Muscle Building 101: Sets, Reps & Workout Routine Splits

Learn workout fundamentals. Everything you need to know about set & rep schemes, body part splits and full body workouts is explained in this article by Steve Shaw.

This muscle building article is aimed at those of you who are new to weight training, and the muscle building process. I will start with the basics - sets and reps - and move on to explain common workout training splits and approaches.

Workout Basics

When you look at a workout in a magazine, or on the Internet, you're likely to see a structure that looks like this:

  • Bench Press - 3 x 10
  • Dumbbell Flyes - 3-4 x 10-15

What does this mean? Let's break it down and take a deeper look.

For bench presses, the "3" is the number of sets you will perform and the "10" is the number of reps - or repetitions. The same goes for dumbbell flyes. The first number - in this case a range of numbers - means you will perform 3 to 4 sets. The second number, again a range, tells you how many reps you will perform.

Concentration CurlsWhat is a Rep?

A rep, or repetition, is the smaller, most fundamental unit of a workout. The act of moving a barbell or dumbbell from point A to point B, and then back to its starting point, is a single repetition. Here are some examples that explain "reps" in a little more detail:

Bench Press. Unrack the bar. Lower the bar to your chest and then press it back to its starting position. This act is a single rep, or repetition.

Barbell Curls. Start with the barbell at arm's length. Curl the bar up towards your chest, and then lower it back to its starting position. This act is a single rep, or repetition.

What is a Set?

A set is a group of reps. While you do not rest in between reps, you do rest in between sets. So when an exercise tells you to perform 3 sets of 10 reps, you perform a single set, rest, and then the next.

Sets and Rep Ranges Explained

Many workouts provide set and rep ranges, instead of specific set and rep guidelines. For example, looking at the example from above:

  • Bench Press - 3 x 10
  • Dumbbell Flyes - 3-4 x 10-15

For the bench press you are asked to perform a specific number of both sets and reps. For flyes you are given a range of sets and reps. When you are given a range, the workout's author is providing you with options.

As long as you are working within these ranges, you should see the results that the workout is trying to help you achieve. Over time you will gain a feel for the unique demands of each exercise. Some exercises will feel better using a lower rep range, while on some you might prefer a slightly higher number of reps.

Be Careful of "Backwards Workouts"

Sets proceed reps in most workout listings. So when you see:

  • 3 x 10

...this should mean 3 sets of 10 reps. Unfortunately, you will occasionally find workouts that list sets and reps in a backwards manner, like so:

  • 10 x 3

If you are unsure if this is correct (10 sets x 3 reps), or if it's written backwards, make sure to ask an experienced lifter for guidance. You can also leave a question or comment below regarding a specific workout and I will try to help as best I can.


Workout Routine Splits

Now that we have taken a look at sets and reps, let's dive into a more complicated topic: workout routine splits. Workout routines are generally divided into the follow categories:

  • Body part splits
  • Full body workouts
  • Upper/Lower splits

Obviously this is a simplified break down of the various types of workout plans that exist in the weight lifting niche. Other types of splits exist, but are generally evolved variations of one of the three program types listed above.

Body Part Splits

Body part splits focus on targeting individual muscle groups, rather than working the body as a whole unit. Exercises are grouped by body part, and in general several different body parts are worked during each training day.

While most body part splits have you training each muscle group only once a week, some of them call for training certain body parts as often as every 4 to 5 days. Larger muscle groups are typically worked using 3 to 5 exercises per session, starting with heavier compound movements, and then moving on to less taxing compound movements, machine and isolation exercises. Smaller muscle groups are typically targeted with 2 to 4 different exercises per session, with a focus on taxing machine or isolation lifts, and occasionally compound movements that are very body part specific.

Because of the singular focus on working one muscle group at a time, many bodybuilders have a tendency to turn compound movements into more of an isolation-style movement so that they can achieve a better "feel" or "muscle pump." Common body part groupings include:

  • Chest and Triceps
  • Chest and Back
  • Shoulders and Triceps
  • Chest, Shoulders and Triceps (Push Workout)
  • Back, Traps and Biceps (Pull Workout)
  • Back and Shoulders
  • Biceps and Triceps
  • Quads, Hamstrings and Calves (Leg Workout)

The Push, Pull, Legs is a very popular 3 day body part split. A typical training week usually looks something like this:

  • Monday - Chest, Shoulders and Triceps
  • Wednesday - Back, Traps and Biceps
  • Friday - Quads, Hamstrings and Calves

While there are many popular 4 day splits, the following routine is typical:

  • Monday - Chest, Triceps and Abs
  • Tuesday - Back, Biceps and Forearms
  • Thursday - Shoulders, Traps and Abs
  • Friday - Quads, Hamstrings and Calves

Bench Press

Full Body Workouts

Full body workouts reside on the other end of the training spectrum. Instead of focusing on individual body parts, you work the entire body during each training session. While there may be some focus on targeting individual body parts, training tends to take a more holistic view.

