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Bodybuilding split routines

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There is no perfect weight training program that fits everybody – no, not even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s program. People have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, different training histories/abilities, and not least, different schedules. That’s why the best routine for you will be written by a knowledgeable and experienced trainer who knows everything about you. Failing that, the next best routine will be one you design yourself using knowledge gained from this very website, and experience that you gain as you go. In this articles, I’ll basically provide a framework and guidelines for you to use.

I design programs from the top-down, starting with training days. There’s no point having a workout scheduled for Monday if you can’t make it. And there’s no point having a workout scheduled for Sunday if you’re going to be hung over or still drunk from Saturday night. Of course, if you get that plastered every weekend, a training program probably won’t do that much good anyway, but whatever, you already know it’s bad for you.

So, first thing’s first: what days can you train? The more, the better, but for weight training, I’ll assume it’s between 2 and 4. Any less than two is a pathetic effort on your part. Four days of weight training per week is plenty for most people to train hard and cover everything, so more than four is unnecessary except for serious strength athletes or advanced bodybuilders (this is four weight training sessions – it doesn’t include cardio). If you’re fat, the extra sessions would be better spent on cardio. If you’re skinny, more than four sessions and your puny little body will probably have trouble recovering. So, let’s cap it at 2-4 weights sessions per week.

If you have enough freedom to choose what days you train, try to spread them out as evenly as possible, to allow maximum recovery between sessions, like so:

2 days/wk: MON-FRI, WED-SAT, etc

3 days/wk: MON-WED-FRI, TUE-THUR-SAT, etc

4 days/wk: MON-TUE-THUR-SAT, etc

I’m sure you get the idea…

Now you have to decide how you want to spread your training out over each day. I’ll just put this out there: you have to train your legs, and no, they don’t get enough of a workout just from running.

Rather than classify exercises by muscle group, I focus on movements, for two reasons. Firstly, training movements rather than muscles is far more practical and useful than training individual muscles. Secondly, if you train the major movements, your whole body will be worked effectively and evenly, and then you can focus on any specific points of concern afterwards. Conversely, training individual muscles often results in some muscles being overemphasized while others are neglected or even ignored. For example, rather than focus on “back and bis” as many people do, I focus on pulling movements, which incorporate those muscle groups. Similarly I focus on pushing movements rather than “chest and tris”.

Having said that, here are the major movements you need to worry about:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Knee/hip extension (straightening your knees and hips - basically standing up)
  • Core stabilization

Now, when and how often do you train each movement? That’s up to you, but here are three popular ways to do it:

Full body workouts

Each workout you train each movement, usually with one or two exercises per movement. This is a decent option if you are training two or three days per week (and the only option if you can only manage one day per week, but like I said, that’s pathetic). It’s not a good idea if you’re training four or more days per week as you would then be forced to train the same movement two days in a row. Full body workouts are good if you want to avoid too much localised muscle soreness or fatigue (due to work or other sporting commitments, for example), because each movement is only trained with one or two exercises each session.

MONDAY THURSDAY
Knee/hip extension

Push

Pull

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Knee/Hip extension

Push

Pull

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Upper/lower split

Exercises are divided by whether they target your upper or lower body. For simplicity, I divide the body in half just below the chest, so core exercises are grouped with the lower body. Upper/lower splits are good because they allow you to train half of your body very intensely before a decent rest, compared to full body workouts where your muscles are trained more frequently but less intensely.

MONDAY (lower) THURSDAY (upper)
Knee/hip extension

Knee/hip extension

Core stabilization

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Push

Pull

Push

Pull

+ any additional exercise(s)

The example above is for training twice per week. If you wanted to train four times, you could order the sessions like so:

MONDAY (lower) TUESDAY (upper) THURSDAY (lower) FRIDAY (upper)
Knee/hip extension

Knee/hip extension

Core stabilization

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Push

Pull

Push

Pull

+ any additional exercise(s)

Knee/hip extension

Knee/hip extension

Core stabilization

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Push

Pull

Push

Pull

+ any additional exercise(s)

Push/pull/squat split

“Squat” is just a quicker way of referring to knee/hip extension, though technically a squat is just one example of the movement. This split is an option if you are training three times per week, and it allows you to train each movement very intensely before a full week of rest. In this regard, it is similar but more extreme than the upper/lower split. If you use this split, and push yourself on each day as you should be doing, expect some serious soreness in your muscles in the days after you’ve trained them. You’ll note that there is no day devoted to core stabilization – I think that is unnecessary, so rather one core exercise is added at the end of each session.

MONDAY (pull) WEDNESDAY (push) FRIDAY (squat)
Pull

Pull

Pull

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Push

Push

Push

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

Knee/hip extension

Knee/hip extension

Knee/hip extension

Core stabilization

+ any additional exercise(s)

So, which do you choose?

It’s personal preference really. If in doubt, just pick one and try it, and learn from it. You may find you prefer to train each movement more intensely and then have more rest. However if you’re only training two or three times per week, you may find that training each movement only once per week is not frequent enough, in which case you may decide to do full body workouts. Or you can mix and match splits – for example in the past, training three times per week, I have used one upper body workout, one lower body workout, and one full body workout. This allowed me to train each movement intensely on one day, and less intensely on another, leaving me fresher for other sporting commitments. I will say, though, that if you are weight training four days per week, I strongly recommend two “upper” days and two “lower days” as in the example above.

Where do I fit in cardio/other sport?

This depends on intensity and priority. What about low intensity cardio, e.g. brisk walking for fat loss? Then it really doesn’t matter, and you should be ashamed for asking. Do it whenever you want, because it won’t affect your weight training.

What about intense cardio/sport? Well, decide which is your first priority (cardio/sport, or weight training) and make sure you’re as fresh for it as possible. Do this by keeping cardio and any leg training (since cardio usually mainly uses your legs) as far apart as possible, and if it has to be done on consecutive days, do your first priority on the first day so you are only fatigued for your second priority. It’s pretty simple and logical really.

Now at this stage you should have a weekly plan with your weight training days set out, which muscle groups to be trained on each day, and any cardio in there as well. Suppose you wanted to do the four day upper/lower split with one brisk walk and one jog, it may look like this:

MON

TUES

WED

THUR

FRI

SAT

SUN

Weights (lower)

Weights (upper)

Brisk walk

Weights (lower)

Weights (upper)

Jog

Rest

Note that I placed the jog on Saturday to allow a day of complete rest before Monday’s lower body weights session, and a brisk walk is low intensity exercise so Wednesday is still more or less a rest day.


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