I’m probably going to be one of the very few people you hear say this over the course of your training journey: There’s NO “best method” to lifting.
So much of your results ride on your genetics, physiology, and personal response to exercise and diet, that there’s no one to say what you’re doing is right or wrong, with all things equal.
This is an industry that’s almost entirely built upon inference and educated guesses supported by research that suggests a certain idea or philosophy.
The second a lifter or trainer becomes polarized in their thinking is the second they start to miss the big picture and miss out on the opportunity for some awesome gains.
When it comes to your training routine, many people don’t know where to begin, what muscle groups to focus on, and how to approach things over the course of the week.
Depending on the environment influencing that lifter, there could be a major push in favor of one method of training or workout split.
Gritty gyms with a big powerlifting culture may endorse training movements over muscles, and putting the focus on one lift per day.
Bodybuilding-heavy gyms with a physique training culture may push the body part split method, with higher weekly frequency.
Gyms more tailored towards general public, beginners, or women only may smile at training total body style, with no emphasis towards building any muscle in isolation.
Spoiler alert: With this article, you’re not going to get the answer.
What you will get is an educated expert’s list of pros and cons associated with various popular training styles, and that can hopefully steer you in a direction that works for you and your lifestyle.
Method 1: The Body Part Split Routine
Plain and simple: You can do a strength training routine with this setup, but let’s face it - If you’re looking for hypertrophy and have a pretty solid foundation of strength and movement ability, you’re probably taking a step in the right direction by opting for body part splits.
Related: M&S's 10 Week Mass Building Program
Over the years, professional bodybuilders have generally not strayed from their use, and that provides testimony to their effectiveness.
- With splits, you can zero in on exactly what muscles you want to fatigue for the day, and add a ton of volume to each workout day.
- Since movements are mostly isolated, you don’t have to worry as much about your nervous system getting zapped from exertion through many compound movements.
- It encourages more consistency and dedication to your training, since split routines generally require more days per week in the gym. If you miss a day, you don’t end up training that muscle group for the week!
- If you’re a person who doesn’t have as much flexibility and time to devote to training right now, this method probably isn’t best for you. Even missing 1 workout per week can compromise your gains drastically, especially in light of the point above.
- If you’ve got a thing for big compound movements like the Olympic lifts, they probably won’t take priority in your split routine, since it’s tough to slot a barbell snatch into a training split category (would they go on leg day? Back day? Shoulder day? All three answers are technically correct).
- If you don’t like dealing with a few days of serious DOMS, then this won’t leave you in the best place to avoid it. Breaking down the muscle tissue of one or two major groups at a time will almost guarantee deeper soreness than other styles of training, if you’re doing things properly.
- Though your conditioning, muscular endurance, and hypertrophy will all likely improve, your mobility is prone to suffer. If you don’t make this a focus on the side, you can get stuck in the rabbit hole of lifting, seeing gains, and avoiding compound dynamic movements.
I’d personally use a split program if I was a dedicated intermediate lifter looking for size gains. Countering the program with mobility work and static stretching is crucial to seeing results that last, and avoiding injury.
Method 2: Movement – Based Training with Strength Emphasis
I had to make the distinction in the subheading because of something I believe: All good coaches should focus on training movements before training muscles. It’s that subtle shift in mindset that can be the deciding factor in recovering from injuries, achieving more range of motion, or just plain being a more technically sound lifter.
With that said, true strength training generally requires a command of good movement, and the patterns of focus dictate the workout for the day. For instance, day 1 may focus on the hinge pattern (making deadlifts the strength move of focus).
Day 2 may focus on the squat pattern, day 3 may be vertical pushes and pulls (making overhead presses and chin ups the emphasis), and day 4 may be horizontal pushes and pulls (utilizing the bench press and row accessory work). I’ve personally had plenty of success using variations of this idea with clients after performance.
- Your physique will take second place to improved performance, which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing to have under control in the weight room.
- You’re going to be using exactly the right movements to get strong, and they’ll all mimic primal patterns we do in daily life (like hinging, squatting, rowing, and lifting overhead).
- You’ll likely feel more accomplished. Strength training involves heavier loads and fewer reps, and it’s a huge confidence builder to lift hundreds of pounds. It just is.
- There’s spillover into many other areas of health and fitness by emphasizing strength and movements as your focus. Mobility, metabolic demand, and the nervous system all get trained too. Who wouldn’t want that?
- You’re lifting heavy stuff. Often. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the joints, no matter how well you can perform the lifts. Keeping regular tune-ups with a good practitioner (chiropractic, RMT) may be costly, but it’s worth its weight in gold for sustained strength training.
- Your results really depend on your recovery. The nervous system takes a toll here, and if your nutrition and sleep aren’t sufficient, you’ll be in an overtraining state pretty fast.
- In general, we’re talking about a higher risk for injury. There’s no escaping this when mixing big lifts and heavy weight. There’s more room for error, and the need for a spotter is almost definite.
Beginners and intermediate lifters alike can benefit from this programming method. But they must beware of the law of diminishing returns. There’s a cost/benefit where your joints, nervous system, and physical gains are concerned. And heavy strength training has real world applications… until it doesn’t.
Method 3: Upper/Lower Split
The “grey area” between the two above program styles is probably that of an upper/lower routine. This is a method I personally feel doesn’t deliver optimal results in any which direction, but it’s an important option for an intermediate lifter to have.
Why? Because of a training goal that I feel is one of the most severely underrated goals that exist: Maintenance.
There is no shame in not wanting to push PR’s in strength or not wanting to pack on even more muscle, given you’ve reached an appreciable amount of both. We’re all told that there should be no ceiling to either pursuit, and that ultimately leads to our detriment, with enough negatives to seriously contend with the positives.
An intermediate or advanced lifter can ensure that his gains stay right where they belong by cutting the volume in half and adjusting his training frequency accordingly.
- I’ve found that a focus on just the upper body or just the lower body as individual units encourages trainers and lifters to program supersets more readily. The superset is a great way to improve conditioning and keep the heart rate up while exposing the muscles and nervous system to more time under tension.
- Most people will spend the same amount of time in the gym, while focusing on more muscles while there, cutting down the amount of volume any given group receives. That means less DOMS, though enough stimulation to make sure your hard earned strength and size gains don’t go anywhere.
- Smart implementation of the upper/lower split will encourage balance towards both sides of a healthy joint, and even the opportunity to train each half of the body twice or more weekly.
- If you haven’t yet reached your goals in strength and size, there’s a chance this won’t help you. You need more specificity that this system can’t provide.
- There’s no real “strength training” that can be done using this method, unless it’s on one choice movement. You simply are putting out too much energy and exercising too much movement variety to lower rep ranges and focus on a PR performance.
- If you’re looking to be in and out of the gym in an hour, you’ll have to cut your sets shorter to get everything in. If you don’t you’ll end up skipping over muscles that you won’t be able to train until the next upper or lower body workout.
Reached your goals and want to stay athletic? Use the upper/lower split. Between programs and want to recover from a taxing program phase? Go for the upper/lower split. This is suited for those where distinct performance or physique goals don’t apply as severely.
Putting it All Together
At the end, there will always be the person who gets huge from an upper/lower split, and the person who gets insane strength from a body part split program, and the guy who gets crazy conditioning out of their barbell strength training program.
That’s what makes the study of fitness so great. I’ve used my personal experience with clients and my own training to bring 3 popular methods of training to light.
Use them smartly, and don’t be afraid to make yourself a guinea pig for a phase to see what your body responds to best, as concerns your goals. A couple of months won’t kill you.