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The 4 Types of Workout Split (And How to Choose the Best One for You)

The full-body. Upper and lower. Push pull legs. And individual body parts. Of these 4, which workout split is the best? Find out in this article.

Suspension training. Three young athletic women exercising with trx fitness straps at gym, vertical shot

Hey, quick question 👋 Do you walk into the gym …

  • Knowing the muscle groups you’ll train, plus the exact exercises you’re going to use for that, OR
  • With absolutely no plan whatsoever for your session, you often end up doing random exercises because "Oh, look, the Smith Machine is empty!" or "Hey, that hack squat machine looks cool!"

Does the second sound familiar? If it does, then, sorry to break it to you, but …

Beyond sabotaging your gains (how would you know if you’re hitting the optimal training volume? Ans: you don’t!), winging your gym sessions also hurts your motivation to workout (in most cases, you’ll feel like you “did nothing” at the end of the session).

Good news: there’s an easy fix. It’s called implementing a workout split. But which? Find out below.

What’s a workout split? What types are there?

Barring the do-as-you-please workout split — which, technically speaking, isn’t a workout split at all — there are 4 different types of workout split.

But before we get into that, let’s first cover what a workout split is (it’s nothing complicated).

As its name suggests, a workout split describes how someone would split up their workout routine to focus on different muscle groups or movements on different days.

What’s the point? As hinted earlier, implementing a workout routine could give you:

💪 Better muscle growth (increases the likelihood you’ll get enough training volume while recovering well between sessions)

🚀 Higher motivation levels (you can track your progress — e.g., you could only manage 100 kg on the barbell squat 2 weeks ago, but can now rep out 120 kg)

OK, now, back to the different types of workout splits. There are 4.

#1: Full-body workout split

A full-body workout split means you'll train all the major muscle groups every training session.

Wait … how’s that possible?

Wouldn’t you need to spend 3+ hours in the gym for that? Compound (i.e., multi-joint) exercises say no. Let’s take the bench press, for example.

While the movement’s prime mover is 100% the chest, research shows that many other upper body muscles are activated, too. Examples include your front delts, biceps, triceps, and rotator cuffs.

Psst: want a massive chest? Check out this article:

Want A Massive Chest? These Are The Exercises To Do
Not seeing any chest gains despite the hard work in the gym? You’re likely not doing the right chest exercises. Here are the 3 you have to do in the gym.

To understand the structure of a typical full-body workout split, some context on recovery and optimal training frequency is needed. Here's what you need to know:

  • Recovery: In general, your muscles need between 24 to 72 hours to heal between sessions (depending on how close to failure you went and your training volume; the closer you went to failure and the higher you go with your volume, the more time your muscles need to recover). And here’s what you can do for recovery.
  • Optimal training frequency: Research shows muscles grow best when trained at least 2 times weekly.

So, with that in mind, there are 2 versions of a full-body workout split:

3-day full body split:

Day 1: Full body
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Full body
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Full body
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off

2-day full-body split

Day 1: Full body
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Full body
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off

#2: Upper/lower workout split

An upper/lower workout split refers to organizing your workouts into, yep, you guessed it, upper and lower body days.

Examples of exercises you’d do on an upper-body day include the bench press, overhead press, bent-over barbell row, and pull-ups. And examples of exercises you’d do on a lower-body day include the Bulgarian split squat, deadlifts, barbell squat, and hamstring curl.

Here’s the typical structure of an upper/lower workout split:

Day 1: Upper
Day 2: Lower
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Upper
Day 5: Lower
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off

#3: Push/pull/legs workout split

“Push”? “Pull”? You’re probably wondering about these terms, so let’s clear them up:

  • “Push” exercises are those in which you’re either pushing an object away from your body (e.g., bench press and shoulder press) or pushing against something (e.g., triceps dips and push-ups).
  • "Pull" exercises are those in which you're targeting muscle groups required to do a pulling movement with resistance. Or, in other words, your back, biceps, and forearms. Examples of exercises include chest-supported dumbbell rows and chin-ups.

The term "legs" is pretty self-explanatory (it's the same as what you'd do on a lower-body day in an upper/lower workout split).

So, let's get into the structure of a typical push/pull/legs split:

Day 1: Push
Day 2: Pull
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Push
Day 6: Pull
Day 7: Legs

#4: Body parts workout split

If you love all things customized, this is the workout split for you. The body parts workout split offers the greatest flexibility in structuring your workout sessions because you can mix and match from the following muscle groups:

  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Shoulders
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Core

Here’s how most lifters structure their body parts workout split:

Day 1: Chest and triceps
Day 2: Back and biceps
Day 3: Legs and shoulders
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Chest and triceps
Day 6: Back and biceps
Day 7: Legs and shoulders

Of course, you're free to experiment, but remember the 2 basic "rules": hit each muscle group at least twice weekly, and 2) let each muscle group rest for at least 24 hours before hitting it again.

The best workout split is one that’s most suitable for you

Ah, the good old paradox of choice: the more options we have, the more difficult it becomes to choose something we'll actually be satisfied with. So … out of the 4 workout splits, how can you know which is best?

When every workout split is going:

Well, like most things, what's best for someone else may not necessarily be for you. So, you'll have to pick a workout split that aligns most closely with your:

Time availability
How many days a week can you/do you wish to train? Let's say you only have time to train 2 times a week. A full-body workout split would be your best option in this case. On the other hand, if your schedule allows you to train six times a week, the body parts workout split would make the most sense.

🏋️ Lifting experience
The more lifting experience you have, the more training volume you’ll need to see growth. And since there is a limit to how many sets you can reasonably complete in any single session, there'll come the point in your fitness journey where you'd need to add more training days to your regimen. So here are the workout splits I'd recommend for each lifting experience (note: these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules):

Beginner: Full body
Intermediate: Upper/Lower and Push/Pull/Legs
Advanced: Push/Pull/Legs and Body parts

Feel a headache coming on? Want a workout split that just works?


Assuming you've decided which workout split you're going with (and let's be honest — you might not have) …

You’ve still got to plan each workout session:

How many exercises are you aiming for?
Which exercises are you going to do?
In what sequence?
What happens if someone hogs your equipment at the gym? Is there a replacement?

If you want a training plan that you can just pull up at the gym and trust that it works (i.e., it helps you make real, actual, measurable progress toward your fitness goals), then you should check out GymStreak.

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References

Peters, E., Klein, W., Kaufman, A., Meilleur, L., & Dixon, A. (2013). More Is Not Always Better: Intuitions About Effective Public Policy Can Lead to Unintended Consequences. Social Issues and Policy Review, 7(1), 10.1111/j.1751-2409.2012.01045.x. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-2409.2012.01045.x

Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(11), 1689–1697. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8