How to Develop an Optimal Training Split

Everyone wants to figure out how to create the best muscle building split. Learn how you can do so and train optimally with these simple guidelines.

The ideal training schedule is something we are all searching for. If you can establish this then it’s a foundational piece of the muscle building puzzle. There are three key variables when it comes to training for size. These are intensity, volume, and frequency. This article will focus on the third of those.

Frequency relates to how often you train. Most guys are leaving gains on the table with their failure to fully understand training frequency.

Training frequency has two components:

  1. Number of training days per week
  2. Number of times each muscle is trained per week

The problem is, most meatheads only address the first half of the equation. They simply ask, “How many days per week should I train?”

They don’t ask the important follow up question, “How many days per week should I train each muscle group?”

This provides a much more nuanced answer that will yield far better muscle gains if properly understood.

All muscles are not created equal! Some muscles respond differently to training and recover at differing rates. Understanding this means you can optimize your training split to train each muscle at it’s ideal frequency. Some muscles will be trained more often than others. This allows each muscle to grow at the fastest possible rate. Frequency should not be considered a global, whole body issue, but a muscle specific one.

Factors such as a muscle’s size, anatomical structure, function, fiber type ratio, range of motion, and its ability to tolerate stretch under load are some of the key considerations that feed into how often a muscle can and should be trained.

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SRA Curve: The Frequency Governor

The key concept which governs the recovery timeline of a muscle is the Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation (SRA) curve. This theoretical model explains the entire process a muscle goes through between one training session and another.

Training is the stimulus. This temporarily reduces a muscle’s functional capacity. Through the process of recovery performance returns to baseline. Adaptation occurs when the muscle exceeds baseline performance. In layman’s terms, adaptation equates to a bigger and stronger muscle.

Related: The Secret to Training for Both Physical & Mental Health

Because of the differences between muscle groups the specific SRA curves of one muscle to another are slightly different. They ae not wildly different but some muscles might have an SRA cycle of 24 hours while others are 96 hours. Consequently, some muscles can be trained more frequently than others.

Research suggests that training a muscle between 2-4 x per week is best for hypertrophy. Establishing exactly where on this frequency continuum a muscle falls allows you to identify the ideal muscle building split for you.

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A Real World Example

Let me illustrate this concept by asking you a few quick questions.

How long are you sore for after a tough leg workout?

Could you come back the next day and crush your quads and hamstrings again?

If you did manage to crawl into the gym and hit legs the next day, would it be an effective muscle building session?

Chances are you answered no to all three of those questions.

If I posed the same questions, but replaced quads and hamstrings with side and rear delts would your answer be different?

I bet they would!

A killer leg session has you hobbling around for a few days. It causes significantly, more homeostatic disruption and general fatigue than a tough rear and side delt workout. Purely based on this example, it seems logical that your lateral and side delts could benefit from being trained more often than your quads and hamstrings. In a moment, I’ll provide you with some other theoretical and practical tips to assess each muscle’s ideal training frequency.

Here are some general guidelines that can serve as a starting point for you to determine your own optimal training frequency for each muscle group:

  • 2x week: Quads, hamstrings, chest
  • 3x week: Back, biceps, triceps, anterior delts, glutes, calves
  • 4x week: Rear delts, lateral delts, abdominals

Your Bespoke Frequency Guidelines

The principles of training apply to everyone but, the exact protocols used to apply those principles should vary from person to person. That applies to creating the ideal training split for you. When determining your own ideal muscle specific training frequencies, you should factor in the following:

  • Your training age/experience
  • Your strength levels
  • Your overall level of lean muscle mass
  • Your stress levels and/or non-gym related commitments

Once you’ve been training for a long time and become relatively advanced, the frequency with which you can train certain muscles might actually drop. When you are bigger and stronger you can cause more disruption to your body via training. Squatting 500lbs is much more taxing than squatting 200 lbs!

Essentially, your strength levels mean you can dig a deeper recovery hole than a beginner can. This means recovery can take longer. This is one of the reasons beginners can make excellent progress with a three day a week whole body program, but most advanced lifters would not do so well on this training schedule.

Optimizing your training for muscle growth

For Every Yes There is a No

You only have so much capacity to tolerate stress regardless of if that is work, relationship, financial, or the physical stress of hard training. If you have said yes to a high-flying career then, you have probably said no to handling a very high training frequency. It is more difficult (but not impossible) to spend a lot of time in the gym and recover from it when you have an extremely stressful work life.

Having an insane workload, hectic travel schedule, high-stress job, lots of responsibilities, a busy social calendar, and a family to care for, limits your ability to tolerate and recover from training. If, however, you are living at home with your parents, have no dependants, and your meals are taken care of, you have a much greater capacity to recover from training. Be realistic about your situation and consider this when deciding upon your training frequency.

Once you have addressed your general recovery capacity based on the above factors we can then drill down into the muscle specific factors. These are:

  • Fiber type ratio of a given muscle
  • The muscle’s size
  • It’s anatomy
  • The specific exercises you are utilizing

Fiber Type

The muscles of the body have different roles. Some are required to maintain posture and others to exert high levels of force. This is reflected in their fiber type ratio. Postural muscles will be slow-twitch dominant while some others are fast twitch dominant. This, like most things related to training, works on a continuum, with many muscles having a relatively mixed fiber type.

Fast twitch fibers are more powerful, can produce more force, but fatigue very quickly and take longer to recover. Slow twitch fibers, meanwhile, produce less force, but are much more fatigue resistant and recover far quicker. It is, therefore, wise to train slow twitch dominant muscles more frequently than fast twitch ones.

