The best split for muscle growth
written by Philip Stefanov | SEPTEMBER 14, 2021
For whatever reason, some people are consumed by the question of which training split is best for muscle growth. Upper/lower? Push/pull/legs? Full-body? Maybe even the bro split?
Even if you know the answer here, you can see why this is a valid concern. If there is one best split, why are there so many options? Better yet, if you pick the wrong one, does it mean you won’t make good progress?
To answer the question, it would be helpful to examine what we need to cover, training-wise, for optimal growth. Here it is:
- Training volume
- The right frequency
- The right intensity
- Good exercise selection
First, we have training volume - the amount of work we do in the gym. According to research, we need to do anywhere from 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle group (1). But since I see 20 weekly sets per muscle group as too much for most people, I typically recommend 12 to 16 sets for larger muscle groups (like your chest and back) and 5 to 10 for your smaller ones (like your biceps and triceps).
Plus, we need to account for overlapping volume. Your triceps and shoulders work on most chest exercises, just as your biceps and forearms work on most back movements. So, it wouldn’t make much sense to do tons of direct sets for these muscles to make them grow optimally.
Second, we have training frequency - how often we train a muscle. While people enjoy throwing around recommendations, research doesn’t find much of a difference between training our muscles one, two, three, or four times per week (2). It appears that training volume matters most. So long as we do enough work, the frequency has less of an impact. In any case, I typically recommend training muscle groups twice per week for better volume allocation.
Third, we have intensity - the amount of weight we lift and the repetition ranges use. Researchers and experts agree that the best growth occurs when training with 60 to 75 percent of our one-repetition max (3). In practical terms, this means doing anywhere from 6 to 30 repetitions per set.
Fourth, we have effort - how close we train to failure. While some suggest that we need to train to failure, research disagrees. It seems better to always leave a repetition or two in the tank (4). This allows us to maintain our performance, accumulate more volume, and recover better between sets and workouts.
And finally, we have a good arsenal of movements. The goal here is to train our muscles from multiple angles, emphasize different regions, vary the stress on our joints, and keep our training fun. Plus, this allows us to use different exercises and train with various repetition ranges. For example, lifting heavy on compound movements like squats and overhead presses and lifting lighter weights on isolation exercises like bicep curls and lateral raises.
So, What’s The Best Split For Muscle Growth?
Honestly, so long as you cover the above criteria, any split will work. What matters most is that you enjoy your training, it fits with your schedule, and it lets you organize your training well.
For example, if you can’t train more than three times per week, I recommend a 3-day push/pull/legs or full-body split. If you can train four days per week, a 4-day upper/lower split will be a good choice. If you are more advanced and want to train five or six days per week, a push/pull/legs will be suitable for organizing your weekly volume.
Instead of asking yourself, “What’s the best split for muscle growth?” realize that all splits carry their benefits and drawbacks. So instead, consider, “What’s best for me in my situation?”
Until next week,
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