Sunday, February 12, 2017

Experiments in Hypertrophy. What is the best training split?

In this series I will cover the best training splits, the optimal number of exercises per body part and per session, the optimal sets and reps, the best training techniques and the best exercises for each body part. First up, what is the best training split?

What you training today bro? Chest & Tri's.

It's a conversation repeated in every gym around the world on a daily basis.

I hadn't trained for hypertrophy for years, all my training was total body, in the strength and power range with the occasional conditioning session. Power cleans, squats, push press, plyometrics, with some unilateral work. Throw in some core and occasional 'pre-hab' work. Generally things to make me better at running up mountains, and keep athleticism and strength with minimum time in the gym. Of course I would throw in a bicep curl every now and then if I had time.

Then I lost my mojo, got injured, had enough of the gym, quit for three months to try some other things like rock climbing and yoga. Then I joined a new gym, which had way more machines and it was time to try something new. And so begun experiments in hypertrophy.

I wrote down everything exercise I knew, I then asked people what their favourite exercise for a body part was, what training split and methods they used; I wrote that down too. Then for several months I tried all different types of splits, exercises combinations and methods.

The science.

Of course I checked out the research. Brad Schoenfeld is your go to man.

You can see his work on number of sets here, rep ranges here, how many times a week should you train a muscle here

In summary

1)Meta analysis by Brad Schoenfeld shows that hitting a muscle group twice a week is optimal when trying to maximize gains, but gains can still be made hitting a muscle group just once a week.

2) 10 plus sets per week caused almost twice as many gains as doing 5 sets per week. But there is no known upper threshold yet (where gains start to go down). Note, the dose of sets is over a week NOT necessarily in one training session.

3)And also a variety of rep ranges work.

In terms of rep ranges Schoenfelds study shows muscle growth in rep ranges from 8 up to 35 (yep 35 reps, sorry all you ladies in toning classes, there is a good chance you are still building muscle) and this was in trained subjects.

Of course, as always with research, the studies tend to be short, there is individual difference, and there is always a grey area of what exercise is working what muscle group*(see my definition at the end) with multi-joint exercises, when do your work sets start**(see my definition at the end) etc.

So, we know a variety of rep, set and training frequency schemes all work. But generally training a muscle group twice a week for more that 10 sets using a variety of rep ranges is probably optimal.

But of course, everyone is individual and what is optimal is also what you are going to do and enjoy.

Rodins Thinker: Since the beginning of time people have pondered whether to combine chest and biceps on the same day.

The rules.

I used the holy trinity of broscience to test if it was worth doing an exercise or split:

1) Could I feel the muscle I was targeting with a particular exercise
2) Did I get a pump
3) Was that muscle sore the next day (I know, there is no correlation with soreness and growth but who doesn't feel like soreness = you worked a muscle)

And in the long term could I see visual changes in a muscle. There a few caveats, for example, I can make my chest sore pretty easily, and my biceps, my legs generally don't get sore (I think from all that trail running) and I never met anyone who could get deltoid DOMS.

With this in mind I carried out my own experiment. And tried a whole range of different splits

Caveat – I don't bother with calves or forearms! And didn't really count any core exercises, although I did them.

And the nature of my workouts is they will not last longer than an hour. Therefore no 2 hour marathon sessions.

Of course. it wasn't a real experiment, there was no control group, I wasn't using ultrasound to see if my muscles had got bigger.

A few rules I set myself:

1) Try and feel every rep, get that mind muscle connection, don't worry about weight
2) Use machines, cables, body weight, dumbbells
3) Avoid the big compound barbell movements like deadlifts, squats, military press I had used extensively in the past. One exception is I did try some high rep squats.
4) Keep rep ranges high, 10-12, or even higher 15+, unless doing rest pause sets.

With all that in mind, here are the splits I tried, and what I think are there advantages and disadvantages,

The classic split.
Day 1: Chest & Triceps
Day 2: Back & Biceps
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Shoulders

This is still probably the most popular split in gyms worldwide or a slight variation on it.

