There Is No One Size Fits All
Do you find yourself eager to to build up more size and strength and constantly searching for that perfect training program? Are you constantly hopping between different programs in the hopes of finding that one program that will give you unlimited progress? Well, the reality is, there is no perfect training program. There are certainly programs out there that are more optimal than others for certain goals and depending on your training experience, but in terms of finding the one, there just isn’t. In the world of training programs, there is no one size fits all type of scheme.
All schemes have their pros and cons and some are just more optimal than others. In terms of size and strength development, there are a huge number of programs to choose from and they all claim the same thing: awesome results! This can make it kinda of difficult when it comes to deciding how you are going to program your training! At this moment in time, it’s impossible to really say just what the best scheme is when it comes to size and strength development over the long-term. Since everyone has different preferences, needs, capabilities, daily schedules and levels of experience in the gym, it’s simply impossible to say to someone: ‘I have the worlds best training program and I giving it to you!’ What scheme might work well for one person, might actually turn out a complete disaster for someone else! There really is no end to the debate on what the best training program is. However, there are definitely a few things to consider when deciding on whether a training scheme is optimal or not for you.
A Traditional Bodybuilding Split Scheme Approach
A traditional bodybuilding spit scheme is extremely popular amongst the masses, particular those just starting out (which it shouldn’t!). The term ‘a bodybuilding split’ routine is simply used because it’s generally a popular training set up amongst most high level competitive bodybuilders. Below I have set up a spread sheet to highlight two of the most common ways in which people might implement a traditional ‘bodybuilding’ split scheme.
The first version is what I would call your bog standard bodybuilding scheme. That is, every muscle group is split and trained on separate days (even arms into biceps and triceps). Now, in terms of size and strength development over the long-term, there are a few training components that you need to consider and implement (in some way), namely your training frequency (how many times per week you train each muscle group), training volume (sets x reps x weight) and your training intensity (what % of your 1RM are you using for your working sets and reps?).
When you look at a bog standard bodybuilding split scheme you notice a few things: the training frequency for each muscle group is merely 1x per week. The optimal frequency is said to be around 2/3x per week for each muscle group. This is because protein synthesis is typically elevated after training, peaking, and recovering within 24-48 hours following it.
⇒Therefore, in order to maximise the benefits from this elevated protein synthesis, training each muscle group 2/3 times per week is optimal for size and strength development.
So, if you look at a bog standard bodybuilding split scheme, a frequency of 1x per week for each group, puts you far from the optimal. If you are an advanced (or enhanced) weightlifter then a training frequency of 1x per week might actually be ok and necessary given that the expected volume and intensity they would need to train at to keep making progress, would be extremely high. Remember: as you become more advanced, more volume and intensity is going to be required to allow you to keep making progress. As an advanced weightlifter, you would however need longer recovery periods between each muscle group (due to greater amounts of volume and intensity being utilised). From the perspective of an advanced weightlifter, this type of split might not be all that bad and in fact probably wise since the reduced training frequency of 1x per week would offer the needed recovery.
However, consider beginners and intermediates. For most of you, you won’t be at the stage where a training frequency of 1x per week for each muscle group will be necessary to allow for sufficient recovery. Although you will be increasing your volume and intensity over time on a regular basis to keep overloading and thus progressing, it won’t be so high that you need a training frequency of 1x per week. As a beginner or early intermediate, your ability to recover quickly will be high (within 24-48 hours following your last workout). A high recovery rate, combined with lower amounts of volume and intensity (in comparison to an advanced lifter) means that for you, a training frequency of 2/3 per week will be much more optimal in terms of promoting maximum size and strength. In fact, for a beginner or intermediate, following a bog standard bodybuilding split will mean that they don’t make optimal use of post-exercise protein synthesis elevation. Missing out on alot of gains!
⇒The bottom line: I do not think bog standard bodybuilding split routines are optimal for beginners and intermediates due to the fact they can recover quicker and they do not need as much recovery time for the level of volume and intensity they are working at. This allows for an optimal training frequency of 2/3x per week to be utilised without eating into their capacity to recover adequately. Thus allowing for constant progression in terms of volume and intensity. For advanced lifters, the frequency of 1x per week provides the necessary room to recover from higher volume and intensity workloads they typically need to keep progressing at this stage.
