Finding The Optimal Training Split For Your Goals And Lifestyle

A LOT of thought should go into designing your training program.

Sure, you can randomly do things you saw on Instagram and feel like you're doing something... but building a lean, strong body requires so much more than just do something that feels hard a few times per week.

Your training program needs to have the right amount of frequency, volume, and intensity for you. More importantly, it has to be something you can adhere to with extreme consistency to get results.

This is a huge part of what I do as a coach to get my online clients such great results - your program needs to be customized to you specifically, with your goals, limitations, and lifestyle taken into account. 

That's a program you'll be able to stick to, and one that'll create great results.

Let's dive into how to determine the best training split for you specifically, as well as exactly how to lay out each day of your program.

First, you need to choose how many times per week, and what movements/muscle groups you’ll be training.

Some things I consider when building an online client's training program include:

1.)Lifestyle And Adherence

“The best training plan? The one you can stick to.”

Cliche, but true. It’s easy to get overzealous when choosing a training program. You’re probably super motivated right now.

But, to see GREAT results from a program it needs to be something you can do consistently for WEEKS without missing.

If you’re trying to train 6 days a week, but usually miss 2-3 training days due to time constraints or motivation - you’d get much better results following a 3-4x/week split.

The thing is - you have tons of different options for training programs (more details below). Any of ‘em will give you good results with consistency.

Biting off more than you can chew will give you WORSE results than a training program you can be consistent with. So again - choose something you can stick to.

If you have lots of time restraints and/or life stressors - you’ll likely get the best results on a 3-4 days per week training split.

2.)Training Experience

You probably follow some jacked bodybuilders on Instagram. These dudes train twice a day, 7 times per week. "#teamnodaysoff" they say.

You probably also follow some slightly less jacked, but seemingly more intelligent "evidence based" people. These people tell you to be careful of doing too much. "You don't want to over-train."

It's confusing. Who to listen to?

"Why only work out 3 days a week, when I could do 6?"

Here's the thing - building muscle requires progressive overload. Basically, your total volume needs to increase over time. Volume is usually quantified as: "Sets X reps X weight = volume".

^That said, I don't math good. Sooo let's just quantify volume as your TOTAL NUMBER OF HARD SETS. (Hard sets: sets in the 5-20 rep range, finished with 1-3 reps in the tank.)

So, progression over time requires gradually increasing number of hard sets. This leads to eventually adding more training days to make room for the added volume/sets.

Now, this doesn’t mean “more volume ALWAYS equals more growth”.

Your maximum recoverable volume (MRV) is the maximum amount of volume your body can recover from and adapt to. When you’re over your MRV, results are worse, even though you're doing more work.

  Your MRV increases over time. As you continue to incorporate progressive overload, volume gradually increases. But there’s most definitely a point of diminishing returns where volume becomes too much.

This varies a lot by individual, but we can generally assume the longer someones been training properly, the higher their MRV will be.

Point being, if you’re new to lifting and start right out of the gate training 6 times per week - you'll get WORSE results than training 3-4 times per week. 

Realistically, most can achieve their goal physique training 4 times per week.

As you get more advanced, if you want to push the envelope, and compete in a sport like bodybuilding or powerlifting (or you just really love lifting), 5-6 training sessions per week is an option. But again, don't start here.

Signs You're At Or Near Your Ideal Number Of Hard Sets

Your strength is consistently increasing on the compound lifts

You're consistently sore.

You're getting good pumps.

You're pushing yourself, but don't feel "run down".

This where you're at? Don't add sets/training days. Focus on adding weight to your compound lifts while staying in the 8-15 rep range.

Example:

You bench 225 for 8 this week. Aim for 225 for 9 next week. Once you can hit 225 for 12 (or whatever rep ranges you’re working in), bump weight to 235 and start over at 8. This progression naturally increases volume without having added sets/time in the gym.

Signs You're Doing Too Many Hard Sets

You feel beat up/run down.

Motivation to hit the gym is low.

Strength is stagnating or decreasing.

No pumps.

If this is more like you, it's probably time to decrease the number of hard sets you're performing. Focus on sleeping more, managing stress, and improving your diet.

