The WeighTrainer

Making A Strength/Size Routine Part V: Splitting Your Routine

by Casey Butt, Ph.D.

It was suggested in Making A Strength/Size Routine Part IV: Training Frequency that a drug-free, genetically average weight trainer will not make optimal strength/size gains when training intensely more than three times per week. It was also suggested that a weight trainer not train a bodypart intensely more frequently than once every 2-3 days or less frequently than once every 7-8 days. So, to serve as a starting point for developing our routine, I'm going to break the options down into three groups.

  1. The trainee can complete all the exercises in one full-body workout and perform two or three training sessions per week - therefore training each bodypart two or three times per week.
  2. The trainee can split the exercises into two groups and perform each group on different days - training two or three times per week in total and each bodypart directly only once every four or five days (if training three times per week) or seven days (if training twice per week) .
  3. The trainee can split the exercises into three groups and perform each group on different days - training three times per week in total and each bodypart directly once every seven days.

For some, these options may seem to suggest a very low frequency approach. That is true. But keep in mind that when the purpose of the training routine is strictly muscle size and strength increases, a balance must be achieved which allows optimum hypertrophy stimulation while also providing sufficient rest for joint and connective tissue recovery. This allows the use of heavy training weights necessary to produce increases in both muscle size and strength. If priority was placed on weight loss rather than muscle and strength gain then the frequency and volume could be increased, but that is not the focus of this series.

Let's look at each possibility...

Completing all the exercises in one full-body workout and performing two or three workouts per week.

This would mean completing all of the major free-weight compound exercises in one session - for some people, that's a daunting task if full effort is to be put into each exercise (as it generally should be). However, I have much experience with this type of routine, both in training myself and others, and can confidently say that any healthy trainee can put forth the necessary effort ...if the routine is designed properly and the workload is built up gradually and conservatively. Part of that proper design is the guideline that beginners and people new to full-body routines complete only one major compound exercise for each of the body's major muscle groups (legs, back, chest and shoulders) - although a limited number of secondary isolation exercises may be included depending on the needs, experience and recovery capabilities of the lifter. Without fail, I have found that the determined person can complete such a routine and do each exercise justice ...although if the trainee is initially not accustomed to such intensive physical training a period of gradual conditioning may be necessary (see Beginners Part II: Practical Starting Routines for The Drug-Free Trainee for example routines which can be adopted for this purpose). Genetically typical trainees experienced with full-body training can perform two exercises per major body part - the experienced and gifted may even prosper from three, particularly on specially designated "heavy" days every second or third session.

There is a common misconception that full-body routines are only suitable for beginners. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is true that the widespread introduction of anabolic steroids into bodybuilding in the early-1960s allowed many trainees to prosper from much more elaborate and frequent training splits, this does not reflect on the suitability of the full-body program for even very advanced drug-free bodybuilders. In fact, some of the most heavily muscled drug-free bodybuilders in history, such as Clancy Ross, John Grimek and Reg Park, still come from the early-to-mid 1950s and trained, almost exclusively, on this type of routine. The original HIT master himself, Arthur Jones, was clear in his opinion about the superiority of full-body workouts for producing strength and size gains.

Clarence Ross

Reg Park

John Grimek

The major advantage of this type of workout structure is that because you are training the full body at each session, you can train each muscle group 2 or 3 days per week while still getting a full 4 or 5 days of complete rest also. On a split routine you may be placing systemic demands on your body for several days in a row, even if you are only training a few muscle groups on each day. And if on a full-body routine you can make fractional strength gains in each muscle group every 2-4 days, then you are going to progress faster than if you made fractional strength gains less frequently on a split routine.

The downside of this type of routine is that it does requires considerable energy to complete a full-body workout in one session (although I don't accept that this is a justified reason to not train on such a routine). To allow this to be possible, the number of exercises (especially isolation-type exercises) must be limited. For advanced bodybuilders in contest preparation, this may not be a desirable option. In fact, split routines were used by bodybuilders for pre-contest training as far back as the 1940s to allow more work to be done for each specific muscle group while still keeping each session under a reasonable length of time.

Lately, the specific total time of each weight training session has become of great concern to most bodybuilders. This concern originally arose because of practices of the Bulgarian Weightlifting team. In his tour of the United States, Bulgarian Weightlifting coach Ivan Abadjiev revealed that he limits his Weightlifters' individual training sessions to approximately 45 to 60 minutes because testosterone levels peak at around that time and decline thereafter. At the same time, catabolic hormone levels rise continuously throughout the workout. In addition, the longer you train the more your liver will convert amino acids from your skeletal muscles to glucose (a process called gluconeogenesis that occurs when blood glucose is low). Obviously, this is not something you'd want to promote. Subsequently, the theory has been commonly accepted that training sessions should not exceed one hour. And while the reasoning may be "new", popular training authors and coaches throughout history have recommended that even full-body sessions need not exceed this time - at least when strength and size is the training goal. In my personal collection I have bodybuilding/weight training texts as far back as at least 1905 which state this. Reg Park himself kept his full-body workouts to around one hour when in his "bulking" phases. Clearly, for full-body workouts to remain within this time guideline the number of total exercises performed at each session must be limited.

In the end, you'll have to weigh the potential benefits of full-body training sessions against the negatives. This type of routine may indeed be the most efficient way to train but, at least at first, only one free weight compound exercise should be performed for each bodypart (remember these are the "bread and butter" of your routine anyway) and possibly one isolation exercise for weak body parts that require additional attention. And don't let this "low-tech" approach to training fool you; more muscle has been built on this type of routine, throughout history, than any other. It must also be considered that split routines (along with scads of isolation exercises) and steroid use proliferated through bodybuilding at around the same time - the early-to-mid 1960's. Was that just coincidence or was it specifically the drugs that allowed people to gain on those types of routines?