You need to be able to train 4 days a week to be able to do this.


I managed to do 12-14 sets for major muscle groups like chest and back. Exceeding the 10 set threshold  that Schoenfeld showed is needed. For smaller muscle groups like biceps and triceps I only managed 5-6 sets. However, these muscle groups are always indirectly trained with other muscles.

Good muscle pump, and soreness. Not too long in the gym.


You are only hitting a muscle once per week, not the optimal dosage of twice or more. You have to be able to train 4 x week, if you miss a session, a muscle group wont be trained for 2 weeks.

Even more of a split:
Day 1: Arms
Day 2: Chest
Day 3: Back
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Shoulders


Less time in the gym, if time crunched do this, because you are only doing one body part. Super pump. The volumes tends to be the same as the classic split,  about 12-14 sets per major muscle group, and slightly higher on the biceps and triceps - 9 sets.


Need to train 5 x week, still only hitting each muscle once per week, and the volume you can achieve is not much higher than the classic split.

Now I know some people split it down even further, having a quad day and hamstring day and bicep day, but this as far as I went with splitting.

Push, Pull, Legs.
Day 1: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2: Back, Biceps
Day 3: Legs


If you train 3 x week you hit each muscle at least once. This is achievable for most people. If you train 6 x week, you hit every muscle twice, this is not achievable for most people. Makes you train legs as you have a whole day dedicated to it.


You only hit each body part once. I don't like doing shoulders and chest on the same day , I find at least one of these muscle groups will suffer. In my case, my chest is weak and doing shoulders means I can't hit the chest as hard as I want. A whole day dedicated to legs can be taxing, and if you're a bro like me and don't really want to have a whole dedicated to legs you end up dreading it.

Push Pull, basically combine legs into day 1 and 2
Day 1: Pushing - Chest, Shoulders, Quads (leg pressing pattern), triceps
Day 2: Pulling - Back, Hamstrings/Glutes (hinge pattern), biceps


When most people talk about total body training, this is the split they actually mean. You can cover all your muscles in 2 sessions. And you can then work on multiples of this, train 4 x week (achievable  for most), or even 6 times. Less taxing on the legs in each session but it is still making you train legs!


As in the previous split, I think shoulders and chest training can interfere with each other. Less exercises per body part, which means less sets per session - which mean you could end up doing less than 10 sets if you only train twice, however if you train 4 x week you will make up for this and do more volume than the classic split.

My variation:

Day 1: Chest, Back, Biceps
Day 2: Shoulders, Legs, Triceps


Same as push pull except now chest and back are on the same day. This means you can superset exercises more effectively for these body parts, which is a good way to train and can make your workout more time efficient. Putting chest on a different day to shoulders and triceps allows you to hit these pressing exercises without so much interference in a workout.


You will probably lower the volume on one body part to fit the workout in, for me this was legs.

Total body training.

Each session consists of one exercise for chest, back, shoulders, quads, hamstring/glutes, triceps, biceps.

This is 3-4 sets per exercise per body part per workout, 7 exercises per workout.


You hit every body part in the workout. Which means if you only manage to train once or twice that week you have covered everything. If you train 3-4 times you have done 9 to 16 set per body part. Which means the dosage of sets is the same or more than a body part split over a week.

And you are hitting each body part 3 or 4 times a week.


Once you are beyond beginner level this is a taxing workout. Several times I left out the triceps or only did one set because of time constraints and fatigue and the feeling I had worked them enough with the chest and shoulder exercises.


This is generally how I train most of my clients, a push exercise, a pull exercise, squat exercise, hinge exercise, then core. For clients looking for general health and only training twice a week, I find this the best approach. When I write programmes for people who want to train 5-6 x week, or compete in something I take a different approach.

You can use this format to make an easy day or a conditioning day or a big intense day, depending on how you are feeling.

