Body-Part Splits Are For Newbs and Drug Users
Body-part split routines are a rite of passage for just about every lifter. You know, Monday chest day, Tuesday back day, Wednesday leg day etc. Most of the time, each major muscle group is targeted and hit on its own day and trained once every 7 days or so. It works. At least, it works for a while.
Initially, body part splits provide a good training stimulus for growth. After all, everything works for a new lifter. And sure, pro-bodybuilders, for whom training is a full-time job, can keep getting results by blasting away on the same split for years on end. But of course they have certain "advantages."
But after the newbie-gains well runs dry, your body-part split is actually holding you back from continued growth. Here are five reasons why it doesn't work for long, and some better options.
There's no question that a body-part split provides ample opportunity for blitzing every muscle group. You won't work the same muscle group for another week, but you need that much time for those muscles to recover.
There's a better way to train, though. Suppose that instead of 3 sets each of 4 exercises for a muscle (12 sets total), you did 3 sets each of 3 exercises for a muscle twice per week (18 sets total).
Although you'd be unable to match the volume per workout of a body-part split, the latter scenario would result in a sleeve-busting 50% increase in weekly volume compared to the traditional body-part split.
In fact, a recent meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld confirmed that higher training frequency induced greater mass gains than a body-part split routine, even when volume was matched between groups. The increases are likely due to more frequent breakdown of muscle tissue and subsequent protein synthesis.
An oft-neglected way to improve strength and mass is by improving technique. Just take a look around at the piss-poor technique most scrawny lifters display and compare it to how fluidly the biggest lifters execute their movements.
Lifting weights is a skill, a skill that only gets better with practice. Ask any world-class pianist, ballerina, or artist, and they would agree: You can't just show up once a week and expect to perfect your craft. Yet by working each muscle only once a week, as with a body-part split, that's exactly what you're doing. On the flip side, by increasing frequency, you give yourself more opportunities to practice.
The end result is increased neuromuscular efficiency, or the ability to recruit more muscle faster, which leads to greater force output (strength). Pavel Tsatsouline refers to it as "greasing the groove."
In practice, this might include back squatting on Monday and front squatting on Thursday. Or heavy bench press on Tuesday and speed bench press on Friday. Even goblet squats during your daily warm-up routine can go a long way towards improving your squat mechanics, not to mention adding hassle-free volume for your lower body.
You're not Mr. Olympia, so don't try to train like him. You're now free to move about the cabin.
Seriously, you're probably not a world-class bodybuilder. You probably have a full-time job, partner, and kids. All in all, you probably don't have hours on end each day to devote to training, nor tons of money to drop on performance enhancing drugs that allow three-hour back workouts. So why on earth would you use the same training split as one of those guys?
Of course, just because you only have a few hours to train every week doesn't mean you can't get bigger and stronger. It just means you have to pick a routine that's more suited to your lifestyle and abilities. Ditch the shackles of the body-part split and free yourself to explore more realistic methods.
The optimal training splits for the everyman and woman are full body, push/pull, and upper/lower. These splits allow you to scale your goals to be more realistic and easier to conquer. Instead of trying to tack on long workouts on top of an already busy workweek, all you'll need are 3-4 sessions per week of 30-60 minutes.
Once you make this change, a crucial mental shift will occur. Instead of each workout representing a huge barrier (especially leg day), every workout will feel more like a conquerable opportunity, enabling you to approach the iron with consistent intensity and laser-like focus.
Imagine the following scenario. It's International Chest Day, sometimes referred to as "Monday." You attack chest day with feverish enthusiasm. Then Tuesday rolls around. With less enthusiasm and a whole lot of DOMS, you hit back day.
On Wednesday, life throws you a curve ball and you can't go to the gym. You continue your body-part split plan on Thursday, but get thrown off again on Friday when your kiddo gets the flu or your job runs overtime. The next time chest day rolls around, it's been well over a week since you last hit your pecs. If that happens often, you're going to end up training chest just two or three times a month!
In contrast, if you trained your entire body every session, or even opted for an upper/lower or push/pull split (alternating days of anterior chain and posterior chain exercises), you'd never abandon entire muscle groups for over a week.
Your body is an incredibly adaptable machine. Stress, as applied through weight training, causes your cells and tissues to adapt and become stronger. When you hit the weights hard, your body adapts so the next bout is easier.
But continued gains are only made if new stress is added over time. The body-part split that gave you your first taste of iron and ballooned you up into a miniature Hulk eventually stops working. The easiest way to introduce new stress and force new adaptations is to switch up the split as soon as you recognize you're stagnating.
Again, the best options are:
- Full Body
(Special thanks to Travis Pollen for his contributions to this article.)
- Schoenfeld BJ et al. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and eta-analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. PubMed.