There can be some degree of paranoia in the realm of body part training that if a lifter does not target each and every muscle group with a sufficient amount of exercises that it will not grow. An equal but opposite view can also exist in the realm of full body training.

Some full body workouts are boiled down to absolute bare minimums, with most of the focus being on heavy compound movements, and very little time spent on the use of isolation lifts and minor body parts. Typically, a lifter will perform 3 full body workouts per week, taking at least one day of rest between sessions.

  • Day 1 - Workout
  • Day 2 - Off
  • Day 3 - Workout
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Workout
  • Days 6 & 7 - Off

There are some strength and muscle building coaches, such as John Christy and Dr. Elliot Darden, also advocate 2 day per week full body sessions under certain circumstances. Despite getting very little attention, 2 day per week training is a very viable and effective approach for the natural trainee.

A very popular form of full body training is the HLM variation. The term HLM stands for heavy, light, medium. Lifters rotate between heavy days, which focus on lower reps and taxing compound movements, light days, which utilize more isolation style movements and higher rep ranges, and medium days which are a mix between the two.

Upper/Lower Splits

Upper/lower splits are an intermediate style training approach. Workouts are divided just as they sound - between upper body work, and lower body work. A typical upper/lower format looks like this:

  • Monday - Upper Body
  • Tuesday - Lower Body
  • Thursday - Upper Body
  • Friday - Lower body

Upper/lower splits are sort of a happy middle ground between body part splits and full body training. Many strength training approaches use at their core this style of template. Lower body days are also often worked as heavy "posterior chain" days. Posterior chain muscles include the major muscle groups along the back of the body:

  • Back
  • Lower Back
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Traps

It also would be totally acceptable to work abs, obliques, quads and calves on lower body, or posterior chain days. When training for strength, the focus of lower body days, or posterior chain days, is on the deadlift and/or squat.

Upper body days generally revolve around pressing movements, including the bench press and a form of overhead press. Muscle groups that might be worked on upper body days include:

  • Chest
  • Shoulders
  • Backs
  • Traps
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Forearms

Lateral Raises

Breakdown Of Common 3 Day Muscle Building Splits

The following are common 3 day muscle building split templates. Most of these splits can be run as 5, 6 or 7 day rotations depending on needs. If you k now of a 3 day split not featured in this article, please post it below in the comments section.

Push Pull Legs 3 Day Split
  • Day 1 - Chest, Shoulders and Triceps (Push)
  • Day 2 - Off
  • Day 3 - Quads, Hamstrings and Calves (Legs)
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Back, Biceps and Traps (Pull)
  • Day 6 - Off
  • Day 7 - Off

Abs can be worked on whichever day(s) are most convenient. Forearm work is optional.

3 Day Split With Arm Heavy Day
  • Day 1 - Chest, Back and Traps
  • Day 2 - Off
  • Day 3 - Quads, Hamstrings and Calves
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Shoulders, Biceps and Triceps
  • Day 6 - Off
  • Day 7 - Off

Abs can be worked on whichever day(s) are most convenient. Forearm work is optional.

3 Day Split - Leg Focus
  • Day 1 - Back, Traps and Hamstrings
  • Day 2 - Off
  • Day 3 - Chest, Triceps and Biceps
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Quads, Shoulders and Calves
  • Day 6 - Off
  • Day 7 - Off

Abs can be worked on whichever day(s) are most convenient. Forearm work is optional.

3 Day Split - Antagonistic Muscle Group Focus
  • Day 1 - Chest, Biceps and Forearms
  • Day 2 - Off
  • Day 3 - Legs and Shoulders
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Back, Traps and Triceps
  • Day 6 - Off
  • Day 7 - Off

Abs can be worked on whichever day(s) are most convenient.

3 Day Split - Shoulders and Back Pairing
  • Day 1 - Chest, Biceps and Triceps
  • Day 2 - Off
  • Day 3 - Quads, Hamstrings and Calves
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Back, Shoulders and Traps
  • Day 6 - Off
  • Day 7 - Off

Abs can be worked on whichever day(s) are most convenient. Forearm work is optional.