How to Create and Use Workout Splits to Reach Your Fitness Goals – Shape Magazine
Walk into a weight room or your home gym without any type of game plan, and you’ll surely end up scrolling through Pinterest for 20 minutes in search of a strength-training session that sounds somewhat enticing. About halfway through the workout, though, you’ll come to realize it doesn’t match your skill level or sync with your fitness goals.
To ensure you never suffer through another useless internet workout again, take advantage of workout splits. Ahead, you'll find out just how beneficial workout splits can be, the various types you can utilize, and how to build them into your own routine, straight from fitness experts themselves.
Don’t let the vague term fool you — a workout split is simply a way to plan out and structure your workouts for the upcoming week, says Erin Taylor, F.N.S., C.E.S., an NASM-certified personal trainer and strength coach. A workout split can be broken up by target muscle groups, movement patterns, or specific exercises. And it’s typically based on the number of days you’ll be training throughout the week, as well as your specific fitness goals, she says. That way, “when you go into the gym each day, it sets up what you’re going to be training and focusing on muscle group-wise,” she adds.
Workout splits are generally used to program strength-training workouts, but they can also help you plan other types of movement, says Taylor. For example, you can set up a workout split featuring two full-body resistance training days, a yoga or Pilates day, and a cardio day, she adds. “You can definitely use it with other goals in mind, but I would say it’s mostly rooted in strength training,” she notes.
Regardless of how you use them, workout splits can be beneficial for any individual incorporating movement into their routine, including fitness newbies, says Taylor. Here, the low-down on why they're so worthwhile.
Creating a detailed workout split ahead of your training session ensures you don’t waste your precious gym time thinking about which exercises you’ll do and what equipment you’ll need. In turn, your workouts are much more efficient, says Taylor. “It provides people with a plan of action, and that’s usually the biggest point of failure for a lot of people when they’re going to the gym — they don’t necessarily know what to do,” adds Taylor Neal, an ACE-certified personal trainer. “By creating a split, it’s a way of saying, ‘Okay, this is what I need to do today.'”
Plus, having a detailed training plan before you walk into the weight room is a surefire way to stifle any gym anxiety you may normally feel, says Taylor. "If you know ahead of time what you're doing, not only for that day but for that week, it kind of makes you feel like a pro," she says. "You're not just winging it completely, [so it] it gives you a little bit of motivation and builds confidence."
By sticking with a well-balanced workout split designed with your specific goals in mind — and updating it over time — you’re more likely to properly practice progressive overload training, says Taylor. “It’s kind of impossible to have progressive overload if you’re just throwing together random workouts day after day, week after week,” she says. ICYDK, progressive overload training involves gradually increasing the volume, load, or intensity of your workouts in a planned fashion in order to see improvements in your fitness. “Progressive overload is the cornerstone of how you see progress in strength training in particular,” says Taylor. “So when you have a workout split set in place, you’re able to see what you did last week in terms of reps, sets, and weight used, and you’re able to progress it week to week.”
There isn't one best type of workout split, but there are a few common ones used in the strength-training world. When deciding which to employ in your own fitness routine, the number of days you can exercise is most important, says Taylor.
If you’re short on time and can hit the gym just one to three days a week, your workout split should typically feature full-body strength workouts for each of your sessions, according to the experts. This ensures you’re adequately training and challenging all of your muscle groups while still allowing your body enough time to properly recover in between workouts. When choosing your exercises, make sure you utilize all five key movement patterns in every workout: hinge (e.g. deadlifts, hip thrusts), push (such as bench presses or triceps dips), pull (e.g. rows, lat pull-downs), squat (aka knee bend), and brace/carry (e.g. planks, suitcase carries), says Taylor.
One of the most common workout splits is a push-pull split, which is structured around specific movement patterns. It’s typically used during four-day workout splits, with two push days and two pull days, alternating between the two, says Taylor. On push days, you’ll focus on exercises in which you’re pushing a weight or the ground away from your body, such as push-ups, triceps dips, shoulder presses, squats, step-ups, and lunges. On pull days, you’ll work on exercises in which you pull a weight toward your body, such as bent-over rows, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, biceps curls, deadlifts, and hip thrusts, says Taylor.