Using the total body split approach you can change the emphasis of the day, say you are not feeling it one day, you go easy and for isolation. For example, 2-3 set x 12-15 reps of

Pec flye machine
Rear delt machine
Lying leg curl
Goblet squat
Cable bicep curl
Cable tricep pushdown.

OR of you want a more conditioning based day:

DB Snatch
Pull Up
Press up/Burpee
Squat Jump
KB Swing

not hypertrophy but you get the idea. OR if you really want a big hypertrophy day you hit the big guns of dumbbells and compound lifts for high reps.

Why don't most lifters in the gym use a total body split?

Despite the evidence showing training a muscle group multiple times per week for a few sets each session will result in gains and results, nearly every 'serious' guy in the gym does not train this way. Why so? I think, there is a psychological element, lack of muscle pump and soreness (even though DOMS not correlated with growth) means they don't feel they have trained hard enough or hit the muscle with enough volume. And the overwhelming perceived gym wisdom – every bodybuilder uses a training split.

And lets face it, some of us like the variety, the pump, the volume and doing legs 4 x week is hard!

I've seen several people online says that body part splits are okay for beginners and those on drugs but too hard for anyone else, and once you are intermediate and drug free you should go total body. I can only assume these people haven't actually tried to do a total body training session. A total body session is way harder psychologically and physically than doing 'chest' day. I think most of these people conflate total body training for push/ pull.

Conclusion. Which is best.

The answer as always, it depends on what you enjoy, how many times a week you have to train. And having enough variety to keep it interesting and your body responding.

In general I ended up hitting about 12-13 sets per week for bigger muscle groups when doing various body part splits. When carrying out total body training this reached a peak of about 16 sets (4 sets per muscle group per workout for 4 workouts) and about 6-12 for smaller muscles, again with the highest number being hit when total body training – 3 sets of biceps per workout for 4 workouts = 12 sets (but of course triceps and biceps would have been indirectly hit on chest, back and shoulder exercises).

Now, for some Bro's this is low, it is not unusual to hit 20 sets per muscle group per session. But the research doesn't really say if this is actually worth doing. Does your intensity drop until you are barley getting any muscle stimulation with such an approach? And I am assuming you are drug free.

My favourite split is probably:

Day 1: Chest, Back Biceps
Day 2: Shoulders, Legs


Day 1: Push – Chest, Shoulders, Squat(Quads), Triceps
Day 2: Pull – Back, Biceps, Hinge(Hamstring/Glutes)

This way, training 4 x week I hit each part twice and feel I am getting enough volume.

Now if you are looking to emphasize a certain muscle you could target that multiple times per week and de-emphasize other muscles. For example, if you wanted to target glutes you could train them 2-4 x week, and if you are not bothered by chest only train it once. After all the research shows you can still get hypertrophy with once a week, but you get more if train the muscle twice or more.

If you are not sure how many times a week you can train and it can vary at short notice go total body.

If you like short sessions but like to train every day a traditional body part split could be for you.

Next time.

In the next few parts of this, I will cover how many exercises per body part. The best training techniques and methods. And the best exercise for each body part.


*Definition of a set:

As always the question is what counts as a set. For the purposes of this, warm up sets were not counted, these would typically occur on the first exercise of the day, or if it was a new exercise or machine and I had no idea what weight to use, so started light and built up. Actual sets were 'hard' or to failure.

**Definition of a body part:

Body part splits are by their nature somewhat artificial, especially when it comes to multi-joint compound exercises. For example, is a squat quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors or back? Well for the purposes of this I'm going with the traditional definitions. Your brain doesn't know muscles, it only knows movements, but EMG activation and soreness, pump etc tell us what was working – and these normally follows the traditional definitions.

Then there is the perennial worry of putting an exercise on the right day – is the dumbbell pullover on chest day or back day or arm day?! Is the shrug a back or shoulder exercise? My answers – pullover goes on back day, and if you do shrugs they are on shoulder day! All I can say is you decide and stop worrying so much.

No comments:

Post a Comment