The second split scheme is a modified version of the first bog standard bodybuilding split scheme. This time, a larger muscle group is typically worked with a smaller muscle group, with legs usually having their own day. This is another popular scheme amongst lifters (and new lifters!). Again, you will notice that the training frequency is changed from working each muscle group 1x per week to 2x per week. For most lifters, this certainly puts them closer to the optimal training frequency of 2/3x per week for each muscle group. For advanced lifters, this scheme doesn’t pose too much of a problem (depending on the amount of work they are doing, in terms of volume and intensity and how they feel they are recovering). But, especially for beginners and early intermediates, I don’t recommend a 6 day split routine. As above. Simply because the work in terms of volume will tend to be too high to recover from.
Since most split 6 day split schemes like above tend to be rather high in volume (in terms of exercises, reps and sets), a beginner will tend to accumulate this fatigue pretty quickly. In most cases, I have seen many beginners follow similar schemes as above only to end up ‘hammering’ every muscle group with many exercises, reps and sets (and usually little to no progression in weight) every session. Although they might be training at an optimal training frequency of 2x per week, the massive amounts of volume will offset this through simply poor recovery. It’s no surprise then that these people progress very little because they have problems recovering from all the volume they are doing (not to mention, with little focus on intensity work, the only way to further progress is too add more reps and sets, which just becomes counter productive after a while!). I mean, who wants to spend 3 hours in the gym!
⇒The bottom line: Although a modified bodybuilding split can bring the training frequency up to around 2x per week, the initial high volume might be too much for beginners and early intermediates. The tendency for high volume in these bodybuilding style routines will tend to cause accumulative effects in fatigue, essentially throwing beginners and intermediates into the deep end to soon too fast, which will reduce their ability to fully recover and thus progress further.
A Full Body Approach
Full body routines get a great reputation in the fitness community, and good right! When it comes to building size and strength over the long-term, full body routines are typically the most recommended. Moreover, they tend to be recommended across the entire trainee-strength-progression continuum from beginners all the way through to advanced lifters. So why are full body routines great? Well, again it has to do with how training variables such as frequency, volume and intensity come into play.
With a typical full body routine, you have three full body training days. These days usually consist of mainly compound movements to address all muscle groups (usually a squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press variation, with some additional isolation accessories thrown in to address any potential weak or lagging points in the muscle chain). This puts you at a training frequency of 3x per week for each muscle group, which is pretty much the optimal number to aim for. For all beginners, intermediates and most advanced lifters (provided they can recover adequately!) is 3x the sweet spot. This will ensure you maximise post-exercise protein synthesis elevation through the week in order to stimulate maximum size and strength development.
What you also see is that there is adequate rest: 4 rest days in the week. Wow, 4 rest days! This is great because as you become a more advanced lifter and start increasing the volume and intensity over time, you will still be able to maintain a optimal training frequency of 3x, while still recovering optimally. All together, this means that you can continue progressing over the long-term because you are able to recover well from the increase work that you are doing and needing. Remember: to progress over time you have to increase your volume and intensity over time.
Some of you might be asking: In both a modified bodybuilding split routine and a 3 day full body routine I am hitting an optimal training frequency of 2/3x per week for each muscle group, so why is a modified split still worse? In a typical bodybuilding split routine, you tend to use a lot more volume per session. Say you work chest + arms on one day: that might include a collection of exercises such as bench press, dumbbells, machines, flies, curls, closed-grip exercises, pushdowns etc. That is alot of exercises and a lot of volume! Now, if you workout 6 days per week, that is a lot of extra additional volume of the course of the entire week. When you pool all the sets, reps and weight from all exercises and muscle groups together over the course of 6 training days, you quickly realise that your total weekly volume is huge.
For beginners and most intermediates it would just be too much to ensure adequate recovery over the long-term. Most would quickly stall out. Not to mention, your CNS would fry up! You could reduce the frequency to accommodate for the increase in total weekly volume. But then if you reduce the work out days from 6 downwards, then you start to diverge away from the optimal training frequency and you start introducing imbalance into your routine (you begin to work certain muscle groups more than others due to removing training sessions). With a full body 3x per week, because it’s based mainly around compounds, and you don’t need alot to work your entire body anyways, your total volume during the entire week is going to be more manageable.
