The Single Most Effective Workout Split

Faster Gains for Smart Lifters

3 Ways to Organize Your Training

While there are several ways of organizing your week in the gym, here are the most common approaches:

Here, you devote separate days to obliterate specific muscle groups or body-regions. Here's a common example:

  • Monday: Back
  • Tuesday: Chest
  • Wednesday: Quads/Hamstrings
  • Thursday: Shoulder/Calves
  • Friday: Biceps/Triceps
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

The idea behind the bro split is that by focusing on only one or two muscle groups per session, you're able to work them really hard. Which is why (in theory at least) you only need to train them once a week. More on that sketchy rationale in a bit.

In this arrangement, you train lower body twice a week and upper body twice a week, in rotating fashion, like this:

  • Monday: Lower Body
  • Tuesday: Upper Body
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: Lower Body
  • Friday: Upper Body
  • Saturday: Off
  • Sunday: Off

The upper/lower split is currently popular among powerlifters, and it's a good way to train.

Perform exercises for all (actually "most") muscle groups each training day. Typically, you'll train 3 days per week:

  • Monday: Whole Body
  • Tuesday: Off
  • Wednesday: Whole Body
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday: Whole Body
  • Saturday: Off
  • Sunday: Off

While you can make progress using any of these splits, my experience is that the whole body option is best for most lifters. Allow me to quickly qualify my definition of "most" just so we're all on the same page:

  • Most lifters aren't competing in a high-level physique contest where they'll lose points if their calf-to-arm ratio is off. They simply want to be bigger and stronger and look like they obviously lift.
  • Most lifters aren't massively muscled guys who can (for example) squat over 700 pounds or bench north of 500.
  • While most lifters love to hit the weights, they probably have other interests and obligations as well. For example, they might have a job, or even a family, or both. (I know! Crazy, right?)

If you happen to fit this definition of "most," perfect. If not, stick around anyway because I'll be presenting three strategies that you'll find useful no matter how you currently train.

Most of the time, even if you're working very hard, the muscle(s) you just trained Monday night will be recovered by Wednesday morning. If you don't train them again on Wednesday, you'll be losing ground, which obviously, is suboptimal.

The exception to this rule? Let's say you weigh 302 pounds, have less than 12% body fat, and have workouts that consist of paused back squats at 650 pounds for sets of 6, among other Herculean accomplishments.

If that describes your situation, you might best be served by an upper/lower split, or perhaps even a bro split, because the more weight you lift (in absolute terms), the more damage your muscles experience. And the more muscle you have, the more muscle that you're damaging with your workouts. Both of which mean you need more time to recover.

If, on the other hand, you weigh 175 and squatted 315 pounds for sets of 8 last night (which is pretty impressive), you'll be good to go in 2-3 days. Extending this example, if you weigh 130 and squatted 195 pounds for 4x8, you'll be ready to train again in 36 hours, give or take.

Note: Don't get caught up too much in how you "feel" after a training session. As John Broz loves to say, "The way you feel is a lie." Recovery is best assessed by how you perform. If you wake up absolutely torched from your last session but still manage to hit your expected numbers, you've recovered.

Consider this: Using a bro split, you train 5 times a week (suboptimal in terms of efficiency) while training each muscle group only once a week (suboptimal in terms of effectiveness).

The upper/lower split is a bit better: Training 4 times a week, you hit each muscle 2 times per week.

However, using the whole body approach: you receive the benefit of maximum effectiveness with maximum efficiency because while training only 3 times per week, each muscle region is stimulated 3 times during the week.

Here are those numbers expressed graphically for ease of comparison:

Workout Frequency

Now of course, if you're freakishly big and strong, the price you'll need to pay is inefficiency: Your muscles take so long to recover after each workout, you can only train them roughly once a week. By extension, that means you need to train at least 5 days a week to cover all your bases, muscularly speaking.

The thing is, most of us have the luxury of more effective options, so why suffer needlessly?

Whole-body training allows you to perform your exercises in "circuit" fashion, rather than completing all sets for one exercise before moving to the next. Now it's true that even on a bro split, you can use this circuit arrangement, but the fatigue is still fairly localized. For example, on back/chest workout, you could use the following bro-split circuit:

  • Dip
  • Pull-up
  • Incline Dumbbell Press
  • T Bar Row

When training a whole body split however, fatigue is more widely dispersed between different muscle groups. For example:

  • Front Squat
  • Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Low-Cable Row

Regardless of what split you use, you can further maximize recovery between sessions by using different exercises and or set/rep brackets each training day. Fatigue is stressor-specific, so simply by varying stressors you'll recover even faster (and likely reduce your susceptibility to overuse injuries as well). Here's an example:

Monday: 4x10 (4 sets of 10 reps)

Wednesday: 5x8

Friday: 3x12

Not only does this strategy accelerate recovery and reduce overuse injuries, it also ensures more complete muscular development. Consider that in the example above, incline presses stress mostly the clavicular (upper) pecs; decline presses stress primarily the lower (sternal) pec fibers; and push-ups stress mostly the middle pecs.

Note: While the above exercise menus will stimulate growth (directly or indirectly) in nearly every cosmetic muscle group for most people, some lifters may find they need additional direct work for lagging or "favorite" muscles, like biceps, triceps, abs, and/or calves. When this is the case, exercise menus can be adjusted accordingly.

There are a few very subtle deceptions inherent with bro splits in particular:

  1. The biggest, strongest dudes seem to use them. The deception here is that you're only seeing what these dudes do NOW, not what they did to get there.
  2. When using a bro split, you'll actually have a "better" workout. After all, if you're only training back and chest, you can do more exercises per muscle, and you can train each muscle more intensely and with more focus than you could if you were training "whole body."

However, over time, since muscle protein synthesis (MPS) will likely cease in 36-48 hours no matter how great the workout was, you won't make as much progress since your next workouts always come "too late" relative to when your muscles are ready to be stimulated again.

These two phenomena should make you appreciate the famous quote, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."

If you've been using a specific split for years but progress has all but become a faded memory, for the simple sake of variety you might switch your strategy and see what transpires.

And most especially, if you're not yet in the 1200 club (300 bench, 400 squat, 500 deadlift) and you're using a bro split, I can't state this strongly enough: Go whole body for 12 weeks and you'll be shocked at the results.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook