Illustration of a bodybuilder doing a 4-day training split to build muscle.

The Best Workout Splits for Gaining Muscle—Explained

A workout split refers to how you organize your exercises throughout the week. Should you do 2, 3, or 9 workouts? Should you stack all your chest exercises into one of those workouts, split them between two, or do a few sets every workout?

There are a few different workout splits, each of them good, but each with its own pros and cons:

  1. Body Part “Bro Split:” This split focuses on one body part per workout. Monday is Chest Day, Tuesday is Back Day, and so on. This type of split is incredibly popular with bodybuilders—and for good reason.
  2. Upper/Lower Split: This split severs your workouts into upper-body days and lower-body days. This split shifts more emphasis toward your lower body, making it great for gaining strength and athleticism. When Marco was helping professional and Olympic athletes bulk up, he had almost all of them on upper/lower splits.
  3. Push/Pull/Legs Split: This split organizes workouts by movement pattern. Pushing exercises work the triceps, chest, and shoulders. Pulling exercises target the back and biceps. Leg exercises focus on the entire lower body. It’s more logical than a Bro Split but also less clever and efficient.
  4. Full Body Split: With full-body workouts, you train your entire body every workout, which is ideal for beginner and early intermediate lifters. I gained my first 50 pounds this way. It’s an incredibly powerful split for building muscle in a hurry.
  5. Hybrid Splits: This split combines different ideas together. For example, maybe you add an upper/lower split to a push/pull/legs split, giving you a 5-day workout routine for gaining strength, athleticism, and muscle size. Or if your arms are lagging behind, maybe you add an Arm Day to your full-body routine.

Without further ado, let’s break all these splits down so you can find the one that’s best for you.

A skinny guy bulking up and becoming muscular, illustrated by Shane Duquette.

What’s a Workout Split?

A workout split is how you divide your exercises into workouts. The idea is to stimulate muscle growth, recover, and then stimulate more growth. You can do that by training all your muscles at once, having a full rest day, and then training them again (a full-body routine). You could also “split” your body up, training some muscles one day and others another day (a split routine).

There are a few good workout splits for building muscle, including:

  1. Full-Body Workouts: These workout routines stimulate most muscles during most workouts.
  2. Upper/Lower Splits: These routines split your workouts into lower-body and upper-body exercises.
  3. Push/Pull/Legs Splits: This is when you divide your workouts into pushing, pulling, and legs.
  4. Bro Splits: These are Push/Pull/Legs splits with extra days added for your arms and shoulders.
  5. Hybrid Splits: These are the mysterious workout splits used for more peculiar goals.

We’ll break them all down. But first, we need to understand the ideal training volume and frequency for provoking muscle growth. Once we know that, we can divide that volume up into different workout splits.

How to Make a Workout Split

How Many Sets Should You Do?

Let’s start with how much you should train your muscles. Schoenfeld and colleagues found that our rate of muscle growth increases with every additional challenging set we do, at least to a point (study). If we look at another study by Aube and colleagues, we see that by the time you’re doing 6 sets per muscle per workout, we start building less muscle with every extra set (study).

Graph showing how many sets we should do per muscle group per week to build muscle.

That gives us a relationship that looks something like this, with 9–18 sets per week yielding a maximal amount of muscle growth. The catch is that we need to spread that volume out so that we aren’t doing more than 6 sets per muscle per workout. For instance, doing 3 sets of bench presses on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday gives us 9 sets per week to bulk up your chest, which is perfect.

Now, there’s a caveat here. We’re assuming that you’re doing hypertrophy training, lifting in a way that’s ideal for building muscle.

9–18 sets per muscle group per week is a good default, but a little more or less is fine, and everyone is different. For beginners, 9 sets per muscle per week is a great place to start. (For more, we have a full article on training volume.)

How Often Should You Train Your Muscles?

The next thing to consider is how often you should train your muscles. We’re aiming for at least 9 sets for each muscle each week. But if we do more than 6 sets per muscle per workout, it stops being effective. In fact, it may begin to reduce your muscle growth. So, ideally, you want to split those 9+ sets into at least two workouts.

Graph showing muscle growth with different training frequencies and workout splits.

If we look at another meta-analysis by Schoenfeld and colleagues, we see that the logic holds (study). If we train our muscles at least twice per week, we gain muscle quite a bit faster than if we only train them once. When we’re training more than twice per week, though, it stops mattering. (For more, we have a full article on training frequency.)

How Long Should You Rest Between Workouts?

One of the main purposes of training splits is to let your muscles grow and heal between workouts. It usually takes around three days for a muscle to finish growing and healing. But it can take even longer if you’re new to training, taking your sets to failure, or doing a ton of sets for each muscle (study).

Here’s the part that few people talk about:

  • Some parts of your body are stressed each workout, even if you aren’t training them directly. You hold the barbell in your hands whether you’re doing deadlifts or bench presses. You’re putting weight on your spine, whether you’re doing squats or overhead presses. Even if you split your workouts into different muscle groups, you may still hammer some areas every single workout.
  • Even if your muscles have recovered, your tendons and joints may not have.

If you’re desperate to build muscle, it can be tempting to go all in. It can be tempting to lift in lower rep ranges, to bring every set close to failure, and to train as often as possible. That can be risky. It’s fine for building muscle in the short term—neither better nor worse than a more sensible approach—but it can take a real toll on your body in the longer term.

Everyone has different predispositions for injury. Many people get away with reckless training. But many people also wind up injured, aching, and nursing chronic injuries. It often helps to start with full rest days between workouts, only 3 sets per exercise, and only 3 workouts per week. That’s enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth but not so much that it starts truly beating you up.

Your muscles usually recover within 1–3 days, especially once you get used to your training routine. Some training splits are designed to allow you to train every day, alternating between different muscles. Those can be great, but as a beginner, it’s often best to take full days of rest between your workouts.

Illustration of a skinny guy doing bodyweight chin-ups to build muscle.

Splitting Up Your Training Volume

To maximize your rate of muscle growth, you need to train a muscle at least twice per week, accumulating at least 9 challenging sets for that muscle. That gives us a ton of freedom when designing our workout splits.

For example, if you did 5 sets of squats, push-ups, deadlifts, and chin-ups twice per week, you could build a tremendous amount of muscle. It works incredibly well for most beginners. Mind you, those 4 exercises don’t train every muscle. Your biceps, triceps, side delts, calves, and neck muscles would fall behind. You could do better by adding a third workout, allowing you to add more exercise variety.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you could train multiple times per day, breaking your body down into tiny muscle groups. You could train your biceps Monday morning, your triceps Monday afternoon, and so on, slowly working through every muscle in your body. This way of training is inefficient, but it works. In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger used a workout split like this.

So, how do you pick your workout split? It depends on your experience level, your goals, and your preferences. Each split has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Illustration of a beginner lifter doing a full-body workout routine to build muscle and bulk up.

Full-Body Workout Splits

Full-body workouts are usually ideal for beginners who are trying to build muscle, gain strength, and improve their health. They’re a great default during your first couple of years of lifting. (I gained my first 40 pounds with full-body workouts.)

What’s a Full-Body Workout?

A full-body workout is one where you train most of the muscles in your body. For instance, if you do a goblet squat, bench press, Romanian deadlift, and chin-up, you haven’t trained your neck or calves, but it still counts as a full-body workout.

The big compound lifts are incredibly good for packing on muscle mass. Full-body workouts have you doing all of them every 2–3 days, allowing you to gain muscle at a tremendous pace.

Full-body workout routines aren’t always training splits. Some full-body routines will have you repeating the same exercises every workout. That can be ideal for practicing the big compound exercises, making it great for beginners.

Most full-body workout routines are splits. Each workout still trains every major muscle group, but they do it with different exercises. Maybe one workout, you do goblet squats, bench presses, chin-ups, biceps curls, and triceps extensions. Then the next workout, you do Romanian deadlifts, push-ups, rows, lateral raises, and crunches. You get less practice with each exercise, but you get a wider variety of them, giving your workout routine greater balance. This tends to be ideal for intermediate lifters.

Some routines try to get the best of both worlds. For example, Starting Strength begins each workout with back squats but alternates between different pressing and pulling movements. That gives you more practice on the hardest lift (the squat) and less on easier lifts (like the bench press). We take a similar approach. We practice the difficult movements (like squats, push-ups, and chin-ups) while alternating the isolation movements (like biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises).

Most full-body routines are done 3x per week, like so:

  • Monday: full-body workout.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: full-body workout.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: full-body workout.
  • Saturday: rest.
  • Sunday: rest.

Advantages of Full-Body Workouts

  • There’s a huge emphasis on the big compound lifts. If you need to train your entire body in a single workout, you need to rely on compound lifts. These compound lifts are incredible for building muscle.
  • Full-body workouts are the most efficient way to build muscle. Every workout, you’re stimulating growth in every muscle. Even with just three workouts per week, you can build muscle at full speed.
  • Full-body workouts are amazing for gaining strength. Frequent practice is a huge aspect of improving your coordination. If you’re squatting, benching, and deadlifting three times per week, your strength and skill will improve extremely fast.
  • There’s plenty of emphasis on recovery. There’s a full day of rest between each workout, giving your muscles, joints, and tendons plenty of time to recover. This is especially important for beginners, who may not have built up much toughness yet.