The study of muscle fibre type is relatively limited and there are of course outliers. Usain Bolt, for example, almost certainly has a far higher ratio of fast-twitch fibres than you or me! With that said, the sports science literature can give us some useful guidelines:

  • Chest: Fast twitch
  • Shoulders: Slight type I dominance
  • Traps: Mixed
  • Triceps: Fast
  • Lats: Slightly more type II to type I
  • Biceps: Tendency towards fast twitch
  • Spinal Erectors: Slow
  • Hamstrings: Mixed
  • Quadriceps: Mixed
  • Glutes: Mixed with a tendency towards slow twitch
  • Calves: Slow

If you have a higher than average number of slow twitch fibers you will probably benefit from a slightly higher training frequency and using higher rep ranges. Conversely, if you are extremely fast twitch dominant then you will probably get the best results using lower rep ranges and training muscles less frequently.

Not sure which fiber type dominance you have? If you don’t immediately and instinctively recognize that you are extremely fast or slow twitch then, the chances are you have a pretty average fiber type distribution.

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Muscle Size

As I identified earlier, bigger stronger muscles tend to take longer to recover. So, the larger muscle groups of the body will need slightly lower frequencies. Training your quads is much harder to recover from than training your triceps. Larger muscles can produce more force.

To challenge them in training you use heavier loads. This is more demanding. Larger muscles also have the simple difference of requiring a larger surface area of tissue to be repaired and remodelled after training. This takes longer. Think of it this way, it takes longer to knockdown and rebuild a skyscraper than it does a bungalow!

Anatomy

The anatomy of a muscle can influence its ability to produce force and the amount of muscle damage caused when training it.

Some muscles have the capacity to be placed under a significant stretch when training. The hamstrings and pecs are good example of this. This somewhat limits the frequency with which they can effectively be trained.

Exercise Selection

While assessing your training status and muscle specific characteristics go a long way to deciphering the best training frequency for you, the exercises you use will also play a role. Training quads with squats every day would be brutal. Daily quad training with leg extensions, however, probably wouldn’t be that bad.

The factors to consider when choosing between exercises include, the complexity of the movement pattern, nervous system activation, quantity of muscle mass involved, the amount of force generated, degree of stretch on working muscles, and the level of muscle damage created.

Related: Top 10 Mass Building Movements of All Time

A practical tip is that compound barbell movements tend to be the hardest to recover from. Next up are compound movements with dumbbells, then cables or fixed machines. Isolation exercises are generally easier to recover from than compound movements. So, at one end of the spectrum for quads are squats and at the other are leg extensions.

Given that machine based isolation exercises are easier to recover from, it could be tempting to use those to achieve extremely high frequencies per body part. This would be a mistake. There is a trade-off between choosing between the most effective exercises (generally multi-joint free weight exercises) and the super-high frequencies possible with machine based isolation exercises.

To solve this issue, I suggest you limit your training frequency to what you can tolerate while building the foundation of your workouts around the compound lifts.

The amount of muscle damage caused by an exercise is another point to consider. Lifts that place high levels of stretch under load on a muscle tend to cause very high levels of muscle damage. This extends the SRA timeline for the muscle(s) involved. Some examples of this are Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, and dips.

When it comes to programming your training week, this is important to consider. If you train your chest with exercises that emphasise a deep stretch under load (dips, paused bench, cambered bar bench, DB flyes etc.) then you should be careful when you schedule them in your split.

Say, for example, you train chest twice per week on a Monday and Thursday. You have 72 hours recovery between Monday and Thursday, but 96 hours from Thursday to Monday. Performing the exercises that emphasise a stretch under load might be best on the Thursday session as it gives the chest a longer recovery window before they are trained again on the following Monday.

Range of motion (ROM) is also a consideration when it comes to exercise specific SRA curves. Movements with a greater ROM require more work to be done. Work in physics is defined as:

Force x Distance

This extra workload creates greater fatigue and can extend your recovery timelines. Quarter squats require less work and cause less fatigue than ass to grass squats. Rack pulls less than deficit deadlifts and board presses less than bench presses.

How to set up your workouts

Putting It All Together

Now you know all the factors that can influence a muscle’s ideal training frequency, you can piece together a training split which trains them all at this frequency.

Initially, you might think this means you have to train 7 days per week. This is not the case!

In fact, an upper/lower split can be modified to achieve it. By “tagging” on some training for muscles that respond to higher frequencies you can maintain a 4-days per week routine, but hit every muscle at it’s ideal frequency. For example:

  • Monday: Upper + calves
  • Tuesday: Lower + rear, and lateral deltoids
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: Upper + calves
  • Friday: Off
  • Saturday: Lower + lats, arms, rear and lateral deltoids
  • Sunday: Off

Alternatively, if your schedule allows you to make it to the gym 6 days a week you could use the following split:

  • Monday: Upper body and calves
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Back, biceps, rear and lateral deltoids
  • Thursday: Chest, triceps, calves
  • Friday: Legs
  • Saturday: Back, triceps, rear and lateral deltoids
  • Sunday: Off

Note: On Monday, train chest, back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps. Leg days involve quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

With the “tag-on” sets, you don’t need to do too much. A minimal effective dose is best. Two to three sets per muscle group will get the job done and provide a muscle building stimulus while keeping fatigue under control and allowing you to hit the optimal training frequency for each muscle group.

Take Your Training to the Next Level

As a beginner, you should simply train to build as much muscle as possible. When you transition to intermediate status you will probably begin to notice that some muscle groups are overpowering your physique while others lag behind. This will give you some clues as to which muscle have not been trained at the ideal frequency with more traditional splits.

To progress to the advanced level and develop a symmetrical physique you will probably need a non-symmetrical split based on each muscles’ SRA curve. Armed with the knowledge in this article you can do just that and push closer to your muscular genetic potential.