Staley Strategies: The A-B Split

...and why I love it!

Categorized under TrainingWorkouts

When I look at all the questions that people send me, one of the
more common themes I notice is confusion around the topic of
putting together your weekly training cycle. So for my first
edition of The Staley Strategies, I thought I’d
elaborate on one of my all-time favorite strategies (this one being
a tactic, technically speaking): the A-B split.

Note: Attention Charlie Francis – I’m not saying I invented this idea. I’m sure you came up with
it long before I did!

Before tackling this particular method however, I’d like to
revisit and pay homage to my longstanding belief that there is not,
nor will there ever be, a “best” way when it comes to
training.

The physiologic principle of adaptation guarantees that even if
you managed to discover a strategy with no downsides, sooner or
later that strategy will lose its teeth as your body becomes more
and more efficient at handling the challenge it provides. This
phenomenon is absolutely inviolate – you’ll never find a way
around the law of gravity, and you’ll never devise the perfect
training method.

Having said that, I think the A-B split comes tantalizingly close
to perfect. Everyone can use it, almost all of the time, with
kick-ass results. That’s because the A-B split is a template: it won’t lock you out of your favorite
exercises, workout frequency, training method, or loading
parameters. Instead, it’ll just make them better.

So if you’re a Waterbury fan, an EDT fan, or a Dan John fan
for example, you can take these already great concepts and make
them (in my opinion) even more productive. This makes the A-B split
parasitic by nature. You’ll almost feel like you’re cheating!

What also makes the A-B split so powerful is its simplicity.
Here’s an idea I’ve been working from for a long time
now:

The most effective, powerful truths don’t need
references, because they’re intuitively obvious.

True story: I used to have a fitness column in a big men’s
lifestyle magazine. As I answered a question about avoiding shin
splints, I wrote: “Shin splints are caused by a sudden
increase in running or jumping volume.” The editor sends it
back asking me if I could put that “in plain English.”

At that exact moment, my (then) 15-year old daughter happened to
be downstairs in the kitchen. So I yelled over to her, “Hey
Ash, if I say ‘shin splints are caused by a sudden increase in
running or jumping volume,’ what do you think that means?” She
yelled back, “I guess it means if you start doing a lot more
running or jumping, it’ll give you shin splints?”

It’s intuitively obvious right? Okay.

How Do I Use The A-B Split?

Just follow these three steps:

Step One: Make a list of everything you need to do on a regular
basis. You can think of this in terms of muscles, motor qualities,
exercises, whatever. For the purposes of this article, I’ll
take a bodybuilding or general fitness approach and use muscles as
an example. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

Pecs
Lats
Quads
Hams
Adductors
Calves
Glutes
Biceps
Triceps
Delts
Traps
Abs
Forearms

Okay, I might have missed a few things. But if you’re training
all these muscles on a regular basis, you’ll also probably be
hitting the various small, ancillary muscles that support them. So
sue me.

Step Two: This is where we split your pile into two piles: an “A” pile and a “B”
pile:

“A” Pile
“B” Pile
Pecs/Front Delts Lats/Rear Delts
Quads Glutes/Hams
Adductors Forearms
Rectus Abdominus Obliques
Biceps Triceps
Traps Calves

By the way, as I separate this list into two piles, I’m
reminded why body part training is such a shitty idea: many muscle
groups almost always act together, unless you
manage to find some completely retarded, artificial way to bypass
what your nervous system is naturally designed to do. For example,
any time you’re training chest, your front delts and triceps
are being trained as well. And when you train glutes, you’re
also training your hamstrings and lumbar musculature.

Anyway, that’s why I combined several muscle groups in my
two piles above. (Again, you’ll notice I took a few liberties
to clean up the body part mess. For example, I just deleted direct
adductor, forearms, and trap work, since those muscles are taken
care of by front squats and deadlifts respectively.)

Another annoying aspect of using body part splits is that it
requires you to take the additional step of assigning exercises to
each muscle group. So let me dispense with that right here before
we go any further:

“A” Pile
“B” Pile
Barbell Bench
Press
Chins
Front
Squat
Deadlift
Rectus Abdominus Obliques
Standing Dumbbell Biceps
Curls
Lying Dumbbell
Triceps Extensions
Standing Calf
Raise
Seated Calf Raise

Step Three: Assign loading parameters. In other words, what type of
set/rep/rest interval arrangement do you want to use? This will
depend on your training objectives, and for most of you, it’ll
come down to whether your goals relate mostly to
strength/power/speed development, or hypertrophy/body composition.

