Tuesday 14 December 2021

Training Splits for Drug-Free Lifters

As a drug-free lifter, you walk a fine line between training often enough to stimulate growth, but not too often that you exceed your recovery and growth capabilities. A training variable you have to get right is your weekly layout or training split. Now, I wish I could tell you there was one magical training split that worked perfectly for every drug-free lifter. However, this fairytale only exists in the world of sleazy fitness marketing. The truth is there are many options – each with pros and cons. Let’s dive in and look at some of the options so you can find the best option for you!

I originally presented this topic as a mini-lecture on YouTube. If you prefer to watch and listen to this information, please click on the video and enjoy. If you prefer to read or refer back to content in the video, scroll down and enjoy. This post will also give you a few follow-up thoughts that came to mind after I filmed the video.

Part 1: Traditional Layouts

Option 1: Whole Body 
The first of the traditional layouts is the whole-body routine. In this option, you train your whole body three times per week. 

Monday: Whole Body Training
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Whole Body Training
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Whole Body Training
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Whole-Body Advantages 
  • An excellent option for beginners. If you are just starting, I highly encourage you to start with whole-body training. When you are just getting started, you won’t be lifting as much weight so recovery won’t be an issue. Practicing the same exercises 2-3 times a week is a great way to quickly gain strength and skill as a beginner.
  • Because you usually only get one exercise per muscle group, you are forced to pick great exercises 
  • You get a higher training frequency (which some find helpful)
  • You still get plenty of rest days

Whole-Body Challenges
  • There is increased warm-up time as you have to warm up for each new muscle group you are working
  • Hard to effectively train all your muscles each session, especially as you get to the intermediate and advanced level
  • In an attempt to provide adequate training stimulus for each muscle, you often end up with longer workouts
  • Training each muscle 3 times per week can be challenging for your joints
  • You may find the frequency too high for optimal recovery and muscle growth – especially as you get more advanced

Whole-Body Tips
  • If you like whole-body training, make sure your joints feel great and you are able to progress the weights you are lifting. 
  • Some drug-free lifters have had good success with doing 2 instead of 3 whole-body training sessions per week.
  • Some intermediate and advanced lifters make whole-body training work by using different movements and possible different rep ranges at different workouts.

Option 2: Upper/Lower Split
With this option, you simply split your upper and lower body into different training days.

Monday: Lower Body
Tuesday: Upper Body
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Lower Body
Friday: Upper Body
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Upper/Lower Advantages
  • You have a bit more time to focus on each area and include a few accessory exercises as needed
  • You train each muscle twice a week
  • You get a little more recovery time between muscle groups
  • You still get 3 days off per week to rest and grow
  • You still don’t have too much room for each muscle so you are still forced to pick and stick with great exercises
  • You get many of the advantages of whole-body and split training with less of the downsides of each.

Upper/Lower Challenges
  • Training 4x per week may be too much if you are busy and recovery is limited.
  • Because there are so many upper body muscles, upper body days can get long.
  • Strong intermediate and advanced lifters may find training a muscle twice per week is still a little too much

Upper/Lower Tips
  • Overall, this is a great option for many drug-free lifters. 
  • You can keep upper body sessions from getting too long by using alternating sets (e.g. bench press, short rest, row, short rest, back to bench press). You can also slip some muscles that are technically “upper body” (e.g. abs, traps, neck) onto your lower body days
  • Advanced lifters can use a heavy/light system where one workout has lower reps and the other has higher reps.
  • If you need a bit more recovery time, you can use an upper/lower 3-day rotating split (see below for details)

Option 3: Arnold Split
This split was popularized by Arnold in his book “The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding”. I’m including it here because of its popularity, not because it is a great option for drug-free lifters.

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

Arnold Split Advantages
  • Each muscle is trained twice a week
  • You have more time to focus on all the upper body muscles than you do with an upper/lower split
  • You can do alternating sets for chest and back and with biceps and triceps

Arnold Split Challenges
  • 6-straight days without rest
  • Huge time commitment 
  • Huge recovery demand that is likely too much training for drug-free lifters
  • Overlapping joint stress. You hammer many joints such as shoulders, elbows, the lower back several days each week
  • You finish the week with legs. This can be hard for many who dread leg day and are tired at the end of a long, hard training week.

Arnold Split Tips
  • Normally, I would not recommend this split for drug-free lifters. However, if you are young, genetically gifted for muscle growth, and have a stress-free period of time that you can devote a ton of time to not only your training but also your recovery (i.e. more sleep time, more rest, more meal prep, and more eating), you might be able to make this work for a short period of time. However, you would still likely make just as good or better progress training 4 times per week.
  • Even Arnold used a 4-day program in the off-season - this 6-day routine was used before a contest (and with drug assistance)

Option 4: Push, Pull, Legs Split
This option is similar to the Arnold split, but groups similar muscles together. This is a classic option that has recently surged in popularity.

Day 1: Push
Day 2: Pull
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Push
Day 5: Pull
Day 6: Legs
Day 7: Rest

Push, Pull, Leg Split Advantages
  • This layout has many similar advantages to the Arnold split
  • By grouping pushing and pulling muscles together, you get more joint recovery time because you group similar muscles together. For example, after push day (chest, shoulders, triceps), your shoulders and elbows get a break from pressing while you do your leg and pull days.

Push, Pull, Leg Split Challenges
  • You are still training 6-straight days without rest
  • Huge time commitment 
  • Huge recovery demand - likely too much training for drug-free lifters
  • Still have to be careful with the lower back as it can get a lot of stress from pull and leg day
  • Your smaller muscles are trained in a fatigued state. For example, your shoulders are trained after chest, triceps are trained after both chest and shoulders. Your biceps are trained after your back.
  • Cannot alternate sets to save time
  • You finish the week with legs (although you can start the week with legs)

Option 5: Bro Split
With bro splits, you train one major muscle group each session.

