone is only training four days per week without weekend. This honestly doesn’t change that much in a practical sense whether you add a fifth day or allow weekend training. It’s a touch more flexible but the same basic problems crop up. The second is that each muscle group is being trained roughly twice per week or every fifth day.
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.
If someone wants to hit everything only once/week (and while I have previously been critical of this, Brad Schoenfeld’s research on the topic has made me reconsider it). There can still be problems but they become a lot less of an issue here.
I want to emphasize, since some people seemed to miss this, that I can’t possibly cover every possible approach to splitting a routine (someone asked me about some specific split but my goal was never to cover every possibility) or frequency or days of the week. By the time you get to three-way splits the possibilities become increasingly endless and allowing for more days per week or whatever makes the number of possible variations insane. Rather, try to focus on the principles of what I’m talking about, issues you may not have considered in terms of the order that you work a given muscle group within a week’s time.
So let me look at some different approaches to the three-way split along with issues that come up with sequencing.
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 (Dan Duchaine presented it in his Body Contract workout but with each workout only once/week) and it was meant to be used on a 5 day schedule that rotated. While that slightly solved some of the issues that happen due to my assumptions, it kind of didn’t and to demonstrate that I will look at how it works over two weeks of training as well.
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.
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 (also falling on different days of the week which can be it’s own hassle) but in every 5 day cycle, delts and arms are getting trained two days before chest/back. And that’s going to cause problems due to fatigue. Overall, I think this cycle is simply unworkable unless it’s moved to hitting everything only once/week. I’ll go ahead and show that just to show it.
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.
If there is a 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 is a lot less so. 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. That’s 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. There are probably better ways to go about it.
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.
It has some of the drawbacks of the upper/lower I presented in Part 1 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 want to look at a couple of different sequencing options, again 4 workouts per week and no weekends.
Again the workouts rotate throughout the week and there aren’t huge problems with it except one. Every two weeks, the pull workout will come before legs (Monday/Tuesday of Week 1) which brings up the same issue with upper back being fatigued and limiting many lower body exercises such as squats, deadlifts and RDLs. The shoulder girdle is getting hit pretty hard two days in a row as well which can cause some people shoulder problems. This is easily remedied by switching to pull/push/legs as shown below.
Pushing workouts don’t tend to hurt lower body movements quite as much as pulling exercises. Certainly the shoulder girdle can be tired but it’s really upper back that is the problem area here. You could do it as legs/push/pull but immediately the same problem with pull coming before legs comes up (I’ve only shown one week) so that’s not workable.
Legs/pull/push works like this which the same issue of shoulder girdle getting hit hard two days in a row which can be problematic.
An issue often unconsidered is that triceps long-head is involved in both pushing and pulling movements (it’s a shoulder extensor which means it works during rows and pulldowns). If you want to get really detailed, the push day can potentially hurt the pull day and vice versa. And people for whom, for whatever reason, triceps are a very limiting muscle group often notice this to a significant degree.
This split is actually one that fits very very easily into a one workout per week schedule and I’ve shown four different options below.
And frankly just about any version of the above you can come up with has very few issues with maybe the big considerations being the triceps long head thing I mentioned above. Option 1 and 2 have the biggest potential issues here due to how close the workouts are to one another that both involve the triceps. Option 3 and 4 are functionally pretty damn equivalent. Option 3 has two potentially minor problems as well. If someone wrecks their back on Monday, this could conceivably impact on the Wednesday leg workout. As well, someone who just wrecked their triceps might have an issue with pulling on the following Monday pull workout.
Even that is eliminated for Option 4. Push day on Monday gives 3 days for triceps to recover by Friday and the back workout on Friday doesn’t use triceps nearly as much to harm the push workout on the following Monday. If there is anything close to an ideal split and sequencing (assuming you’re willing to reduce training frequency) this might actually be it since almost every problem with other splits and sequences is eliminated except for one.
And that has to do with shoulders not getting worked as effectively as many like on the push day. It’s the same issue as in the upper workout I discussed in Part 1 since heavy compound chest work tends to really limit delt work. So long as you’re ok doing isolation movements for delts, it’s not a big deal. Upright rows and lateral raises can get it done to be honest but some people just feel this desperate need to do overhead pressing and that’s not going anywhere after heavy chest work. To address that let me look at one another split.
Split Routine 3
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. Probably the biggest negative of this approach, even before looking at sequencing is that the shoulder girdle is now getting worked at every workout. 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.
Here’s a first sequencing option: chest/triceps, back/biceps, legs/delts.
A problem shows up in the first week:Thursday’s delt workout will wreck Friday’s chest workout and this will happen every other week making the sequence unworkable. The second option is chest/triceps, legs/delts, back/biceps
To be honest, this sequence has no enormous problems. Yes, fine the triceps thing from above, chest/triceps may impair back/biceps but that’s really it beyond the global shoulder girdle issue.
The next is back/biceps, chest/triceps, legs/delts.
Same basic comment. No major problems show up beyond the global shoulder girdle except the triceps long head thing.
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.
This split can also fit just fine into a one workout per week approach.
Of those, Option 3 and 6 have the potential issue of delt fatigue impairing chest and back but all of the others more or less work fine. Again, there is still the underlying shoulder girdle issue to contend with but that holds across this particular split.
Split Routine 4
A final variation on the original push/pull/legs approach, this time for those people who just aren’t happy if they aren’t blasting their arms is to put arms on the leg day and sequence it as chest/delts, legs/arms, back/lats. 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. 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 hopefully the point of this two-part article series is 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.
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 crops up. But life, she is full of these little compromises.