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Workout Splits: Making Sense of Conflicting Information
Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS 9/9/03
We received the following question (paraphrased) from a reader:
“What is the appropriate training split to perform when trying to increase strength? Some sources tout that training upper body one day, and lower the next is the best approach to gaining strength; another resource will state that one should train one to three muscle groups per day, resting 48-72 hours before training those muscle groups again. Still others state that one should focus all of one’s efforts on one, or at the most two, major muscle groups per day, and not retrain that muscle group(s) until the next week on the same day. Still others believe it depends on the muscle group (i.e. quads vs. abdominals). Could you offer suggestions that can clear the matter up for me?”
Body Results Resources
There IS a lot of conflicting information out there, and I’m sure what I’m about to say will conflict with something else you’ve read. Every author takes a different stance, and I write from the Body Results, Inc. viewpoint that our clients want to OPTIMIZE PERFORMANCE IN OUTDOOR ACTIVITY (i.e. triathlons, climbing, cycling, hiking, and so forth) while minimizing time to do so. Perhaps the best way to get to the heart of this matter is to ask yourself a few important questions: 1) what is MY ultimate goal, 2) how much time do I realistically have to spend attaining that goal, and 3) how does MY body react to different training stimulus from a scientific viewpoint? For more about strength training, read www.bodyresults.com/E2StrengthGuidelines.asp.
There are literally infinite ways to divide your workouts, limited only by your own creativity; our article at www.bodyresults.com/E2splits.asp shows sample programs and weekly schedules that include splitting the body into thirds, halves, and completing full body workouts, and how to divide your plan to include lifting three days a week and four days a week. Our article about Rating of Perceived Exertion (for strength training) at www.bodyresults.com/E2RPE.asp can also help you figure out how hard to train – and why training to failure (as in HIT) is NOT necessarily what you want to do when training for mass building or a specific sport.
Outdoor Sport Focus
If you are a multi-sport athlete trying to focus on the outdoor activities themselves (i.e. you compete in triathlons, or you enjoy climbing and cycling) then an upper/lower split may be absolutely perfect for you – those days you go on long bike rides you add upper body strength training in the mornings, and the days you climb, you throw in some lower body exercises. If you are more interested in bodybuilding, and your body can tolerate a high volume of exercise, you may find that you get the best results from a concentrated 30-45 minute workout that engorges the muscles with blood and gets you feeling pumped. You may focus on the pushing muscles on day one, core muscles on day two, pulling muscles on day four, and legs on day six, with cardio or rest days between. In most cases, the people we train at Body Results are so busy with sport-specific activities (skiing, cycling, trekking, hiking, climbing) that they would end up overtrained if they included more than 2-3 strength workouts at any given time other than off-season.
Most Programs Work… Initially
For your particular goal of building the most mass in the least amount of time, I invite you to experiment to see what works for you individually. ANY program you try will give you some results, at least initially, including SuperSlow, HIT, Powerlifting or Olympic style training, machines, bodyweight, muscle-group-a-day training, etc. The longer you’ve been lifting, the harder it is to trick the body and eke out that added 5-10 pounds on various lifts. The key THEN becomes 1) appropriate intensity (how heavy are you lifting, and for how many sets and repetitions) and 2) frequency of effort.
The heavier the weights you’re lifting, the more taxing it is on your nervous system, the longer recovery time you need between workouts. Also, the larger the muscle groups, the more weight they can handle, and the more rest time they need. In that sense, hamstrings probably need only be maximally taxed once every 5-7 days, but lats and chest may respond favorably to bouts of exercise every 3-4 days. Many self-proclaimed gurus suggest training abdominals every day, but they really are just like any other muscle group, and require added load to “grow” and experience hypertrophy. Doing hundreds of crunches daily is like bending your arm at your elbow hundreds of times without holding onto significant resistance – it simply won’t do as much for you as doing some quality repetitions with added weight.
Your Own Scientific Experiment
My best advice to someone trying to make sense of all the conflicting information out there is to be your own scientific experiment. Every body is different and reacts differently to a given stimulus. Keep a notebook of all the things you try, and be diligent about recording reps, sets, exercises, weights used, rest between sets, frequency of training sessions during a week, and overall progress on a given program. When you find something that gives you good results, make a note of it, give it 4-6 weeks, then try something else. The key to making progress is constantly tricking the body so it has to keep adapting to different stimulus. If you have time to train 6 days a week, see if your body can handle the training volume. If you don’t make progress, cut down to four days a week with more rest. A general rule of thumb is to be certain that when you are participating in strength training, that you are always making progress, unless you’re specifically taking a recovery week or two.