Hypertrophy Training Splits (Building Muscle… Fast!)
Written By Rich Maait
How should I structure my program to build the most muscle?
There has never been a more confusing time than right now to be a beginner or even an intermediate trainee. With social media adding a constant barrage of content to the already perplexing catacombs of the internet, often from sources that many can struggle to differentiate as reputable or not, it has become difficult to tell whose advice is worth taking. Unfortunately for the general public, frequently the people providing information or advice that isn’t necessarily sound are the ones who are the most confident and the best presenters. Whilst this definitely isn’t always the case, it’s important to remember that when you’re scrolling through Instagram or travelling down the YouTube wormhole those people who have the best physiques, or the slickest content aren’t always the ones that you should be trusting. It’s a sad but true paradox that there are so many extremely intelligent people out there in the world of fitness who suck at getting in front of a camera and sharing their knowledge and so many people who don’t even understand the most fundamental concepts who light up the screen.
One of the most misunderstood basic principles are training splits. A “training split” is simply creating a resistance training program that breaks up your individual muscle groups into different days in a cycle. This is often over the course of a seven-day week but there is no set rule. Training splits can be four, five, eight or nine days depending on an individual’s goals and specific requirements. If I had a dollar for every time I cringed hearing from a young male in the gym that they’re following their favourite fitness personality’s single muscle group split or a female who is new to lifting joining in on her boyfriend’s typical “bro split” then I’d definitely be able to afford to work far fewer hours (ironically working on a gym floor where I’m hearing all these stories and earning all this imaginary money).
Before we get into the different kinds of training splits and how you can best apply them, I want to make it very clear that what you train on any given day is most definitely not going to be a huge determining factor for the average person’s results (or lack thereof) in the gym. It’s far too regularly that I’m questioned about training splits by a beginner or intermediate lifter and their mood is as if it’s a life or death situation. The fact of the matter is that if you can’t perform exercises well enough and can’t train hard enough to create an adequate stimulus, what you train on any given day isn’t going to save you. So, if you’re just starting out or you’re reading this because you feel like you need to break some new ground, I highly recommend digesting some content that’s going to help with your execution and intensity as well as what your program looks like, as it’s definitely more important. That’s not to say your split doesn’t matter, it’s just not a big deal as John ‘550k followers’ Doe would make you believe.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty and look at things we need to consider to determine what training split will suit our current situation, please note that we are discussing hypertrophy, essentially I’m hoping to tell you how to choose a split that may be a factor that assists you in building the most amount of muscle.
The factors that you need to pay the most amount of attention to when choosing or setting up a training split are: The stimulus that you can create within a workout and how well/quickly you can recover from the said stimulus. Let’s use an example of a split that is quite common, upper body push, followed by upper body pull, followed by the lower body. If your execution and intensity dialed into a level where you can create a good amount of stimulus and on your upper body pull day you perform heavy deadlifts, then you follow that day with your lower body day that has maximum effort squats, you may run the risk of not being able to create adequate stimulus due being under-recovered from a central nervous system perspective.
The other key consideration when it comes to recovery is looking at it from a mechanical damage standpoint. One of the major elements to successfully hypertrophying a muscle is the frequency at which you can effectively train it (effectively being the operative word here).
If the stimulus you are creating within a workout is sufficient and you’re able to recover quickly then logic would dictate that the more frequently you can do that the more muscle you will be able to build, however it is important to note that if you are not able to sufficiently recover from damage caused to a particular muscle before you go targeting it once again then you will reach a point of diminishing returns and may end up doing yourself a disservice to the point of your progress heading in the exact opposite direction of where you would like it to be going.
Now that you (hopefully) have a solid understanding of how creating proper stimulus and your ability to recover govern how you’re going to set up your training split, we are going to take a look at the major variations of them:
As the name would suggest, a whole-body split is where you would hit almost every major muscle/muscle group every time you undergo resistance training. The whole-body split is definitely my recommendation for everyone who is new to weight training and I believe you should always start here (or even revert back here and get those first two principles, execution and intensity, completely down. An extremely intelligent bodybuilder/educator who I have learned a lot from, Jordan Peters, not only recommends this, but actually did it himself as a super advanced athlete for an entire year and added a bunch of new muscle). A common way to approach a whole-body split is to train every other day. Generally, these workouts will consist of one exercise per muscle group and the recovery demands are not very high, so to quote the man I just mentioned, Jordan, “maximum frequency, zero fluff.” His key point: just learn how to train hard.