Another option for a four-day workout split is an upper-lower split for strength training. On day one, you'll focus on upper-body exercises, followed by lower-body moves on day two. Then, you'll repeat the process for days three and four, says Taylor. Each of your upper-body days and lower-body days, however, might focus on different muscle groups. "For instance, one day for the upper body might focus on back and biceps, which is very common in the bodybuilding community," says Neal. "Then the next upper-body day would focus on chest, shoulders, and triceps."
Given that structure, there's often overlap between upper-lower splits and push-pull splits, according to the experts. Your back and biceps are called on during "pulling" movements (think: rows, curls), which you might perform on your first upper-body day. And your chest, shoulders, and triceps are responsible for "pushing" movements (think: presses, extensions), which you may perform on your second upper-body day, says Neal. Translation: You can have an upper-lower split that also functions as a push-pull split, she says. And that's typically what Taylor recommends to clients who train four times a week: "I really would just do an upper-lower split and then think of your push and pull as movement patterns."
Some splits are tailored specifically for a niche sport, including powerlifting. ICYDK, powerlifting involves training and testing your one-rep max for the deadlift, squat, and bench press. So these athletes might utilize a workout split that focuses on those exercises, as well as other moves that support their progress. In a five-day powerlifting split, the first day might be focused on squats, the second on bench presses, the third on deadlifts, the fourth on overhead presses, and the fifth on exercises meant to increase hypertrophy (aka muscle growth), explains Taylor. Again, this workout split isn’t necessary (or even beneficial) for the average strength trainer — so unless you’re a powerlifter, consider utilizing one of the aforementioned splits instead.
When DIYing your own workout split, your first step is to figure out how many days each week you can commit to working out — and don't overestimate, says Taylor. "If you make a five-day split and you only make it to [the gym for] two days, you're only gonna hit a few muscle groups," she explains. In the long run, this initial overzealousness can prevent you from reaching your fitness goals. If you plan on working out one to three days a week, you'll do best to plan out a full-body workout split. On the other hand, you'll want to use a push-pull or upper-lower split if you're strength training four days a week, says Taylor.
Then, it’s time to create each of your workouts for the week. For each training session, you should generally aim to include two compound movements (meaning they involve multiple joints and work multiple muscle groups), two to four accessory (re: single-joint) movements, and one core movement, suggests Taylor. For example, deadlifts and back squats would satisfy the compound exercise requirement, biceps curls and triceps extensions would work as your accessories, and dead bugs and planks will challenge your core.
True beginners may want to start with just two accessory movements then, after four weeks, incorporate another one into their split to utilize progressive overload, she adds. "As long as you have that structure, you can kind of just plug and play and switch exercises in and out," she says. Ultimately, you should hit every major muscle group — including your back, chest, legs, arms, shoulders, and core — at least once each week, says Neal.
Generally, each day of your workout split should include slightly different moves to ensure your body is being challenged in multiple ways, says Taylor. In other words, both of your upper-body days in an upper-lower split should feature a different mix of exercises, she says. "You should also make sure that you're not biasing one movement pattern over another," says Taylor. "When you're doing lower-body days, don't have just knee bending movements — have knee bend and hinging. On your upper-body days, don't just work your chest and your triceps — make sure you're working your 'pull' muscles, your biceps and your rear delts."
Most importantly, your workout split should be something you actually enjoy, says Taylor. "Don't get too bogged down about what is most optimal or the perfect workout split — find something that motivates you to get [through] the gym doors," she adds. "And the more advanced you get and the more specific your goals are, your training split might look a little different. So don't compare your split to anybody else's. Find one that works for you."
Typically, you’ll want to stick with your workout split for anywhere from four to 16 weeks, depending on your goals and your coach, if you’re working with one, says Neal. “Changing your split up too frequently doesn’t allow your body to adapt to the exercises themselves,” she explains. “You may think, ‘I’m getting a little bit stronger. I’m starting to notice some gains in these areas,’ but [if you change your split too soon], you’re not going to get stronger in specific lifts or create that level of hypertrophy, muscle growth, and definition that you’re hoping for.”
You'll want to rethink your workout split if you're no longer progressing (think: the weight you can lift is no longer increasing) or it's starting to feel tedious, says Neal. A good rule of thumb? Mix up your workout split every eight weeks or so, which will help you continue to progress in your fitness and reach your goals, says Taylor. "Switching it up with different tempos, variations, stances, grips, or even completely swapping an exercise like a back squat for a front squat just gives a little bit of new stimulus to the body," she explains. "And it allows you to not become stagnant or bored with the routine that you're following."
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