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

Bro Split Advantages 
  • More recovery time for muscle groups
  • Shorter, more focused training sessions
  • You save a ton of warm-up time – once the muscle you are working that day is warm, you don’t have to do much of any warm-up sets for other exercises that also work that same muscle.

Bro Split Challenges
  • 5-straight days without rest still results in cumulative fatigue later in the week
  • Big time commitment 
  • Big recovery demand, especially for drug-free lifters
  • The temptation for too many exercises
  • The temptation for inferior exercises (something a drug-free lifter cannot afford to waste too much energy on)
  • You cannot alternate sets to save time
  • Overlapping joint stress. For example, your shoulders and elbows are stressed on chest day, shoulder day, and arm day.
  • The frequency may be too low for some people. This could result in you fully recovering and then de-training

Bro Split Tips:
  • For the young, drug-free lifter committed to optimal recovery practices, this might work. I did make this work for me back in my earlier 20s. However, it was not optimal. After three hard days of training, I was spent. As a result, days 4 and 5 always suffered. I believe most drug-free lifters would get even better results training 4 days per week so you get a day of rest in the middle of the week. See the Yates Split below for an example.
  • Many people mistakenly think that you are only hitting muscle once a week on a bro split. In reality, many muscles are done directly once a week, and then indirectly another day of the week. For example, you work your biceps on arm day and back day. 

Part 2: Rotating Splits
After looking at many of the traditional weekly layouts/splits, we notice a pattern. By splitting up your muscle groups, it may be easier to stimulate muscle growth. However, splitting things up too much leaves you too many days in the gym without a break. One solution to this challenge is a rotating split. Here are some classic rotating split examples.

Rotating Split Option 1: Lee Haney Split
Here is the split routine used by 8x Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

Day 1: Chest, Arms, Calves, Abs
Day 2: Legs 
Day 3: Back, Shoulders, Calves
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Repeat cycle

Rotating Split Option 2: Charles Poliquin Split
The late coach Charles Poliquin also had an excellent rotating training split that offer even more rest (i.e. growth) days.

Day 1: Arms
Day 2: Legs 
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Chest & Back 
Day 5: Rest
Day 6: Repeat cycle

Rotating Split Option 3: Yates Split
This is the split used by 6-x Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates

Day 1: Chest & Biceps
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Back
Day 5: Shoulders & Triceps
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Repeat Cycle
Note: Dorian later moved to weekly cycle training 4x every 7 days

Rotating Splits Advantages 
  • You get enough of a split to stimulate each major muscle group
  • You are never training more than 2 or 3 days in a row before you get a rest (i.e. growth) day

The disadvantage of Rotating Splits
  • You train on different days per week. This is not an issue if you are a professional bodybuilder or athlete and training IS your job). However, it can be a problem for people training to train with a full-time job. In this case, you will have fewer true rest days where you get both a rest from training and work on the same day. 

Example: Training day with a common work week
Monday: Day 1: Back & Shoulders. Workday
Tuesday: Day 2: Legs. Workday
Wednesday: Day 3: Chest & Arms. Workday 
Thursday: Day 4: Rest. Workday
Friday: Day 1: Back & Shoulders. Workday
Saturday: Day 2: Legs. Possible day off work (often chore day)
Sunday: Day 3: Chest & Arms. Day off work

Part 3: Rotating Splits on Set Training Days
Okay, so far we have looked at several split options, each with its pros and cons. There is one more option that many people overlook. That is rotating splits on set training days. 

Rotating Split on Set Days Option 1: Upper/Lower on 3-Day Rotating Split 

Week 1
Monday: Upper 
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Lower
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Upper
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Week 2
Monday: Lower 
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Upper
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Lower
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Rotating Split on Set Days Option 2: Pull, Push, Legs 4-day Rotating Split

Week 1
Monday: Pull
Tuesday: Push
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Legs
Friday: Pull
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Week 2
Monday: Push
Tuesday: Legs
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Pull
Friday: Push
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Week 3
Monday: Legs
Tuesday: Pull
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Push
Friday: Legs
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Rotating Split on Set Days Advantages
You get full rest (i.e. growth) days
You can optimize your training frequency based on your personal recovery time. Now you do not have to choose between hitting a muscle 1, 2, or 3 times per week. If you need a bit more recovery time, you can train a muscle once every 5-6 days.

Rotating Split on Set Day Challenges
Some people will still prefer to always do the same training session on the same day
It might be too little training frequency for some

As a drug-free lifter, you will likely get your best results from training 2-4 times per week, depending on your recovery. Here are likely your best training splits
  • Upper lower: 4x per week or if you are strong and/or need more recovery on a 3-day rotating split
  • Rotating push/pull/leg split on 4, set-day training schedule
  • 3 or 4-day body part split 
  • Whole-body: 2-3 times per week (depending on recovery)

Do not obsess about trying to find the “perfect” split. Instead, pick on and give a fair shot. If it works, great. If it does not work, at least you have learned something about how you respond to training. Regardless of the split you choose, remember that you have (especially without the assistance of drugs), a limited amount of time and energy you can spend on training. Make sure every training session counts! Pick appropriate variations of big movements (i.e. squat, hinge, vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, horizontal pull), use excellent technique and progressively add weight to your training sessions. If you find it difficult to recover and progress, consider adjusting your weekly training to allow a little more recovery time. 

Okay, I had better stop now, this is getting long and I don’t want to turn this post into a book, because I already did. For more information on drug-free training, check out my book: Size for Skinny Guys.

If you have questions or suggestions for future topics, drop them in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading!

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