⇒The bottom line: full body workouts 3 days per week offer an optimal training frequency of 3x per week, while allowing for better control of volume, intensity and thus recovery over the long-term. Unlike bodybuilding split routines, the volume and intensity can generally be increased and regulated without needing to reduce the training frequency. Overall, leading to better recovery and more progress over time.
Upper-Lower And Push-Pull-Leg Schemes
A popular choice amongst lifters is to adopt an upper-lower or push-pull-legs type of setup. Unlike traditional bodybuilding split routines, these group workouts in either upper and lower body muscle groups, or push-pull-leg muscle groups. In terms of their effectiveness, again, it’s all about looking at how you manage training frequency, volume and intensity over time and your stage of lifting. If you first consider an upper-lower scheme, with 2 upper and 2 lower sessions per week, this gives you a training frequency of 2x, working each muscle group twice per week. Thus putting you in the optimal range for maximising post-exercise protein synthesis elevation. Your upper body days will typically consist of your shoulder, chest, back (upper-mid) and arm movements, while your lower will consist of your lower back and legs.
If you ask me, I find this much better in comparison with a typical modified bodybuilding split routine of 6 day sessions per week. Why? Well in both cases, you achieve a training frequency of 2x per week. But, with an upper-lower you workout 4 times per week (and putting muscle groups together), while in a modified bodybuilding split scheme you workout 6 days per week and you split the larger muscle groups up, meaning you are more likely to up the volume per session in comparison to an upper-lower scheme. For instance, say you have an upper body workout. With shoulders, chest and back in one workout, it’s unlikely you are going to be trashing each muscle group with several exercises and an abundance of reps/sets. In a modified bodybuilding scheme, say you have a chest + arms day. This time, you are more likely to up the exercises and reps/sets simply because you only have one large muscle group to work.
⇒Simply put, your actual total weekly volume is likely to be greater with a modified bodybuilding split scheme, thus putting you in a possible position of poor recovery.
Push-Pull-Legs is also another common training setup. Here, if you are aiming for a training frequency of 2x per week for each muscle group, then you will typically follow a 6 day program with 2 push days (triceps, chest, shoulders), 2 pull days (biceps, back) and 2 leg days. Again, because each session is grouping muscle groups together rather than splitting them all up into separate days, the volume will be alot more controllable and thus recovery will not be much of a problem. However, I am not really a fan of push-pull-legs over upper-lower body simply because of changes in ‘overall weekly volume’. With an 4 day upper-lower split, you would be able to train at a training frequency of 2x per week, while ensuring your total weekly volume is controlled (since more muscle groups are kept together per session, you don’t need as much per session in the way of exercises etc.).
If you partake in a 6 day push-pull-leg scheme, although you are still working at a training frequency of 2x per week for each muscle group, you total weekly volume is going to be much greater, thus recovery is likely to become more of a problem as you progress.
⇒The bottom line: A 4 day upper-lower body routine or a 6 day push-pull-legs routine will allow you to train at a frequency of 2x per week per muscle group with a controllable amount of weekly volume in comparison to typical bodybuilding split routines. However, I believe a 4 day upper-lower body routine would be more optimum for intermediate lifters over a 6 day push-pull-legs plan simply because ‘overall weekly volume is less’. This makes volume more controllable and thus recovery better in the long-term.
The Bottom Line?
Well, it’s simple really: there is no golden training routine. Different types of routines have their pros and cons and depending on many factors such as your training experience, goals, schedule, preferences, it’s pretty much impossible to say what the perfect routine actually is. In this article I have tried to look at a few common program structures from three angles: that of volume, that of training frequency and that of intensity. When it comes to making progress over time, managing all three will determine whether you develop more size and strength over time.
All three are essential in recovery, and in turn allowing you to do more work (in terms of volume and intensity) over time. As you can see, all the routines above handle frequency, volume and intensity differently and depending on WHO YOU ARE, will determine which routines might be more optimal for you. Although not mentioned in this article there are other considerations such as what exercises you use in these routines, how you structure the workouts themselves, the rep/set ranges and the balance between compound and isolation exercises. All these things can have an impact on whether such and such routine is optimal FOR YOU.
⇒The main take home message is that whatever routine you choose, it must combine training frequency, volume and intensity in the best manner possible that is in line with your current training state, to allow for optimal recovery and progressive overload over time. That is the only way you will develop more size and strength into the long-term.
Any questions, ask away!