In either case however, you can and should provide a good measure of variety with your loading parameters.
Let’s say you’re an aspiring powerlifter and you want
maximum strength without gaining body weight. The “ideal”
(again, be cautious with that concept) loading scenario would be
something like 6-8 sets of 2-3 reps per set, resting maybe 3-4
minutes between sets, give or take.

But this doesn’t mean you should apply these
parameters each and every workout – your nervous system will
habituate (read: become bored with) monotonous, unchanging
loading parameters, and your lifts will plateau about two to three
weeks after your joints start hurting like nobody’s
business.

Unraveling this problem requires the application of contrasting loading parameters: volume/intensity
distributions that don’t specifically target your primary
goal, but that provide support and recuperation for the more
specific loading. So, using maximal strength (actually, relative
strength) as an example, you might use the following two loading
schemes:

“A” Session “B” Session
Sets 6 5
Reps 2 4
Rest 4
minutes
3 minutes

Another way to provide sufficient load variation is to change
the parameters every cycle (in this case, we’ll call a “cycle”
three sessions). Here’s an example of what that might look
like:

Week One:

Monday: “A” Session (6×2, rest 4 minutes between
sets)

Wednesday: “B” Session (5×4, rest 3 minutes between
sets)

Friday: “A” Session (6×2, rest 4 minutes between
sets)

Week Two:

Monday: “B” Session (5×4, rest 3 minutes between
sets)

Wednesday: “A” Session (6×2, rest 4 minutes between
sets)

Friday: “B” Session (5×4, rest 3 minutes between
sets)

And so on and so forth…

Putting It All Together

You’ve now got two detailed training sessions ready to take
for a test drive. You’ll perform these two sessions in
alternating fashion, using whatever frequency you happen to like.
So if you prefer the tried-and-true Monday, Wednesday, Friday
format, it’ll look like this:

Week One:

Monday: “A” Session

Wednesday: “B” Session

Friday: “A” Session

Week Two:

Monday: “B” Session

Wednesday: “A” Session

Friday: “B” Session

And so on…

Now the beauty of this little plan is that you’ve got a lot
of flexibility built right in. Let’s say you have a hectic
week where you can only train twice. Just stick with the plan, like
this:

Week One:

Monday: “A” Session

Wednesday: No workout

Friday: “B” Session

Week Two:

Monday: “A” Session

Wednesday: “B” Session

Friday: “A” Session

Of course, it’s never ideal to skip a
workout, but the A-B approach minimizes the collateral
damage.

Now, if you’re one of those sick freaks who insists on
training 5-6 days a week, the A-B split will help to minimize the
downside of your obsessive-compulsive behavior, because the scheme
provides maximum variability or what I call separation – a key factor in successful recovery. The
overachiever’s plan looks like this:

Week One:

Monday: “A” Session

Tuesday: “B” Session

Thursday: “A” Session

Friday: “B” Session

Saturday: “A” Session

Week Two:

Monday: “B” Session

Tuesday: “A” Session

Thursday: “B” Session

Friday: “A” Session

And so on and so forth…

A Few Additional Thoughts & Applications

• Olympic weightlifters can have a snatch-oriented day
(“A” session) and a clean & jerk oriented day
(“B” session).

• Powerlifters can use a bench day (“A” Session)
and a squat day (“B” Session). Louie Simmons says you
don’t need much deadlift specific work, so if you’re down
with that, the A-B split works perfectly.

• Try an upper body and a lower body days using the A-B
format. If you’re training three days a week, each body region
gets trained three times every two weeks. For most
“average” drug-free trainees, this is probably an ideal
frequency.

• Strongmen competitors can alternate between event
training and resistance training sessions, like
this:

“A” Session “B” Session
Farmer’s
Walk
Power Clean/Push Press
Tire
Flip
Bench Press
Stones Deadlift

It wouldn’t be wise to habitually perform all of the events
on each event day, so just choose three to four events for each
session, maintaining a continuous rotation. Same with the weight
training.

• Kettlebell enthusiasts can alternate between a
“grinding” session and an “explosive” session.
Here’s an example:

“A” Session “B” Session
Snatch Get Ups
Long Cycle Clean &
Jerk
Military Press
Under-The-Leg
Pass
Windmill

Don’t Stop There!

Please don’t limit yourself to the specific applications
I’ve listed here! Instead, use these examples as a starting
point for your own creative applications of the A-B split. I know
you’ll find this method to be one of the most efficient and
result-producing strategies you’ve ever
encountered!