In this case, you're simply doing too much to recover from. Dial it back a bit.

Signs It's Time To Add More Hard Sets (And Potentially A Training Day)

Recovery is good.

Strength is stagnating.

You're rarely sore.

No pumps.

If this is you, it's likely time to add in more hard sets.

General Recommendations

Beginners: 3-4 training sessions per week. 30-60 minutes each.

Intermediates: 4-5 training sessions per week. 60-90 minutes each.

Advanced: 5-6 sessions per week. 60-90 minutes each.

3.)Frequency

"CHEST DAY! LET’S GOOOOOOOOO."

-Bair, J. (Every Monday 2010-2014.)

"Leg day again…? I don’t think today’s Thursday bro."

-Bair, J. (Every Thursday 2010-2014.)

Maybe you’ve been here… or maybe this is how you're still training - splitting things up by body part a.k.a the bro split.

Now, anything is better than nothing. From the ultra-important adherence perspective: if a bro split is what you most enjoy, I say more power to you.

That said, most studies seem to agree - when volume is equated - training every muscle group at least twice per week is more optimal for muscle growth than once per week training. (Schoenfeld, 2016)

Example:

Doing 5 sets of 10 squats with 135lbs twice per week would create more muscle growth than doing 10 sets of squat with 135lbs once per week, despite volume being the same.

Now, before you go squatting every day - there’s no proof of any additional benefit to training a muscle more than twice a week, outside of the increase you’d see in volume (which again, can reach a point of diminishing returns.)

As of now, your best bet seems to be training everything with twice per week frequency.

So, when you take all these different factors into account, you’re left with a couple different “most optimal” training splits that can realistically be followed by most:

3x/Week - Full Body

3x/Week - Full Body/Upper/Lower

4x/Week - Upper/Lower

5x/Week - Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower

5x/Week - Upper/Lower/Body Part Specialization

Again, when choosing your split, the most important thing is choosing a program you can stick to consistently, NOT the one that looks sexiest on paper.

Sample Training Programs

Before we dive into samples of how you would design each split, let’s clear up some terminology:

*Activation Circuits — Each training day starts with a circuit designed to prime your body for heavy lifting. DON’T skip this. You’ll increase your odds of injury, and get worse results. Perform the listed exercises consecutively, take a 30-second rest period, and repeat for three total rounds.

*Rest Periods — Avoid the temptation of turning your workout into a giant circuit. Too short rest periods reduce your ability to overload the movements, and in turn change your body.

*Supersets — Pairing two exercises back to back. This is indicated by a.) b.) OR a.) b.) c.) when you’ll be doing three exercises consecutively. Do exercise a.) - take the prescribed rest period (0.5–1 minute) - do exercise b.)- take the prescribed rest - repeat.

*The RPE Scale — The RPE scale rates how hard an exercise “feels” on a scale of 0–10.

A 1 RPE would be moving your arms in a shoulder press motion. A 10 RPE would be an all-out effort to grind out a new shoulder press PR.

Progress in the gym comes down to progressively overloading movements over time. When the RPE of doing 10 squats at 135 drops from a 9 to a 6, you know you’ve progressed, and it’s time to add load or reps.

Using RPE also makes your program much more individualized to how you’re feeling on a daily basis. If you underslept, are under-recovered, or under significant life-stress, an exercise will feel harder. Rather than grind away at (currently) unsafe weights, RPE naturally regresses and progresses intensity, depending on how you’re feeling.

*To gauge RPE — Ask yourself at the end of a set: “How many more reps could I have squeezed out if I absolutely had to?” Your answer is “Reps In Reserve” (RIR) or how many reps you feel you had left before failure.

RIR and RPE work together nicely. Ending a set with 2 RIR is equivalent to an 8 on the RPE scale. 4 RIR = 6 on the RPE scale, and so on.

The best results will come training primarily at an RPE of 7–9 OR 1–3 RIR. This provides adequate intensity for progress, without creating too much stress to recover from.

Got all that? Dope. Let's kick it off with...

