The science of building muscle Part 3: Split-routines

10 September 2020

The Science Of Building Muscle Part 3: Split-Routines


(Click on Nutritional Terms and Reference Numbers in Blue for More Info)

As we saw in Part 2 of this series, if you’re new to resistance training you can increase your muscle mass by performing a low volume programme comprising just 1-3 sets of one exercise per body part, but high-volume programmes involving multiple-sets and multiple exercises are needed to optimise gains (1,2). To achieve such a high volume of training you will need to perform a split-routine, i.e., train different muscle groups on different days. This requires careful planning to ensure even development and to reduce the risk of overtraining and injury.

Developing A Split-Routine

A split-routine simply involves grouping exercises together that target specific body parts, such as upper body and lower body, or certain muscle groups (such as chest, back, arms and legs) and training them on different days. This allows the muscles to perform a greater volume of work thereby receiving a greater training stimulus while allowing sufficient recovery between training sessions.

It is important to note that there is an increased risk of over-training associated with this type of programme due to the volume and intensity of work that can be achieved in each session. Also, you should ensure that you don’t perform a disproportionate amount of work for or neglect any particular body-part or muscle group, as this can lead to asymmetrical development and an increased risk of injury.

Here are some examples of commonly used split-routines.

*2 Day Split-Routine

Monday and Thursday: Back, Biceps and Legs

Tuesdays and Fridays: Chest, Shoulders and Triceps

*3 Day Split-Routine

Monday: Chest, Shoulders and Triceps

Wednesday: Legs

Friday: Back and Biceps

5 Day Split-Routine

Monday: Chest

Tuesday: Legs

Thursday: Back

Friday: Shoulders

Saturday: Arms

Taken from Clarke and Corn (3)

* Typically, each workout is repeated twice in a week allowing one recovery day between sessions for the same muscle groups or body part.

male bodybuilder

Here are a couple examples of the types of split-routines used by elite bodybuilders.

7 Time Mr Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger

Day 1: Chest and Back

Day 2: Shoulders and Arms

Day 3: Legs and Lower Back

Day 4: Chest and Back

Day 5: Shoulders and Arms

Day 6: Legs and Lower Back

Day 7: Rest


8 Time Olympia Winner Ronnie Coleman

Day 1: Back, Biceps and Shoulders

Day 2: Legs

Day 3: Chest and Triceps

Day 4: Back, Biceps and Shoulders

Day 5: Legs

Day 6: Chest, Triceps and Calves

Day 7: Rest

Example Workouts

Once you have decided on the type of split routine you are going to employ, you can begin to design each workout.

Here is an example of the typical workouts performed in basic 2 day (push-pull) split routine.

male bodybuilder

Monday and Thursday (Pushing Exercises)

Exercise – Sets – Reps

Bench Press 3 x 6-12

Incline Dumbbell Press 3 x 6-12

Dumbell Flyes 3 x 8-12

Dumbell Lateral Raises 3 x 8-12

Shoulder Press 3 x 6-12

Bent-Over Bumbbell Lateral Raises 3 x 8-12

Triceps Pushdowns 3 x 8-12

Dips 3 x 6-12

Abdominal Curls 3 x 8-20

Cable Rotations 3 x 8-20

Back Extensions 3 x 8-20

Split-routines-Fitness Model

Tuesday and Friday (Pulling Exercises)

Exercise – Sets – Reps

Squats 4 x 6-12

Leg Extensions 3 x 8-12

Hamstring Curls 3 x 8-12

Straight-Arm Cable Pull-Downs 3 x 8-12

Pull-Ups 4 x 6-12

Bent-Over Row 3 x 6-12

Barbell Shrugs 3 x 8-12

Barbell Bicep Curls 3 x 8-12

Incline Dumbbell Bicep Curls 3 x 8-12

Standing Calf Raises 3 x 8-20

Seated Calf Raises 3 x 8-20


Here are a some of examples of the type of workouts an elite bodybuilder would perform.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Chest And Back Workout

Exercise – Sets – Reps

Bench Press 3-4 x 10

Incline Bench Press 3-4 x 10

Dumbell Pullovers 3-4 x 10

Chins 3-4 x 10

Bent-Over Row 3-4 x 10

Deadlift 3-4 x 10

Crunches 5 x 25

Split-routines-Bodybuilder Doing An Overhead Press

Ronnie Coleman’s Back And Tricep’s Workout

Exercise – Sets – Reps

Pendlay Row 3 x 15

T-Bar Row 3 x 15

Dumbbell Row 3 x 15

Lat Pull-Down 3 x 15

Tricep Dips 3 x 20

Triceps Extension 3 x 20

When Should I Progress To A Split Routine?

Although there appears to be no strict rules regarding when an individual should progress to a split routine, it is advisable that you have at least 6 months experience of consistent resistance training before attempting such a programme because of the potential for over-training (2).

The decision to use a 2, 3, or 5 day split routine will depend on your level of experience, ability to recover, training goals and time availability.

If you have been performing a whole-body programme 2- 3 days per week consistently for 6 months, the next step would be to increase training frequency from 3 to 4 days per week using a two-day split routine (2). Each muscle group would be trained twice per week over 4 days allowing 3 days of recovery.

After a period of at least a year’s consistent training, you may wish to further increase the volume of training for each muscle group necessitating an increase in your training frequency to 5-6 days per weeks using a 3- day split routine with each muscle group being trained twice over 6 days (2). However, this will allow just one recovery day.

Typically, each most group is trained twice per week but some bodybuilders may use something like a 5-day split routine but only train each muscle group once per week.

There is a degree of trial and error associated with developing a split routine, as you need to ensure that you provide sufficient training stimulus to maximise muscle growth while allowing sufficient recovery. Therefore, you need to carefully monitor your performance and progress.

It is important to note that athletes taking performance enhancing drugs are able to tolerate much higher volumes of training than natural athletes and recover more quickly.

In Part 4 of this series we will look at the use of periodisation to add variety to your training programme.