Disadvantages of Full-Body Workouts

  • They leave less time for isolation lifts. After doing compound lifts for all your major muscle groups, you won’t have much energy left for isolation lifts. For beginners, this doesn’t matter very much. For intermediate and advanced lifters, getting stronger at isolation lifts is an important part of developing all of your muscles.
  • As you get stronger, lifting weights becomes more tiring. You need to do more warm-up sets, lift more weight, do more sets, and add in more isolation lifts. Trying to fit all of that into just three workouts per week gets hard.
  • Full-body workouts don’t suit higher training frequencies very well. You could do five full-body workouts per week, choosing different exercises each workout. But at that point, it’s hard for your joints and tendons to recover. If you want to train more often, training splits are usually better.
  • The workouts can be long. Most full-body workouts take at least 45 minutes, and 90-minute workouts aren’t uncommon.
Illustration of a man doing a barbell sumo deadlift.

Upper/Lower Splits

Upper/Lower Workout Splits are ideal for intermediate and advanced athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters who want to put extra emphasis on bulking up their legs.

When Marco trains college, professional, or Olympic athletes, he almost always uses upper/lower workout splits. They’re incredibly good for improving athletic performance, especially in sports that involve running and jumping.

What’s an Upper/Lower split?

An upper/lower split has you dividing up your workouts into upper-body and lower-body workouts. For instance, maybe you do squats, Romanian deadlifts, and calf raises during your lower-body workouts and bench presses, chin-ups, and arm exercises during your upper-body workouts.

The 4-Day Upper/Lower Split

The classic upper/lower split will have you training 4 days per week, like so:

This is a great workout split for intermediate lifters beginning to struggle with full-body workouts. It spreads the workload out, making each workout easier. It also adds extra emphasis to lower-body training, which can be helpful for most sports.

The 6-Day Upper/Lower Split

Some advanced bodybuilders prefer a 6-day version of the upper/lower split.

  • Monday: Upper
  • Tuesday: Lower
  • Wednesday: Upper
  • Thursday: Lower
  • Friday: Upper
  • Saturday: Lower
  • Sunday: Rest

The Advantages of Upper/Lower Splits

  • You get an extra 1–3 days in the gym, giving you more freedom to do shorter workouts or add in more isolation exercises. It also spreads out the effort, making each workout easier.
  • Upper/lower splits emphasize the lower body, which is great for athletes who need a ton of lower-body power. Think rugby or football players. It’s also great for bodybuilders who are trying to build huge legs. And for powerlifters who are eager to gain squat and deadlift strength.

The Disadvantages of Upper/Lower Splits

  • You need to spend 1–3 extra days in the gym.
  • Some areas of your body get stressed every workout, including your hands, core, and spine. You can mitigate this by choosing lighter lifts with less axial loading (like split squats instead of squats) or using exercise machines (like the leg press).
Illustration of a man doing front squats on Leg Day to build bigger muscles.

Push/Pull/Legs Workout Splits

Push/Pull/Legs splits can be great for advanced lifters and bodybuilders. They’re also ideal for recreational lifters who prefer doing short workouts every day instead of longer workouts every second day.

What’s a Push/Pull Leg Split?

Push/pull/legs workout splits divide your body into pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, and triceps), pulling muscles (back, biceps, and hamstrings), and leg muscles (glutes, quads, and hamstrings). These muscle groups work well together:

3-Day Push/Pull/Legs Splits

The 3-day Push/Pull/Legs split is incredibly popular, but it only has you training each muscle once per week. That’s not enough to maximize your rate of muscle growth (research breakdown). If you’re only training 3 days per week, I’d do a full-body workout routine instead.

  • Monday: Push Day.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: Pull Day.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: Leg Day.
  • Saturday: rest.
  • Sunday: rest.

6-Day Push/Pull Legs Splits

The 6-day Push/Pull/Legs split is less common but more effective. You could use it to increase your training volume, doing rigorous workouts every day. You could also use it to shorten your workouts, doing just a couple of exercises each session.

  • Monday: Push Day.
  • Tuesday: Pull Day.
  • Wednesday: Leg Day.
  • Thursday: Push Day.
  • Friday: Pull Day.
  • Saturday: Leg Day.
  • Sunday: rest.

The Advantages of Push/Pull/Legs Splits

Push/Pull/Legs workout splits have a few notable advantages:

  • Push/pull/legs splits put proportional emphasis on the upper body, which is great for improving your appearance. A Push Day can include the bench press, overhead press, and triceps extensions. Pull Day can include chin-ups, rows, and biceps curls. Leg Day can include squats, Romanian deadlifts, and calf raises. All the big compound exercises and muscle groups can be trained with ferocious fervour.
  • 6-day splits spread out your effort, giving you the freedom to do shorter, easier workouts or add in more isolation exercises.

