Strength Training Basics – What Training Split Should I Use?

strength training basics - which training split should i useThe world of strength training and fitness is full of confusing, complicated, and often bullshit sales messages, theories, and talking head opinions.  In light of that I, and the staff of Relentless Strength Training, are going to be simplifying and explaining some of the keys of successful strength training basics.  Today I’m going to give you the skinny on Training Splits, what that even means, and to answer the question of “what training split should I use?” in your own training program.

When it comes to setting up a training program, before you even get to your exercises, sets, and reps, it’s important to figure out what kind of training split you’re looking for.  Basically, a training split is a method for organizing your training by movement, body part, method, or another variable, hence “splitting” your training.

If you search online there are about as many training splits as there are people in the gym, so it can get pretty confusing.  Like most people at the gym, there are all kinds of opinions and few of them are valid.  I’m going to go over some of the most common splits that we use every day with various clients here at Relentless to help clarify your thought process, kill some jargon, and assist you in making an educated decision for your own training.

***** First of all, if you’re brand new to training and just trying to get started, then the best training split is one that you like, have fun, and can keep going on.  Period. *****

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper.

There are three basic splits we’re going to dig into today:  Body Part Splits, Movement Splits, and Full-Body Splits.

Body Part Splits

If you spend some time in gyms chances are you’ll find that most people are on some sort of body part split or reading a muscle magazine.  This is where you break up the body into pieces and train a different part on a different day.  For example, Monday is almost universally “Chest Day”, as evidenced by the monopolized benches with bro’s lined up out the door and sad, lonely squat racks in the corner of every gym across America.  After Monday the unofficial split rules slacken a little and on your other days you might hit “Legs”, “Back”, and “Arms”, etc.

This style of training is popular in the competitive bodybuilding world.  The positives that Body Part splits brings are that you can come in, blast the crap out of a body part with a lot of focus, and then check it off your list as done for the week until it recovers to do it all over again.  This lets you get deep into that body part, create a lot of damage (and thus prime it for growth), hit it from a lot of angles, and then give it some serious rest time to recover and grow.

On the cons side the Body Part split routine often leaves a little to be desired for newer trainers or those who are looking for a more athletic result.  New and intermediate lifters thrive off of frequency and repetition because they’re not so skilled with exercises as to squeeze the most out of every single rep.  Therefore, a split routine where you often only expose a muscle group to a stimulus once per week or so isn’t frequent enough work to keep the progress moving as rapidly as it could.

From an athletic perspective the body part split fails the test because, while it makes individual muscles big and strong, the splitting up of the muscle groups doesn’t do a lot to teach them how to coordinate and work together to move the weight.  When it comes to being athletic and moving with speed, power, and precision, it is more important that muscles work together smoothly rather than have any individual muscle be very well developed.

Movement Splits

This type of split is basically the thematic opposite of the Body Part Split.  When following a Movement Split you’re less concerned with individual muscles and more focused on the actual exercise, often the Squat, Bench Press, or Deadlift (powerlifting applications) or the Snatch and Clean and Jerk (Olympic lifting applications).  With a Movement Split most athletes focus on a primary movement for the day (“Squat Day” or “Max Effort Squat Day”) and base their other exercise selections around that movement.

The pros for this type of split are a) obviously you hit the focused-movement directly and with the highest priority, and b) you have more freedom to train individual body parts more often as part of bigger movements, which is usually more efficient.  If you’re squatting frequently then you’re hitting the quads and hamstrings and don’t need to focus so much on your leg extensions and leg curls, for example.  You can kill a lot of birds with one stone and get out of the gym.

This type of training works well for beginners and intermediate athletes who need to spend more time practicing the movements and hitting body parts more often.  On the cons side of Movement Split training is that you need to pay a little more attention to your recovery and volume to make sure that you’re not over using a some body parts while ignoring others.

An example of this could be someone who has a “Bench Press Day” and an “Overhead Press Day” in their weekly program.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but both of those movements can potentially be a lot of work on the front delts while not so much on the rear.  So if you’re not careful then it’s easy to over-use your front delts (hurt shoulders) and not train your rear delts in a balanced manner (hurt shoulders again).

Whole Body Splits

The Whole Body Split is pretty much what it sounds like.  On any given training day you’ll train both the upper body and lower body, hopefully balancing out your muscle groups and training movements.  This type of split is often great for beginners as you have a lot more freedom of exercise choice (pretty much anything can be used on any day), it creates a great “fitness” effect by making most of your muscles work on a synergistic basis and using a lot of energy, and can be useful to teach your body how to move athletically as it lends itself to whole-body movements.

Training your whole body in each gym session also makes your training very efficient in that you know you’re hitting all the bases every time you get to the gym.  As a result you can often only train 2-3 times per week to get a great strength training effect, versus four, five, or six sessions per week for some of the other training splits.

The downsides of the Whole Body Split is that you need to be even more careful to balance your training and not beat certain body parts to death.  If you’re training the whole body three or four times per week then certain areas of the body that are prone to overuse such as the elbows, shoulders, and lower back can get cranky if you don’t pay attention to your overall volume and stack too much on there.

Also, since you’re going to go wide with your training repertoire that means that you usually can’t go as deep.  By that I mean you can’t smash a body part with high volume, high weight, and from a variety of angles.  For beginners and intermediates that’s not a big deal as the threshold for growth and improvement is pretty low.  For advanced lifters, on the other hand, they may need more focused work on an individual body part to bring it up and induce more growth or prepare it for certain sporting activities.

The Answer

All three split variations have their place and there are a lot of different variations within them that can make all of them work.  You can slice and dice any of them to work for most any goal, if you do it right.  The big key is to make sure that whichever program or split that you choose it is for reasons that are in line with your goals.

Are you a fairly strong, advanced lifter who really only cares about looking good naked?  Then you might do well smashing a Body Part split.

Are you someone who’s a competitive lifter, wants to be, or just wants to be focus on being strong as hell, then maybe the Movement split is more in line with your ideals.

Just getting rolling in the weight room, learning the movements, and want to get in shape, gain some muscle, lose some fat, and feel like you got a great workout every time?  I’d recommend Whole Body split workouts.

In general, and how we do things at Relentless, is that we lean to Whole Body splits for beginners and intermediates, and as our athletes develop into more accomplished lifters we often drift towards a Movement-based/Upper Body and Lower Body program.  Would you like to see how some of those programs work?  Just sign up on the right to join the Relentless Faction where I share more fitness information, nutrition advice, AND sample workouts!

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