Below are a couple of example routine templates of this sort. They should be performed two or three times per week.

CAVEAT: Most genetically typical trainees will not be able to tolerate training these routines heavy three times per week. In that case it is recommended that either different exercises be performed at each training session, or only one session per week be performed with maximum weights (the other two days being light and medium). See the end of this article for more details.

Splitting the exercises into two groups and performing each group on different days - training two or three times per week

If you are among the people who truly find full-body workouts too draining, then you may want to consider this option. Splitting the bodyparts two ways allows for shorter workouts than the full-body route and, therefore, may allow you to put more intensity into your gym efforts. And because there are only two workouts to perform, you may find that, similarly to the full-body approach, you can train a bodypart more often than once every seven days - maybe once every 5-6. This means that you would perform a workout once every second or third day, alternating between Workout "A" and Workout "B".

Be very leary of excessive exercise "overlap" on the two training days. For instance, Deadlifts and Squats both heavily tax the lower back. If you split your routine two ways, with Squats on one day and Deadlifts on the other, this may be too much strain on your lower back (especially if you choose to train three days per week) - a nasty lower back injury is not uncommonly the result. In this case, it would be wiser to perform both Squats and Deadlifts on the same day, allowing your lower back more recovery time before it is taxed again. Similarly, all forms of presses heavily stress the shoulders. It may be wise, therefore, to perform all pressing movements on the same day - especially if you train on this type of routine more than twice per week. As a general guideline, do not perform exercises that heavily stress the same muscle groups, particularly in similar fashions, more than twice per week. (For example, it is generally not wise to perform heavy presses for your shoulder girdle more than twice per week.)

Below are a couple of example routine templates of this sort.

If you feel that you can tolerate more work than the above templates prescribe then the best way to experiment with that is to start with a "base" routine, as given above, and add only one isolation exercise at a time. If your strength gains on the compound exercises don't suffer then you may add another. Eventually you will find the cut-off point where any additional isolation exercises would be detrimental to your progress. If strength progress (and therefore eventual visible size gains) is the judging criterion of a routine's effectiveness (as it should be) most people will find that they would be better off sticking to a "basics first" routine than one filled with "extras".

Alternating Workouts A and B while training three days per week is very similar to the "DogCrapp" training schedule that has become popular on the internet over the past few years. Performing only two workouts per week, one "A" and one "B", is the classic Hardgainer approach.

Splitting the exercises into three groups and performing each group on different days - training three times per week

This takes the process one step further. Avoid the temptation of adding frivolous exercises to your workout days merely because the compound exercises are split over three days and you feel you can do more on each day - this is a classic route to overtraining. Again, be cautious of exercise "overlap" on each of the three training days. Most trainees should not perform exercises that heavily stress the same muscle groups, in similar fashions, more than twice per week. If pure strength gains are your main priority and you're training on heavy, low-rep sets of the compound exercises then once per week is often better.

Below are a couple of example routine templates of this sort.

A three-day-per-week split scheme allows intense focus to be concentrated on just a few exercises each workout day. This makes the plan very popular among drug-free Powerlifters. If you like having only one "major" lift to concentrate on for each session then this type of plan may be for you. If you are the typically small-boned "hardgainer" type, however, you may find that this frequency is too much - you'd probably do better to adopt a two-way split and train only twice per week as described in option two, or train twice per week on the full-body approach described in option one. Hardgainers may also thrive on three-day-per-week full-body routines if each training session contains different exercises that stress the muscles on significantly different planes (different angles and leverages) and/or with different loading patterns (different set and rep schemes), or a heavy-light-medium scheme is imposed over the training days.

In any case, if you are drug-free, avoid the temptation to perform too many exercises at any one session. The above templates contain very little in the way of isolation exercises so that more effort may be devoted to the mass-building compound exercises. If you are an advanced trainee, however, you may choose to include the judicious use of additional isolation exercises - especially for lagging muscle groups. The templates allow for such additions, but they should not detract from potential gains on the compound exercises. Incidentally, Dave Goodin dominated the natural bodybuilding world for almost 20 years by following off-season routines similar to those outlined above.

Which One To Choose

If you want to know which scheme is "best" for you to follow, I suggest the following guidelines as a starting point:

But there are also other things to consider. If you work long hours, and find it difficult making it to the gym, then you would be better off going with the full-body approach or the two-way split and training infrequently. If you have time to spare, then you may chose any of the approaches and fix your schedule as is optimal for your progress (this process will be detailed in future articles in this series). Whichever one you initially choose remember that if your strength is not increasing fractionally at each bodypart session then you're doing something wrong. If everything is in order outside of the gym (e.g. rest, nutrition, stress levels) then either the routine or how you are applying yourself to it is amiss. Don't start adding unnecessary exercises to your routine because you think that will "shock" your body into growth. Try experimenting with your training frequency and/or set intensities instead. Whatever you do, don't spend your time slaving away at an unproductive approach. Experiment with your routine until you find the guidelines that work for you. Only you can know the routine that's right for you at this particular time (yes, it changes with time and experience too) - your own body will tell you.

Visit The WeighTrainer
Where Training Science Meets Training Reality
"Where Training Science Meets Training Reality"
Copyright 2001-2010 The WeighTrainer
All rights reserved