3X/Week Full Body Split

A solid option for ANYONE who is super busy. Tons of emphasis on the compound movements means you’ll still make plenty of strength and size gains following this split.

Ideally, you would set this up with at least one rest day between each training day.

Your week could look like:

Monday: Day 1

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Day 2

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Day 3

Saturday: Rest

Sunday: Rest

That said, the program does offset which movement patterns are trained, so you're good to do two training days back-to-back if needed. DON'T run all three training days consecutively.

Here's A Sample 3X/Week Full Body Split:

 

And Some Movement Patterns To Plug In:

3X/Week Full Body/Upper/Lower Split

Another great option for busy people.

Again, you'll ideally have at least one rest day between each training day.

I typically program this:

Day 1: Full Body Strength

Day 2: Upper Hypertrophy

Day 3: Lower Hypertrophy

OR - Day 2: Full Body Hypertrophy. (For weeks you don't have time to hit all three training days.)

You now know training each muscle group twice per week is ideal. A full body/upper/lower split like this allows for a strength day, AND two size focused days, where the client is really able to focus on hitting specific muscle groups with a ton of volume and still get a great pump (hard to do with 3x/week full body).

That said, I designed this split for a client who had a crazy busy schedule, and really now way of predicting when he'd be able to train.

Weeks he had more free time, he'd hit the full body/upper/lower days. Weeks he had less free time, he'd train: full body day 1/full body day 2.

Either way, he'd still hit the 2x/week frequency, while still allowing his training to be super adaptable to his lifestyle on a weekly basis.

Here's A Sample 3X/Week Full Body/Upper/Lower Split:

4X/Week Upper/Lower Split

Here, you’ll be splitting your training up into upper and lower body days.

This is one of my favorite training splits. It’s solid for most anyone but the most rank beginner, all the way up to those with years of experience in the gym. Really, this split can be scaled up for a long time, without seeing a drop off in progress.

Training 4x/week gives you plenty of room to acquire all the volume you need, without creating too much stress to recover from. Plus, it's not a huge time investment. This makes the split ideal for a majority of my online clients.

 I typically recommend online clients run this split:

Monday: Day 1

Tuesday: Day 2

Wednesday: Rest/Cardio

Thursday: Day 3

Friday: Rest/Cardio

Saturday: Day 4

Sunday: Rest

In a pinch, you're good to run all four days back-to-back, as you have very little overlap for muscles trained on consecutive training days.

Here's A Fully Done For You Upper/Lower Split:

 

This is pulled from The Ultimate Guide To Visible Abs training program, so obviously a lot of ab focus. That said, this is a very well rounded program for most any goal.

5X/Week Upper/Lower Push/Pull/Lower Split

Here, we’re getting pretty advanced. This is a lot of training volume. If you have poor sleep, nutrition, or an abundance of life stressors, this is not the split for you to follow.

That said, this is my personal favorite training split to follow. It allows for a ton of strength work, as well as plenty of pump focused work on the push and and pull days.

For optimal results, I recommend online clients run this split:

Monday: Day 1

Tuesday: Day 2

Wednesday: Rest/Cardio

Thursday: Day 3

Friday: Day 4

Saturday: Day 5

Sunday: Rest

Here's A Sample U/L/P/P/L Split:



 

Here's The Movement Cheat Sheet Again:

5X/Week Upper/Lower Body Part Specialization Split

This one is super fun. Basically, you're running the 4x/week Upper/Lower split from earlier, but adding a 5th "Body Part Specialization Day".

The goal here is to add some extra volume, without creating a ton of fatigue. So basically, focus on mostly isolation-ish movements, and in the moderate-ish rep ranges. The goal here should be feeling the muscle work, not pushing the heaviest weight possible.

A Shoulder Focused Specialization Day Could Look Like This:

Now, there are an tons of other ways you could set your training split up - these are just a few of the splits my online clients seem to prefer/get the best results on.

Again, adherence is the biggest key here. Choose a split you can follow with extreme consistency.


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About The Author

Jeremiah Bair is the biggest Taylor Swift Fan in Lincoln, NE. He's also a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the Online Coaching Business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.