If you have ventured into any fitness or bodybuilding forum and taken a look at the workout routines of elite athletes you have probably been baffled by the vast assortment of exercises grouped in seemingly arbitrary ways and heard talk of push/pull splits and other jargon?
The truth is that for an elite athlete or bodybuilder hitting each muscle with an obsessive focus can give them that tiny edge over their competition. But when you can only spend an hour in the gym a few times a week, is it really worth obsessing over such a complicated training regime?
How Much Exercise Should I Do?
While your specific training goals and body type will determine the absolute “best” workout routine for you, there are some universal truths about training our bodies regardless of your goal.
Through years of testing the vast majority of people’s ideal number of reps on each part of your body typically falls within the range of 60-120 reps per week for the large muscle groups and 30-60 per week for the smaller.
The break down looks like this:
Large Muscle Groups – 60-120 reps per week.
Legs, Back, Chest
Smaller Muscle Groups – 30-60 reps per week.
Shoulders, Arms, Calves and Abs
This will of course depend on your goals as, for example, you will typically do fewer reps at higher weights for strength and more reps at lower weight for endurance.
However you cannot just bash through 120 squats as the big compound exercises like squats, pull-ups, deadlifts and presses should tax the body and typically, you need at least 48 hours of recovery between sessions where those movements are used.
To maximise your results you need to be sure your routine allows your body time to recover while maximising the relevant exercise you do.
Split Workouts vs Full Body Workouts
You can see that there are potentially many different ways to achieve this but it essentially breaks down into two main approaches – Full Body Workouts and Split Workout Routines.
Full or Total Body Workouts are usually based around 2 or 3 workouts per week. Each workout aims to exercise all of your body using compound, functional moves such as squats and press-ups. It then leaves a few days between workouts for recovery.
These full body regimes can form a solid base for variety of goals from gaining strength to losing fat and they are an excellent place for beginners start. They also work well for people at every level, and even the more advanced, looking to improve their strength.
Full body workouts do have their limitations however. The first is that it can get a bit repetitive for both your attention and body. To counter this you need to make sure you use variations of the core movements, for example when you squat do a sumo squat or hold the bar in front of your head rather than behind it.
Additionally as you get stronger your workouts become harder as your weights increase and significantly more taxing on your entire body and mind. So when you’re training your entire body fairly heavily 3 times per week and pushing yourself to make progress, something is going to give.
If you have anything less than 6-12 months of consistent gym use and you have got your form for all the key functional exercises down, or if you are in any doubt, we would class you as a beginner. For all beginners we would advise you to start with a full body regime and move towards split training as you progress or if you hire a personal trainer and they advise otherwise.
This will let you build your base level of strength, perfect your form and develop a routine without any of the confusing splits and intensities.
If this is you, then hop over to our guide to get you started with your full body routine >>
However if you are more advanced, looking to train more often or have more specific goals then Split Workouts may be just the ticket for you
What Are Split Workout Routines?
The philosophy behind Split Body Workouts is to focus on specific areas or movements of your body on each day – essentially you split your workout across several days.
The idea is that this will give your body the time to recover before you hit it again even if you go to the gym in the interim so you can train more often while simultaneously hitting each group harder,
Split workouts can be done over anything from 3 to 5 days per week although they can be as many as 6, although the risk of overtraining gets higher with only one recovery day per week.
A typical split regime used to alternate between upper body then lower body. However this approach can lead to routines that attempt to isolate muscles. This can be great for the aesthetic side of things as you can quickly build the peacock muscles and get your t-shirt filled out.
The problem is that most people are stuck in bad bodybuilder mentalities and do way too much work on their arms, chest and abs. Muscles are made to work together, so unless you are very careful you will not develop all your muscles equally and imbalances will occur increasing the risk of injury.
As we like to say on here, muscles are made to move together, so the key is to think about movements, not parts, so train those muscles together. Isolating splits use your body in patterns it does not normally experience so you often end up with some muscles under-developed and some overlap issues that over-stress others.
For example, if you did a compound chest exercise like the bench press you also work your shoulders and triceps indirectly. So if you did this, then trained your shoulders and triceps a day or two later, your risk of injury increases as your recovery time is shortened.
There is nothing wrong with a bench press or any other compound exercise like it. In fact is you are far better off doing functional exercises like this as it works not only the muscles lifting the weight, but it engages your core and the complementary muscles to maintain your form and balance ensuring your muscle development is even.
The issues occur when there is overlap between your splits and for this reason we would suggest that if you are looking at a split regime, you avoid the isolation approach and go with a push/pull workout.
What is a Push/Pull Workout Routine?
In short, it’s working the body muscles involved in pushing in one session and the ones involved in pulling in the next. The Push/Pull moniker is actually a little misleading as in reality it is a Push/Pull/Legs split.
The “push” element is focussed on the upper body muscles used in pushing exercises, primarily your chest, triceps, quads, lateral and medial delts.
The “pull” element focusses on the upper body muscles that are involved in pulling exercises, primarily the back, biceps, rear delts, traps, forearms and hamstrings.
Finally the “legs” element works the entire lower body, primarily the Quads, Hamstrings and Calves. Abs and core are usually trained with legs, but they can fit in anywhere..
Why Are Push/Pull Workout Routines Good?
There are a few advantages to this type of program.
The main benefit of splitting the body up this way is that related muscle groups are trained together in the same workout, helping prevent the imbalance issues that are so common with other splits.
Since the muscles you’re working that day should not be sore you can work them harder and because you are essentially splitting a total body workout into parts, you’re simply forced to go to the gym more often.
However there are still some issues with this regime, which is why it is not recommended for beginners
The main advantage of this style is to allow you to train more, however the big compound exercises like squats, pull-ups, deadlifts and presses need at least 48 hours of recovery between sessions where you used them. This means your planning and discipline need to be good to ensure you keep up the routine or any advantage of the additional sessions are lost.
Since each area of your body now has longer between workouts, even though you are potentially visiting the gym more often, you need to be sure you work them hard when it is their turn – if you don’t work them hard they run the risk of detraining. This also means that you need to be mentally tough enough to get out of bed the day after you’ve done a heavy legs day!
Finally, while push/pull routines are far better than isolation splits for balance are not perfect. You can find your triceps, biceps, posterior delts, and forearms in a fatigued state compared to the larger muscles in your chest, back, and quads as they need more work. For this reason you also need to be more careful with the ordering of your exercises within a workout.
What Workout Split Is Best For You?
The truth is, any of these workouts will work as long as it is designed and executed properly. But we are not talking about what works, just what works best for you.
So just to reiterate, if you are new to the world of functional training then a full body routine is almost certainly the best for you. The lower volume/higher compound exercise focus at relatively high frequency has been proven to be most ideal for beginners both by science and the real world.
When you get stronger and the weights go up, you will probably start to look at some form of split training.
However if you only have 3 days a week and real world strength and basic fitness is your goal, then this can potentially be all you need. In fact this is all Pavel Tsatsouline, the former Soviet special forces strength trainer and the man credited with introducing kettlebells to the West, advocates for strength training.
But if you are past the beginner stage you can get a bit more creative and design your splits for your goals. These can vary massively as a program aimed at strength or performance will look very different to one geared strictly towards bodybuilding.
So if this is you, you might want to take a look at our guide to creating a split workout that suits your needs >>