The Disadvantages of Push/Pull/Legs Splits

  • The training frequency is too low if you’re only training 3 days per week.
  • Some areas of your body get stressed every workout, such as your hands, core, and spinal erectors. If you’re careful, you can solve this with clever exercise selection.
Illustration of a bodybuilder flexing his arms.

The Body Part “Bro Split”

Bro Splits aren’t the best workout split for beginners or athletes, and they don’t leave much room for cardio, but they’re fantastic for bodybuilding. If your main goal is to build muscle and improve your appearance, it’s hard to do much better than a clever Bro Split.

The Bro Split is by far the most popular workout split among bodybuilders, ranging from the bros to the pros. It’s often criticized for being unscientific, and that’s true, but it’s a traditional bodybuilding routine that’s been refined over many decades. There’s wisdom in it.

What’s A Bro Split?

Bro Splits are similar to 3-day push/pull/leg splits, except there are extra days for arms and shoulders. They look like this:

The Advantages of Bro Splits

  • You can train your upper-body muscles 2–3 times per week. To do this, include some compound lifts on Arm Day and Shoulder Day. Think of chin-ups for your biceps, close-grip bench press for your triceps, and overhead presses for your shoulders.
  • Your arms get extra emphasis. It’s common for skinny guys to have thinner, lagging arms. That was certainly the case for me. The Bro Split solves that problem with a dedicated Arm Day, where you prioritize smaller lifts ideal for building bigger arms: close-grip bench, skull crushers, biceps curls, and forearm exercises.
  • The workouts are slightly easier. Because of the extra training day, you aren’t trying to cram as much work into each workout.

The Disadvantages of Bro Splits

  • Bro Splits aren’t as efficient as full-body workouts. You have to spend an extra 1–2 days in the gym.
  • Your legs aren’t trained often enough. One Leg Day per week isn’t enough to maximize the rate of muscle growth in your legs. That’s okay for most bodybuilders. It’s less ideal for people interested in athletics and fitness.
  • The big compound lifts are only done once per week. That can be an advantage for advanced lifters moving serious weight, but it’s a disadvantage for beginners trying to improve their coordination.

Hybrid Workout Splits

There are a million different workout splits, and you can invent any style you want. You could combine an upper/lower split with a push/pull/legs split, creating a 5-day workout split.

My favourite hybrid split is a 4-day workout routine combining full-body workouts with an upper/lower split, like so:

  • Monday: Full Body
  • Tuesday: Rest
  • Wednesday: Full Body
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Lower Body
  • Saturday: Upper Body
  • Sunday: rest.

The heavy squats and deadlifts get their own day, keeping that work short, focused, and heavy. That frees up room for a fun Saturday where I can do my favourite upper-body lifts without worrying about my lower body. This is one of the options in our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program, and it’s how I gained my last 15 pounds of muscle.

Summary

As a general rule of thumb, beginners benefit from fewer sets and more days of full recovery. This biases them towards full-body workouts. Intermediates, on the other hand, are lifting more weight, their training is more tiring, and they benefit from doing slightly more sets. As a result, they can benefit from splitting their work up over more days, which is where Upper/Lower Splits, Push/Pull/Legs Splits, and Bro Splits come in.

  • 3-Day Full-Body Workout Routines: ideal for beginners who want to get bigger and stronger. A good default is to do these full-body workouts three times per week with 1–2 days of rest between each workout.
  • 4-day Upper/Lower Splits: ideal for athletes and intermediate lifters who want to emphasize their legs.
  • 4–5 day Bro Splits: ideal for intermediate and advanced bodybuilders who want to emphasize their upper-body aesthetics.
  • 6-day Upper/Lower Splits: ideal for advanced lifters who want to emphasize their legs.
  • 6-day Push/Pull/Legs Splits: ideal for advanced bodybuilders who know how to manage their recovery. Also ideal for experienced recreational lifters who enjoy doing short daily workouts.
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Alright, that’s it for now. If you want to know the ins and outs of bulking up, we have a free newsletterIf you want a full muscle-building program, including a 5-month workout routine, a bulking diet guide, a gain-easy recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. Or, if you want a customizable intermediate bulking program, check out our Outlift Program.

Shane Duquette is the founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, each with millions of readers. He's gained seventy pounds and has over a decade of experience helping more than ten thousand naturally thin people build muscle. He also has a degree in design, but those are inversely correlated with muscle growth.

Marco Walker-Ng is the founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified trainer (PTS) and nutrition coach (PN) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. He has over 15 years of experience helping people gain muscle and strength, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.