How to Structure a Weight Training Split

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How to Structure a Weight Training Split

If you go into a gym and talk to 10 different members, chances are you’ll discover 10 different training splits.  What’s significant is not that their splits differ in composition, but the fact that ALL of them actually subscribe to the concept of using splits for their long-term program.  Sure, you can go into a gym and spontaneously perform whichever free weight or machine exercises you like.  However, being so impromptu and essentially disorganized will really diminish your efforts – and possibly waste your time. 

Beginners often find appeal in performing full-body workouts, where they perform three sets of one exercise per body part in the form of a circuit.  They’ll do this every other day while resting in between workouts.  This, however, is training in its most basic form and will cause your gains to be not only minimal but also slow in developing.  Full-body workouts are effective if you simply want to maintain muscle but, are not recommended if you want to progress.

This is where splits are highly recommended (and in fact, vital) to your fitness program.  Not using specialized training splits can lead to over-training, under-training, muscle imbalance, poor technique, hitting plateaus – in general, a bevy of counter-productive consequences that will leave you frustrated and discouraged.  Take the time to plan your workouts, adjust them accordingly, and see your progress shoot through the roof!

Here are the fundamentals of three distinct levels of weight-training splits:

Beginner (4-Day Split)

If you’re new to the gym game, you need to lay a foundation for muscle development.  It’s a fallacy to think these achievements happen overnight.  Improving your body composition is a lengthy process which requires time, if you want your gains to be long-lasting.  Usually since the weights employed by beginners are relatively light, they don’t need lengthy periods to recover and can be trained roughly every fourth day.

When you’re first starting out, you may adopt a 4-day split as such:

Day 1:  Press Moves (Upper Body)
Day 2:  Pull Moves (Upper Body)
Day 3:  Legs
Day 4:  Rest

Using such a split, you’ll target your chest, shoulders and triceps on Day 1; your back, biceps and traps on Day 2; and your quads, hamstrings and calves on Day 3.

Another split for beginners:

Day 1:  Chest and Shoulders
Day 2:  Back and Traps
Day 3:  Arms
Day 4:  Legs

While this 4-day split doesn’t include a rest day, you’re still giving your entire upper body a full rest on Day 4.  Furthermore, you can cycle through this split any number of times you like then take a rest day whenever you want.  Simply begin again on Day 1.

Intermediate (5-Day Split)

Depending on your commitment and progress, you should stay with your beginner splits for a period of three months up to a year.  Eventually, you’ll enter into an intermediate stage where you’ll need to keep your training intense because you likely won’t notice the gains as readily.  Nonetheless, this period is where you not only grow new muscle but add density – what’s referred to as muscle “maturity”.

Using a 5-day platform, you may tailor your split as such:

Day 1:  Chest and Triceps
Day 2:  Legs
Day 3:  Back and Biceps
Day 4:  Shoulders and Traps
Day 5:  Rest

While this may not seem radically different from either of the beginners’ options, there is logic behind the adjustment.  The main difference here is you’ll be separating your shoulders and traps from other muscle groups and dedicate a full workout each cycle just for them.  This way you can not only train them harder, but also focus on the more-major muscle groups on their respective days.  You’re also allowing a day for full-body recovery.

Advanced (7-day split)

After training hard and making noticeable gains for a period of one to two years, you’re likely in a position to adopt a training split where you work out each body part only once per week.  The resistance you’ll be employing by now will be significant and you will have developed both strength and endurance; your workouts will be highly intense and as such, your body requires longer periods to recover. 

Based on a weekly (7-day) rotation, you may split your workouts as thus:

Monday:  Back
Tuesday:  Shoulders
Wednesday:  Chest
Thursday:  Rest
Friday:  Arms
Saturday:  Legs
Sunday:  Rest

This particular example has a split of three days on, one day off, two days on, one day off (3-1-2-1).  While there are two rest days per seven-day split, they are not consecutive.  This way, the longest you’ll go without a rest day is three days, not five days.  Remember, at this stage of your training, recovery is everything.  No matter how much effort you put into your training, if your split is poorly planned, you may fall into the trap of over-training.  Some individuals blow off the idea of over-training as “no big deal,” thinking that raw grit will push them through, but the stark reality is over-training can lead not only to stagnation but also muscle and strength loss.  Therefore, plan your splits allowing for ample recovery time.

Muscle-Balancing Splits

In the special case of elite bodybuilders who need to “bring up” a specific body part, splits can be adjusted to allow for more than one workout per week.  A common body part that requires supplementary training is shoulders; in order to do this, a sample split can be designed as thus:

Day 1:  Back and Shoulders
Day 2:  Legs
Day 3:  Chest
Day 4:  Rest
Day 5:  Shoulders
Day 6:  Arms
Day 7:  Rest

Using a modified split as above, you’ll train your shoulders twice each week.  Once with a “natural” pairing in the back, and once in a workout fully dedicated just to shoulders.  Note that the second shoulders workout in this split comes immediately after a full rest day, so you should have a little added strength and energy level to work your shoulders harder.  After a period of four to eight weeks of twice-weekly shoulders training, you should be more than satisfied with their “catching up” to your other muscle groups.

Conclusion

The training splits listed above are designed for weight-training workouts, but it’s also smart to incorporate some level of splits into your cardio training as well.  At the intermediate level, you may for example perform two days on, one day off, one day on, one day off (2-1-1-1).  Try to use a combination of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and steady-state cardio.  Despite the overwhelming trend recently toward the former, there are still benefits to doing the latter.  Use them both. 

Remember that if you perform cardio exercise in the same workout as resistance exercise, it’s wiser to hit the weights first if you’re focusing on muscle growth and strength.  If your primary concern is fat loss, you may perform cardio prior to doing the weightlifting.

Lastly, you may be wondering, “What about abs?”.  As a unique muscle group, abs can be trained a variety of ways, but generally they recover very quickly and should be trained from three up to five days each week, if done carefully.  They do need to be trained with some level of intensity to develop, since they are after all a muscle group.  However, you also don’t want to work them so hard that you become wide or blocky around your mid-section.  Keep in mind that diet, nutrition and cardio should be your overwhelming favorites if you’re concerned about showing off a six-pack.  For these reasons, the splits herein focusing on weight training have accounted for all the other muscle groups.