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Which workout split is best? This is what exercise science says...

Which workout split is best? This is what exercise science says…

If you’ve been in the gym long enough, someone would’ve ask, ‘what training split do you follow?’

Everyone wants to find the perfect training plan, but is these one training split or structure that delivers superior results compared to all the others?

That would depend on your goals, suggests science. Most gym-goers lift weights to improve their aesthetics, which is why they follow the split training routines popularised by bodybuilders over the last few decades.

READ MORE | 3 Strength Training Myths That Must Fall

Body part isolation

This traditional workout structure generally focuses on one muscle group per session, using multiple exercises to overload muscles with a combination of volume and intensity.

This workout split can follow a 7-day structure that looks something like this:

  • Day 1: Upper legs
  • Day 2: Chest
  • Day 3: Lower legs
  • Day 4: Shoulders
  • Day 5: Back
  • Day 6: Abs
  • Day 7: Arms

While this approach works, not everyone is after the same results. We also respond differently to training volumes and intensities, and have different daily schedules, and work and family commitments that may limit how many times we can get to the gym to train.

Interestingly, there’s also research that suggests that other approaches, like a 3-day, full-body program, might be as effective as a split body-part routine when it comes to developing more muscle.

READ MORE | Your Gym Routine Is Weak! Here’s How To Fix It

Is full-body better?

In one study, highly respected fitness and sports nutrition expert and researcher, Brad Schoenfeld, PhD and his colleagues investigated the effects of training muscle groups one day per week using a split routine, compared to training three days per week using a full-body routine.

The results showed that subjects in the full-body training group, which performed one exercise per muscle group during a session, with all muscle groups trained in each session, experienced significantly greater increases in muscle thickness compared to the split routine group, which targeted 2-3 muscle groups per session.

These findings led the researchers to conclude that there is “a potentially superior hypertrophic (muscle-building) benefit to higher weekly resistance training frequencies.” No significant differences were noted in maximal strength, though.

Try this full-body routine for an effective workout:

  1. Squats
  2. Lat pulldown
  3. Stiff-legged deadlifts
  4. Incline dumbbell presses
  5. Standing calf raises
  6. Lateral dumbbell raises
  7. Standing EZ bar curls
  8. Tricep pushdowns
  9. Sit-ups

Perform the workout 2-3 times a week, taking a full rest day or performing a cardio session in between. Perform 3 sets x 8 – 12 reps per exercise.

READ MORE | 10 Benefits To Full-Body Workouts

Deeper insights

As the researchers noted in their conclusion, targeting the same muscle 2-3 times a week on the full-body program, instead of once with the split routine, delivered the kind of muscle-building benefits you would normally associate with a traditional bodybuilding approach.

However, if you’re looking for a definitive answer as to which is best to build a better body based on these findings, you’re not going to find a either-or answer here.

Both approaches work to improve strength and muscle size when total volume remains the same, but one just worked better under the study conditions. Both routines can produce meaningful gains in strength and both improve body composition.

The third option

But before you decide on your preferred approach, there is also another option to consider. An upper-lower body workout split is also an intelligent way to program your weight training. 

It reduces the volume of work performed by individual muscles at each session, but enables you to train with greater frequency.

Think of it is the middle ground between a full-body and split routine. With this approach, you can target your upper and lower body up to three times a week, with enough time between sessions to ensure adequate recovery and with a total training volume that delivers the desired results.

If programmed correctly, total weekly training volume per muscle group will remain the same, but the stimulus is vastly different to a traditional split routine.

This approach is also effective to boost workout intensity, as multiple compound movements that target different upper-body muscle groups can be included in the workout. This boosts the metabolic effect of the workout to burn more calories, which delivers a beneficial conditioning effect.

Making your choice

The question you need to ask is, will one approach continue to deliver better results over time? Probably not, which is why a combination of the the three might be better. Based on the findings, a full-body approach may serve you best when trying to improve body composition or for fat loss.

On the other hand, the tried-and-trusted split training approach will deliver long-term benefits to aesthetic-focused training plans due to the beneficial testosterone response. Both approaches were equally effective at developing lean muscle mass.

This upper-lower split can then be incorporate periodically into a either plan for added variety, as an active form of recovery or to fine-tune body composition. It can also be used as a means to prioritise lagging muscle groups without losing conditioning in other areas of the body.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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