Finding an adequate workout program is not an easy task. There are many factors to take into consideration, and that is the number one reason why there are so many different approaches to workout routines. What makes things even more confusing and annoying is that coaches swear how everything but their system will lead to no gains or even injuries. Of course, that is only marketing.
However, one thing is correct - you need to find a workout plan that works for you. And, when browsing different plans, you will notice three dominant approaches - full body vs. upper/lower vs. body part split routine.
In this article, we will talk about some criteria you need to take into consideration when selecting (or building) your workout program. Then, we will explain the benefits and flaws of each of the three above mentioned systems. By the end of the article, you will have a much better understanding and more knowledge on workout regimes, that will allow you to differentiate what is optimal for yourself.
As the name suggests, this training approach separates exercises for the upper body from your legs. However, many people go one level further, performing three different "days" - push, pull, leg day. They do that because working out the whole upper body in a single day would be too much, as it involves biceps, triceps, shoulders, upper back, lats, chest, abs, forearms... Here is how it usually looks:
- Push day - you perform all push movements in a single routine. So all exercises that hit your triceps, shoulders, and chest fall into this category.
- Pull day - all pulling muscles of the upper body are worked on this day. These are primarily back muscles and biceps. But, people usually add deadlifts to this day, which are a compound, full-body movement. Because of this, people like to do PULL-PUSH-LEGS instead of push-pull-legs, so they can separate heavy deadlifting from heavy squats as much as possible.
- Legs day - your third workout is all about legs. Quads, glutes, hams, calves. Start with harder exercises like barbell squats first, and save isolations for the end of your workout.
Upper/lower or PPL routines have some obvious benefits:
- Intensity - unlike a total body routine, upper/lower splits let you go all in since you will perform isolation exercises for each muscle group. That way, you will have nothing left in the tank after you complete your sets.
- Good for reshaping the body - these routines allow you to target specific areas much better than total body workouts. You will be able to tackle any imbalances and build muscles exactly where you want them.
- Flexibility - it is very easy to change your routine, especially the isolation exercises. For example, you can do preacher curls one week, replacing them with standing barbell curls on another. That way you will not only keep your workouts interesting, but you will also engage your muscles in new ways, spurring further growth.
- Easier to perform - you will not have as many compound movements per workout, which will not leave you as winded, and will allow your muscles to recover faster. When you do your upper body, your legs are resting and vice versa.
Here are some disadvantages upper/lower splits unfortunately have:
- Lacking volume/frequency - if you have time to do only three workouts per week, with upper/lower or PPL splits you are going to hit certain muscle groups only once per week. If you are not pushing your max with every workout, that is not optimal, because muscles need less than seven days to recover. For that reason, you need to perform splits 4-6 times per week.
- Not as forgiving - because you work different muscle groups with every workout, you should try not to miss any to avoid imbalances. Don't skip leg days! If you do PPL 3x a week, skipping your L(eg) day will result in two weeks pause. Chicken legs alert!
- Not as good for fat loss - if your primary goal is losing fat, a total body routine is a better option. Although you will do some compound movements in every upper/lower workout, doing squats is 10x more challenging than doing chest presses. For that reason, your upper body day won't burn nearly as many calories as leg day will.
Who should perform upper/lower or PPL split?
People who are interested in adding more muscle, or looking to target specific groups, but don't want or don't have time to do a complete split routine.
The third option is "bro splits," or classic bodybuilding routines. In these, you perform a single muscle group per workout. You hit your muscles hard, often doing exercises to failure. This is how most jacked dudes you see in the gym train, and it's the old-school approach.
There are some apparent benefits "bro" splits have:
- An unmatched level of body shaping - with this type of routine, you get to hit even the smallest muscle group hard. This is the main reason why bodybuilders and fitness models train this way. When you are doing full body simultaneously, you can't really focus that much on forearms, traps, and calves. Body part splits give you exactly that, for example, a whole day dedicated to your arms, or the famous "chest Monday."
- Muscle overload - no matter, if you are just a beginner or an advanced lifter, doing split routines, will force you to drain your muscles to their limit, ensuring maximum hypertrophy.
- Better recovery - most split routines allow full seven days of recovery per muscle group, putting overtraining out of the equation.
- The pump is real! - with split routines, you will annihilate your muscles, in a good way, and you will both feel it the next day and see it almost immediately as a massive pump.
Now the downsides of body part split routines:
- Very time demanding - because you only hit one muscle group per workout, body part splits require you to be in the gym 5-6 times each week. What's more, because you do many exercises for each muscle, every workout you perform will last long.
- You can't miss a workout - if you skip a day, that muscle group will be mostly inactive for two weeks. Not skipping anything really requires dedication, especially considering you need to hit the weights at least 5x per week.
- Not good for overall fitness - you will look awesome, but because you focus on small areas on your body most of the time, your workouts won't be as metabolically challenging, and your strength might stall. Doing only "bro splits" won't help your fat loss either.
- You need to go all in - because you train a muscle group only once per week, you need to make sure you really drain it to justify seven days of recovery time.
Who should perform body part split routines?
These routines are best suited for more advanced lifters who are looking to add size and are generally interested in bodybuilding, or for people who find total body workouts too demanding.
As you can see, there are no clear winners. Each training routine has its own benefits and flaws. Your job is to be objective. Look at your current situation, and honestly ask yourself what is precisely what you want to improve. The answer will pretty much tell you which workout type is best suited for you.
Now, researching and picking a workout routine is one thing, doing it regularly is something completely different. Make sure to give enough time to whichever method you choose. Your body will need to adapt, and only after that, you will be able to tell if the routine is right for you.