- Half-Body (Push/Pull or Upper/Lower)
There are a couple of different ways to approach a half-body split, the first is push (i.e. working the ‘pushing’ muscles: chest, shoulders, triceps, quads and calves) and pull (i.e. working the ‘pulling muscles: both lats and upper back musculature, biceps, hamstrings and glutes) the second (and my personal preference) is upper body and lower body. This is generally where you would progress a split after spending some time training whole-body and you have progressed your execution and intensity to point where you are no longer getting adequate stimulus within those workouts. Generally, the increase in stimulus is going to come from an increase in total volume (total sets and reps) but often with that you will (hopefully) see a rise in intensity that will also impact on recovery so moving to a more ‘advanced split’ is warranted.
- Upper Push/Upper Pull/Legs
Hopefully by this point you are starting to see how the principles that we touched on in the beginning play into selecting a training split and when it’s time to progress to the next one. Understanding these principles will mean that you can effectively gauge when it is time to move on. The next thing to consider that connects to your progression with intensity and execution is your exercise selection. As you acquire the skill of being able to train harder then as you go through your workouts you’ll run into the problem of not being able to perform your later exercises to the point where the stimulus is satisfactory due to the fact you have pushed the ones that are at the start of the workout harder than you originally ever could. Once you get to this place it is good time to move to a split that will allow you to focus on less muscles per session and make it easier to divide that total volume around the session. For the most part, sessions should be structured with your “hardest” movements in the beginning (these are generally compound movements that allow you to handle more load) and the “easier” movements toward the end (these are generally isolation exercises that will involve fewer secondary muscles and will normally be loaded less). Upper Push, as the name suggests, consists of the pushing muscles but only the upper body ones, so the Pecs, Delts and Triceps. Upper Pull is training all of your back musculature (Lets, Rhomboids, Teres, Traps and rear Delts) as well as biceps. Lower is everything from the waist down, so the Glutes, Hamstrings, Quads and Calves (although it is not uncommon to place calves on other days as opposed to or additional to lower body days). This is a more advanced split and beginners usually will not require that level of volume so I always recommend spending a good amount of time in the first two split options we covered before progressing here (note, when I say ‘good amount of time’ there are no set rules for this, however, more often than not, it is years – not months or weeks).
- Single Muscle Group or “Bro Split”
Perhaps the most polarizing and misunderstood of all the splits is the typical “Bro Split”. Which, as far as I know, has been a part of bodybuilding since bodybuilding became a thing. In recent history the Bro split has seen a drop in popularity due to the fact that most people, particularly within the fitness industry, have realised that they definitely don’t need to be using it. There have been, and always will be, many athletes who have built outstanding physiques (often some of the best in the world) however they are usually very advanced bodybuilders who need so much stimulus to grow a particular muscle that a single body part a day is the only way for them to do that. Recovery is also a consideration here, in some cases individuals get their training to a point where they are pushing so hard they need more than 4-5 days to recover from the damage. Remember, frequency (how often you can train a muscle, is the key factor to making it grow.
There is one more split option/concept that I have not addressed in this article, and that is training when you have a lagging or priority body part. When your goal is aesthetic, once you start actually gaining muscle you may find that certain ones aren’t growing as the rate others are. This is often an issue that is connected to execution or intensity rather than genetics, which is what most people blame it on. It might not even be the case that a particular body part is lagging, it could just be that you prefer the look of really big legs or really big shoulders. Many females that I work with highly prioritize their glute training which massively affects their training split.
To sum it up, don’t ever forget that if we were to list factors for success in building muscle, what you train on a particular day is definitely NOT on the top of the list. So if you’re in a place where you feel as though your results are up to the standard that you would like, I highly recommend taking a look at your execution and intensity first and foremost.
Keep your eyes peeled to this blog as in a future article I plan to cover how to create your own split if you have a priority body part as well as taking a deeper dive into the topics of exercise selection and structuring workouts within these splits.
If you would like truly individualized help working on any of the principles that I’ve discussed, all the information about coaching can be found at www.bodyfactorybali.com/perform.