Split Routines: Find the Weightlifting Program That’s Right For You


People on anabolic steroids make me laugh.

One long weekend this summer I took my family to the West Edmonton Mall and we stayed in the Fantasy Land Hotel. After a hard day of water-parking, mini-golfing, pizza-eating and pointing at expensive stuff, we were worn out and ready for a good night’s sleep.

After eight hours, as is usual, I was wide awake and, as is also usual, the rest of my family was not. I snuck out to the Gold’s Gym in the mall, which is free for hotel guests. The place was fairly empty that early on a Sunday morning, but I did take note of the aforementioned chemically-enhanced bodybuilder.

Actually, considering how much noise the guy was making, it was hard not to notice him. With each repetition, he made sounds akin to an overly excited sea lion. I know this because the previous day we had watched a show at “Sea Lion’s Rock,” and the main attraction regularly barked out with “Ha-rooo-ahhh!” just as the bodybuilder did.

Besides the grotesquely huge muscles, the stretch marks, the back acne, and the muscle shirt that was way TMI, I noticed that during the hour I was in the gym he only worked one body part the entire time: his triceps.

If he plays tennis, I’m sure he has a killer backhand.

Find the weightlifting program that’s right for you

Unlike the bulky sea lion in the gym, you are likely interested in working out more than just your triceps.

There are many different methods for splitting up what body parts to exercise on what day, and I’ve tried a lot of them over the years. In an earlier article I discussed the importance of regularly changing up your weightlifting routine, and changing your “split” is one way to do that. However, if you follow most of the advice in the previous article then you can safely pick a split routine that you like and stick with it. I’ve been using the same one for almost ten years now.

For the average person, male or female, I’m going to describe three popular types of routines that also work well for progressing from beginner to expert, starting with the easiest first.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Every body part requires a full 72 hours of rest after a weightlifting exercise, and these three routines all allow for that. Be wary of other types of split routines that do not allow for a full recovery.

The Total Body Routine
This sounds pretty simple, but you need to do it properly.

If you’re a beginner and just want to give weightlifting a try, then this is the only one that allows you to lift once a week. Personally, I think people should lift at least twice a week, but let’s take it one step at a time. The thing about the total body routine is that it doesn’t allow for much in the way of isolation training like building up your biceps. This is about attacking the three largest muscle groups in one workout: legs, back and pectorals, and relying on these multi-joint exercises to also work the smaller muscles. An example would be doing squats for legs, bench press for chest, and rows and pull-downs for back. This can easily take an hour, leaving little time or energy to directly work shoulders, calfs, triceps etc. Doing some abdominal work at the end is also a good idea.

Total body can be also done twice a week (not more) and requires at least 72 hours of rest between each session.

The Upper Body/Lower Body Routine
This can be done either twice or four times a week. If you’re doing it twice a week then you don’t need to worry about how you schedule your rest periods, but here is an example of how to schedule a four-day routine that allows for proper rest:
• Day 1: Upper body
• Day 2: Lower body
• Day 3: Rest
• Day 4: Upper body
• Day 5: Lower body
• Days 6 & 7: Rest

The Upper Body Push/Legs/Upper Body Pull Routine
This is my favorite. I’ve taught a lot of people this routine and they’ve all fallen in love with it. Among more serious lifters, it’s one of the most popular because it works very well, it’s flexible, and allows for proper rest. The one thing it demands is a minimum of three training sessions a week, so you may wish to work your way up to it. The cool part is that if you get hardcore, it is adaptable up to six times a week.

Here is how it works:

Upper Body Push — In order, this is chest, then shoulders, then triceps. All of these movements involve pushing away from your body and are complementary. When you exercise chest, you also do shoulders and triceps, so most of the work needs to be on chest (about 70% of the workout), with shoulders and triceps mostly just getting finished off (the other 30%).

Legs — This goes in between the two upper body workouts. Start with multi-joint exercises like squats and work your way towards smaller ones like calf raises at the end.

Upper Body Pull — This works the back, biceps and abdominals/core, in that order. Again, most of the focus is on back with less time on biceps and midsection.

A three days a week sample:
• Day 1: Upper body pull
• Day 2: Rest
• Day 3: Legs
• Day 4: Rest
• Day 5: Upper body push
• Days 6&7: Rest

If you’ve got ambitions to get bigger and stronger, here are some adaptations for more exercise.

Four days a week:
• Day 1: Upper body pull
• Day 2: Legs
• Day 3: Upper body push
• Day 4: Rest
• Day 5: Upper body pull
• Days 6&7: Rest

Since this week has two upper body pull, the following week would start with push to allow for two of them. If you want, day six can become a second leg day for a five-day-a-week program. If you’re really ambitious, you can do six days a week by going push/leg/pull, push/leg/pull and then rest the seventh day.

I once did six days a week when my wife was out of town with the kids and I had some free time. If you give yourself time to adapt, it is completely feasible without worrying about over-training, but it becomes more a matter of time constraints.

Have fun.

Editor’s Advice:

I’d say work out 5 times a week (to see results), and leave 2 days off for rest or do other things in your social calendar. Leave 48 hours between working the same muscles to give them enough time to recover.

For example:
Day1: Upper body
Day2: Lower Body
Day3: Upper Body
Day4: Lower Body
Day5: Upper Body
Day6 & Day7: Rest
So next workout week would start with Lower body.

Keep in mind the two rest days can be put anywhere in the week, for example you’re very busy on Wednesdays then take a rest on Wednesday and do your workout on one of the weekend days. This way you’re flexible and you keep up your working out routine. Don’t forget your protein intake after your workout to provide your muscles with building blocks to rebuild stronger after you’ve tore them down (exercising actually rips muscles and then they rebuild themselves stronger).

Also I’d add 30 minutes of cardio 5 days a week, you can do it on the same days as your workouts which is the way I preffer it. Just remember to do weightlifting first, then do your protein, and take a rest (an hour or so), and then later on do your cardio. I like to alternate with my cardio, from brisk elevated walk on my treadmill, to running, to step aerobics, to skipping rope (with breaks when needed), to dancing. Just keep moving and try to keep your heart rate between 60%-80% of your maximum heart rate. Try to keep things interesting, and keep moving.

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